Belmont Opens With Contentious Westchester

Wednesday's $100,000-added Westchester Handicap (gr. III) – the opening day feature on Belmont Park's 100th birthday and spring/summer meeting – presents a curious field of eight older horses.

There's Gygistar, the defending Westchester champion and Wando, the Canadian Triple Crown winner of 2003. There's Unforgettable Max, the hard-trying 5-year-old who has been living in the shadows of his younger, Kentucky Derby (gr. I) bound brother Afleet Alex, and Bahama John, the half-brother to 2002 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) hero Sarava who is getting better with each race. Finally, there are two colts, Value Plus and Swingforthefences, who popped and stopped last season but have rebounded as 4-year-olds.

The Westchester Handicap is the featured eighth race on a nine-race card that kicks off Belmont Park's Centennial Anniversary featuring a number of discounts. Former and present NYRA announcers Tom Durkin, John Imbriale, Marshall Cassidy, John G. Dooley and Larry Collmus will call the races (see schedule below).

Trainer Jimmy Jerkens, a 44% winner during a phenomenal spring meet at Aqueduct (11 for 25), plays his hot hand in the Westchester with Bahama John in the race. Bahama John, a 5-year-old son of Saint Ballado, doesn't have a lot of experience over Belmont's "Big Sandy," but if his older brother, Sarava, is any indication, he shouldn't have a problem. Sarava, of course, defeated Triple Crown hopeful War Emblem in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) three years ago at odds of 70-1.

"He's obviously stepping up, but it would be great for the owners to get some graded blacktype for the mare," Jerkens said. "They've already got a Belmont Stakes winner with Sarava, so it would be nice to get another stakes win for her."

Bahama John has won four of eight starts since being transferred to Jerkens care in autumn of 2003. And his last race, an eight-length romp in a third-level allowance at Aqueduct, was his best yet.

"I don't think that was a real tough race, but he won pretty easily," Jerkens said. "He's been training really good. The thing about him is he's so game. I think he'd run through a brick wall if he had too."

Bahama John drew post 3 under jockey Cornelio Velasquez.

A Westchester victory by Unforgettable Max could begin a big week for his parents, Northern Afleet -Maggy Hawk, by Hawkster. Three days after the Westchester, Unforgettable Max's younger brother, Afleet Alex, will run in Saturday's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) at Churchill Downs.

Unforgettable Max is just one for his last 12, but is taking a sizeable drop in class after facing the East's best sprinters and middle distance runners in races like the Cigar Mile and General George and Carter handicaps. Unforgettable Max went off at big prices in all three of those races, but finished fourth in both the Cigar Mile and Carter and was only beaten two lengths by Saratoga County in the General George.

"He's faced some of the best horses in training and has held his own," said Philadelphia Park-based trainer Guadalupe Preciado. "I'm looking forward to running him, although this isn't an easy spot. I've got a lot of respect for Value Plus and Gygistar. They're both nice horses."

Unforgettable Max goes from post 5 with jockey Roberto Alvarado Jr.

Wando has never started at Belmont Park, but his sire, Langfuhr , won the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) there in 1997. Wando won the Canadian Triple Crown – the Queens Plate, Prince of Wales and Breeders – in 2003, but has done nothing more than win a couple of Woodbine allowance races and a restricted stake since then. Trainer Michael Keogh says he wants to win a U.S. graded stakes with Wando before the 5-year-old retires at the end of the season.

Most of Wando's races have come in Canada, but he did run twice at Gulfstream Park this winter, finishing fourth in the Mr. Prospector (gr. III) and sixth in a $150,000 optional claimer. Wando ran third in his last start, a minor stake at Woodbine on April 16.

Jockey Richard Migliore, who rode Wando to a stake victory in Canada in October of 2002, will reunite with the horse in the Westchester.

Value Plus will be making his first start at Belmont since failing as the 6-5 favorite in last year's Riva Ridge (gr. II) on Belmont Stakes Day. A 4-year-old son of Unbridled's Song, Value Plus recently defeated Gygistar in Gulfstream's Artax Handicap on April 2.

Value Plus will be ridden by jockey John Velazquez for trainer Todd Pletcher. Pletcher and Velazquez are the defending Belmont spring/summer champions.

The 6-year-old Gygistar won the King's Bishop (gr. I) at 3 and is still going strong after winning more than $300,000 last year. Trained by Mark Hennig, Gygistar carries top weight of 118 pounds under jockey Javier Castellano.

$100,000-added Westchester Handicap (gr. III), 3 & up, one mile
1. Kennel Up, H. Allen Jerkens, Eibar Coa, 112
2. Value Plus, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, 117
3. Bahama John, Jimmy Jerkens, Cornelio Velasquez, 113
4. Gygistar, Mark Hennig, Javier Castellano, 118
5. Unforgettable Max, Guadalupe Preciado, Roberto Alvarado Jr., 114
6. Seeking the Glory, Mike Hushion, Fernando Jara, 110
7. Wando, Michael Keogh, Richard Migliore, 115
8. Swingforthefences, Richard Violette Jr., Shaun Bridgmohan, 115

RACE 1: Tom Durkin
RACE 2: John Dooley
RACE 3: John Imbriale
RACE 4: Larry Collmus
RACE 5: Marshall Cassidy
Race 6: John Imbriale
RACE 7: Larry Collmus
RACE 8: Tom Durkin
RACE 9: John Dooley