Grade I winner Haynesfield, expected to be one of the top older horses of 2011, will make his season debut April 30 when he faces five foes in the $100,000 Westchester (gr. III) on opening weekend at Belmont Park.
The Westchester, the first graded race of Belmont’s 56-day spring/summer meet, is a one-mile main track contest and the local prep for the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) on Memorial Day. Post time is set for 5:17 p.m. EDT.
Turtle Bird Stable’s Haynesfield defeated eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Blame in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) last October at Belmont for his biggest win. The 5-year-old son of Speightstown finished 11th in the Nov. 6 BC Classic and ended his season three weeks later when missing by a nose in the Hill ‘N’ Dale Cigar Mile (gr. I) at Aqueduct.
“We’re looking ahead to the Westchester, getting back in the groove and running,” said Toby Sheets, assistant trainer to Steve Asmussen. “Especially with the severe winter we’ve had, you want everything to go according to Hoyle. Hopefully, we’ll have some luck Saturday.”
Haynesfield has compiled an impressive record at Belmont, winning five of six starts while finishing second in the other. Along with the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Haynesfield posted victories in the 2010 Suburban Handicap (gr. II) and the 2009 Empire Classic, along with wins in his maiden race and an optional claimer at Belmont.
Regular rider Ramon Dominguez will be aboard Haynesfield, the 9-5 morning-line favorite.
Carrying top weight of 123 pounds will be Ol Memorial Stable and C. E. Glasscock’s Soaring Empire, who most recently posted a pair of seconds to Tackleberry in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) and the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship (gr. II). Winner of the Hal’s Hope (gr. III) at Gulfstream in his 2011 debut, the 4-year-old Empire Maker colt will be making his second appearance at Belmont, having finished fourth in the Dwyer (gr. II) a year ago.
“He’s matured,” said trainer Cam Gambolati of Soaring Empire. “He’s becoming really consistent. It just took some time; unfortunately, instead of from age 2 to age 3, it was from age 3 to age 4. But he galloped like a million bucks here at Monmouth Park this morning, and I think Belmont is more his kind of racetrack.
“We are looking ahead to the Met Mile; it’s the race you want to win if you have an older horse. The Westchester is coming up really tough race for a grade III, but I think Soaring Empire is a tough horse.”
Jose Lezcano, who has ridden Soaring Empire in all three of his starts this year, will ride the 2-1 morning-line second choice.
Christmas for Liam, owned by the Estate of Edward P. Evans, will be making his stakes debut in the Westchester, having won three of his last four starts by a combined margin of 15 1/2 lengths.
“His two allowance races this year have been impressive,” said Pletcher. “He’s the complete package as he is a horse who can carry his speed over a distance of ground. Everything he has done in those allowance races has indicated that he’s ready to run in a graded stakes.”
Caixa Eletronica will be making his first start for Pletcher, who claimed the 6-year-old son of Arromanches on behalf of Repole Stable for $62,500 out of a winning effort at Gulfstream Park on March 9. Third behind Tackleberry and Soaring Empire in the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship and fourth to Soaring Empire in the Hal’s Hope, Caixa Eletronica scored an earlier 2011 victory in a one-mile optional claimer at Gulfstream Park in January.
Returning for another try at the Westchester is Centennial Farms’ Convocation, who was second to Le Grand Cru in last year’s edition. The 5-year-old Pulpit horse, who was 2-2-0 from six starts in 2010, was a troubled third in his first start this year and trainer Jimmy Jerkens is hoping for a better trip.
Completing the field is Schoolyard Dreams, who was fourth to Eskendereya in the 2010 Wood Memorial (gr. I), his only other New York appearance. Trained by Derek Ryan for Eric Fein, the Stephen Got Even colt won once in three starts at Tampa Bay Downs this year and is making his first graded stakes start since finishing sixth in the Pegasus (gr. III) at Monmouth Park last June.
$100,000 Westchester (gr. III, Race 9, 5:17 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 Mile (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer 1. Convocation (KY), A Garcia, 117, J A Jerkens
2. Caixa Eletronica (KY), C H Velasquez, 117, T A Pletcher
3. Schoolyard Dreams (KY), R Maragh, 117, D S Ryan
4. Soaring Empire (KY), J Lezcano, 123, C M Gambolati
5. Haynesfield (NY), R A Dominguez, 121, S M Asmussen
6. Christmas for Liam (VA), J Castellano, 117, T A Pletcher