Chapel Royal, winning the Sanford.

Chapel Royal, winning the Sanford.

NYRA/Adam Coglianese

Pletcher 'Hopeful' Chapel Royal Can Remain Perfect

(Edited NYRA report)

Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor's Chapel Royal has answered every question so far in his convincing three-race career. The $1.2 million 2-year-old purchase has won each race by no less than five lengths, including runaway scores in Belmont Park's grade III Flash and the grade II Sanford Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.

Saturday's 99th running of the seven-furlong Hopeful, worth $200,000, will be the first chance for Chapel Royal to become a grade I winner. The Hopeful, race eight of an 11-race card that begins at 1 p.m. Eastern, kicks off the 2003 Bessemer Trust 2-Year-Old Challenge, which is a series of seven races that will be televised on three CNBC shows. Saturday's coverage runs from 4-5 p.m. Eastern, with post time for the Hopeful at 4:44 p.m. Eastern. Additionally, there will be a guaranteed $500,000 Pick 4 on races 8-11 on Saturday's card.

What has been most impressive about Chapel Royal is not how far he wins by, but how he does it. In the Flash and his maiden win at Belmont, he raced on the lead, handled early pressure and disposed of his competition quite easily. When he was asked to rate in the Sanford, he did so quite easily.

"I thought the Sanford was a big race for him," said Todd Pletcher, the meet's leading and record-setting trainer. "We asked him under less than ideal circumstances from an inside post on a sloppy track to sit off horses and he handled it very well. Really, the only thing he's ever done wrong was jumping a couple puddles in the Sanford, which makes you think if he's jumping puddles and winning graded stakes by open lengths, there's something left in the tank."

Pletcher's opinions were backed up by the Montbrook colt's morning workouts following the Sanford. Twice, Chapel Royal posted blazing breezes of :59 2/5 for five furlongs. On Monday, Pletcher managed to settle Chapel Royal down a bit - five furlongs in 1:01 1/5, on the Oklahoma training track -- so he won't be so keyed up in the Hopeful.

"His two works prior to the one on Monday were in company and they were a little stiffer," he said. "He just worked by himself the other day and we slowed him down a little bit."

Chapel Royal's breeding (Montbrook-Cut Class Leanne, by Cutlass) does not suggest he will be able to run the classic distance, but in the meantime, Pletcher is confident that the colt will be able to handle any distance thrown at him this year.

"He's finished up in his races well, worked well and always galloped out strongly-all indications to me are that he won't have any trouble getting a mile and a sixteenth, so seven-eighths should be well within his scope," Pletcher said.

Pletcher also trains Dogwood Stable's Limehouse, who was undefeated before a non-threatening third in the Saratoga Special.

"The race the other day was a little hard to analyze because of the track conditions," Pletcher said. "I don't think he loves the slop and obviously Cuvee did and he got a jump-start on everybody."

Birdstone, bred and owned by Marylou Whitney, could not have been any more impressive winning his debut by 12 1/2 lengths. His final time of 1:10 1/5 for six furlongs over the mud was two ticks faster than Chapel Royal's strong Sanford run.

"It was very easy and everyone was impressed with how he did it," trainer Nick Zito said. "The way it turned out, it was really a beautiful performance. What really got us happy was how he drew away."

A half-brother to Whitney's Acorn and Kentucky Oaks winner Bird Town, Birdstone is by Grindstone out of Dear Birdie.

The only knock against Birdstone is that he will be spotting valuable race experience with only one start under his belt.

"Obviously, when you go into the Grade 1s, you wish you had more experience," Zito said. "The good thing is he broke his maiden early in the meet and this is later in the meet, so he's had some time to at least get his composure together. We have to step up, but if we just do well against [Chapel Royal], we might be able to move forward and that's what I'm hoping for. Everything is hope. That's why they call it the Hopeful."

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won this race five times, entered a trio for the Hopeful. Desert Patrol, an 11 1/2-length maiden winner at Belmont, will be joined by graded stakes-placed Hasslefree, and recent maiden winner Golden Tones.

Desert Patrol finished last in the Saratoga Special run over a muddy track, while Hasslefree won his last race, an allowance here July 31.

"I got two bad races in the mud out of Desert Patrol," Lukas said. "They're throw-outs to me. Desert Patrol never grabbed the bridle in the mud. Johnny (Velazquez) said he threw his head in the air and moped home. I was sick when it rained.

"At this time of year, Hasslefree is out of conditions, so we need to find one of these stakes races. [The allowance] gave him some seasoning and gave him a win. The Hopeful is a very prestigious race and it's been good to us in the past."

New York-bred Saratoga Episode, owned by Sackatoga Stable, will go from a restricted maiden win to Grade 1 company. Other recent maiden winners trying the Hopeful are Notorious Ridge and Silver Wagon.

The field for Saturday's Hopeful:
1. Notorious Ridge, Mark Hennig, Eibar Coa
2. Desert Patrol, D. Wayne Lukas, Pat Day
3a. Hasslefree, D. Wayne Lukas, Cornelio Velasquez
4. Limehouse, Todd Pletcher, Robby Albarado
5. Silver Wagon, Ralph Ziadie, Jerry Bailey
6a. Golden Tones, D. Wayne Lukas, Cornelio Velasquez
7. Birdstone, Nick Zito, Edgar Prado
8. Saratoga Episode, Barclay Tagg, Javier Castellano
9. Chapel Royal, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez