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Top 2-year-olds Head to Belmont's Fall Stakes

With Belmont's fall meet set to open Sept. 7, a strong crop of top 2-year-olds will head into the East coast's final prep races for the Oct. 26-27 Breeders' Cup races at Monmouth Park.

With Belmont Park’s fall meet set to open Sept. 7, a strong crop of top 2-year-olds will head into the East coast’s final prep races for the Oct. 26-27 Breeders’ Cup races at Monmouth Park.

P.J. Campo, racing secretary for the New York Racing Association, said he saw a definite increase this year in the number of trainers aiming for 2-year-old races at the Saratoga meet that concluded Sept. 3, and several of the emerging juvenile stars are pointing for NYRA’s upcoming stakes.

“I think the trainers have stepped up the quality, from Steve Asmussen to Bob Baffert and Bill Mott, a bunch of the trainers,” Campo said. “The last few years Todd (Pletcher) was winning the majority of the 2-year-old races at Saratoga, but this year we saw diversification. We ran a lot of maiden races and saw a lot of impressive 2-year-olds.”

One of those impressive winners and the definite leader of his division at this point in the season is the Asmussen-trained Kodiak Kowboy, three-length winner of the Aug. 16 Saratoga Special (gr. II).  A son of Posse out of the Coronado’s Quest mare Kokadrie, the colt has turned in a streak of four victories for Vinery Stables and Fox Hill Farm since running fourth his first time out in an April 29 two-furlong maiden special weight at Woodbine. He next broke his maiden running four-and-a-half furlongs at Churchill May 26, shipped to Woodbine to win the five-furlong Victoria Stakes June 17, returned to Churchill to win the July 7 Bashford Manor (gr. III) going six furlongs, and took the six-and-a-half-furlong Saratoga Special after splitting horses midway down the lane.

Since then, Kodiak Kowboy has turned in two works at Saratoga, going a half in :52.02 Aug. 26 over a sloppy track, and working five furlongs in 1:03.45 Sept. 2 over a fast track in preparation for the Sept. 15 Futurity (gr. II).

“What impressed us about Kodiak Kowboy was when he shipped to Canada to run in the Victoria and won it, then walked off the van like he hadn’t even run a race,” said Scott Blasi, assistant to Asmussen. “To ship that far and run and win, and then to come back and have the energy that he had, walking off the trailer and training like he did up to the Bashford Manor and then winning – you can’t make them do that. They have to have it in them, and that’s a sign of a quality horse.”

Asmussen hit the Special-Futurity combination in 2003 with Cuvee and had similar timing in 2005 with Futurity winner Private Vow, who came into the race off an Aug. 29 allowance at Saratoga.

“It’s good timing for us. It’s worked twice before, and we’ve had good success in the past coming out of the Special or a similarly timed race at Saratoga,” Blasi said. “Kodiak Kowboy has always been an extremely professional horse, extremely confident and good-minded. He’s very professional about how he goes about his morning works and definitely turns it up to another level in the afternoons. He’s just a good, solid horse.”

From Saratoga’s other key 2-year-old race – the Sept. 3 Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) – comes the lightly raced Majestic Warrior, a son of A.P. Indy out of the Seeking The Gold mare Dream Supreme. Unbeaten in two career starts for Kinsman Stable, the Bill Mott-trainee may be headed to the Oct. 6 Champagne after beating top competitors Maimonides and Ready’s Image by two-and-a-quarter lengths in his last start.  

“The Champagne would be the logical start for us,” Mott said Sept. 5. “He proved (in the Hopeful) he can handle the best colts we have on the East coast. Can he take another step up? Well, he’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him so far.”

Bob Baffert trainee Maimonides, third in the Hopeful, came back from the race with a bucked shin and will miss 30 days of training, Baffert said Sept. 5. But stablemate J Be K is headed for the Champagne after setting a track record in his Aug. 29 debut over five-and-a-half furlongs at Saratoga.

“J Be K will run in one of those stakes up there, probably the Champagne,” Baffert said. “He looked pretty impressive breaking his maiden. He’s our backup plan.”

Of course, the 2-year-old scene wouldn’t be complete without a horse or two trained by Todd Pletcher, and Hopeful runner-up Ready’s Image turned in a convincing performance last time out as he pressed Maimonides through early fractions of :22 2/5 and :45. Winner of the Sanford, the son of More Than Ready  broke his maiden at first asking over the Polytrack at Keeneland April 20, then finished third in the Kentucky Breeders Cup (gr. III) at Churchill. His next start was a victory in the July 1 Tremont Stakes before his win in the Sanford for owner Jim Scatuorchio and his second-place finish in the Hopeful.

Pletcher has not indicated the colt’s next target.

Also worth noting this summer at the Spa was the impressive career debut of Cave’s Valley, a 2-year-old son of Stephen Got Even who wired the field in his Aug. 17 maiden. But Tom and Harry Meyerhoff’s colt is not likely to appear in a major stakes race in New York in the next month, according to trainer Mike Trombetta.

“He really doesn’t have enough seasoning at this point to run in races like those,” Trombetta said. “He’s continued to train well, but I want to get him some more experience.”

The leaders of the female division coming out of Saratoga are less clearly defined. Formerly in the lead was Baffert’s Adirondack Stakes (gr. II) winner More Happy, an unbeaten daughter of Vindication who broke her maiden first time out over the synthetic surface at Del Mar July 21 before coming to Saratoga to get her first graded stakes win for owner John Sikura. The filly finished fifth in the Sept. 2 Spinaway (gr. I), however, and according to Baffert will be sent to Kentucky for surgery on an obstructed airway.

Spinaway winner Irish Smoke was sent off in that race as the 6/5 favorite while making only her second career start (she won her maiden debut Aug. 2 at Saratoga by two-and-a-quarter lengths), but trainer Patrick Biancone has yet to reveal his plans for the daughter of Smoke Glacken for West Point Stables and Lewis Lakin. More intriguing is second-place finisher A to the Croft, trained by Ken McPeek for Koolmen Racing Stable. A to the Croft was also second in the Adirondack, but had More Happy all out to hold her off as she closed quickly in the stretch run of that race.

“She’s doing great,” McPeek said Sept. 5 of the daughter of Menifee. “She’s either going to run at Belmont in the Frizette (Oct. 6) or at Keeneland in the Alcibiades (Oct. 5). We were very happy with her race in the Spinaway – a little frustrated that she didn’t win it, but she ran great. She’s a lovely filly who has a bright future ahead of her.”

Yet another Baffert trainee to watch is Hal Earnhardt’s Indian Blessing. The daughter of Indian Charlie tied the former track record when she went five-and-a-half furlongs in 1:03.26, wiring the field in her Aug. 30 career debut.