Belmont Race Report: Sweet Science

Was that the quiet, reserved Todd Pletcher standing in his box, throwing a flurry of left hooks into an invisible opponent? Was that the normally subdued trainer pumping his fist and bellowing "Oh Baby" into his cell phone seconds after the Sept. 22 Vosburgh Stakes (gr. I)? Donning a black sports jacket, white shirt and tie, his hair perfectly coiffed, it sure looked like the dapper Pletcher, but what was with the uncharacteristic theatrics during and after the race?

Although he's won dozens of major stakes, there obviously was something about Left Bank's victory that would cause Pletcher to act more like a denizen of the grandstand who had just hit the trifecta.

"That was a sweet one; that was great," Pletcher said as he made his way to the winner's circle. It had been a long, frustrating road for Pletcher and Left Bank. When Demi O'Byrne, representing Michael Tabor, bought the son of French Deputy at the Fasig-Tipton Calder 2-year-old sale in 1999 for $600,000, along with the filly Circle of Life for $700,000, he handed the sales slips over to Pletcher and said, "All I expect is a grade I win with each of them."

Pletcher delivered right away with Circle of Life, winning the Spinaway Stakes (gr. I) later that year. But for Left Bank, he was just lucky to make it through the year alive. Soon after arriving at Pletcher's barn at Hialeah, the colt came down with a bad case of colic and had to have 12 feet of intestine removed. "That was really scary," Pletcher said.

Over the next two years, Left Bank would score eight sensational victories, with an average winning margin of more than six lengths. And, boy, could he run fast, at any distance--six furlongs in 1:08.53, 6 1/2-furlongs in 1:15.22, seven furlongs in 1:21.94, 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.21, and 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.30. But seven of those eight victories were in allowance races, with the other coming in the grade III Discovery Handicap. In grade I company, he was a totally different horse, managing only a fourth, fifth, and eighth in his first three attempts. Then in the Forego Handicap (gr. I) on Sept. 1, he finished an unlucky second, getting bumped and shut off in the stretch.

Was he now finally ready to complete O'Byrne's grade I request, and give Pletcher his second straight Vosburgh victory? Pletcher thought long and hard about running him back in three weeks, especially with Tabor's Yonaguska, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, also entered.

"We wanted to wait until the last minute to see how good he was doing," Pletcher said. "The biggest concern was whether we had enough time to come back to a peak effort. After watching the way he trained, and then drawing the outside post (in the field of seven), we decided to go. We've been thinking Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) and he needed some points to get there. When Yonaguska scratched, Demi said that was their decision and we shouldn't make that the bottom line in our decision."

With only six in the field, and no one to run with Bobby Frankel's speed demon Squirtle Squirt, coming off a brilliant score in the King's Bishop Stakes (gr. I), it definitely posed a problem. Pletcher told jockey John Velazquez to try to stay within striking range of 3-5 Squirtle Squirt without using his horse too much.

As expected, Squirtle Squirt shot to the lead and got away with a relatively soft opening quarter in :22.72, with Left Bank and the old New York-bred warrior Say Florida Sandy heads apart for second. With a blazing :21.85 second quarter, Squirtle Squirt hit the half-mile marker in :44.57, while increasing his lead to 2 1/2 lengths. Say Florida Sandy couldn't keep up and began dropping back, leaving Left Bank as the only horse who had a shot of catching the favorite.

Turning for home, Squirtle Squirt still held a clear lead, but Left Bank was digging in and coming after him. That brought Pletcher out of his seat, with fists flying. They passed the eighth pole in 1:08.21, with Squirtle Squirt in front by 1 1/2 lengths. Velazquez kept after Left Bank, who closed relentlessly, getting up in the final strides to win by a half-length. His time of 1:20.73 for the seven furlongs was the second-fastest Vosburgh ever, and fastest run at Belmont Park. Only Dr. Fager's 1:20.20 at Aqueduct in 1968 was faster.

To demonstrate just how pumped Left Bank was, coming back, he hooked up with another horse galloping back and came charging past the winner's circle at full throttle. It took all of Velazquez' strength to prevent him from turning in another stretch run, this time in reverse. As he led the colt off the track, Velazquez said to Pletcher, "He is some horse, man."


Velazquez's comment could also apply to Express Tour, who turned in what track announcer Tom Durkin called a "monstrous effort" in the Jerome Handicap (gr. II) earlier on the card. The disbelief in Durkin's voice as Express Tour drew off after battling through sizzling fractions of :44.60 and 1:09.01 pretty much told the story. "Express Tour is running a remarkable race!" he roared.

If there is one horse who has seen just about enough of Godolphin blue this year it is Hero's Tribute, who before the Jerome had already been involved in two ding-dong battles on the lead with E Dubai, in the Peter Pan (gr. II) and Dwyer (gr. II). But E Dubai, as fast and classy as he is, is midget-sized compared to this chestnut mountain of a horse, who actually is larger than Point Given. Hero's Tribute tried to outrun the son of Tour d'Or, but he was smothered, stomped on, and ultimately left for dead by a horse who had already demonstrated his courage winning the UAE Derby (UAE-III) at Nad al Sheba in his first start of the year.

So, the 3 1/2-month layoff from the Riva Ridge Stakes (gr. II) to the Jerome did not faze Express Tour in the slightest. He shrugged off Hero's Tribute, turned back the challenges of Illusioned and Burning Roma, then drew off under Velazquez to a 5 1/2-length score in 1:34.57 for the mile. Illusioned came again late to edge Burning Roma for second.

Express Tour had gone into the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) off only the UAE Derby, his first start in 5 1/2 months. "After the Riva Ridge, he just went downhill on us," assistant trainer Tom Albertrani said. "We gave him time, and he couldn't have looked any better going into this race. When I saw him going head and head with Hero's Tribute in :44 and change, I said, 'Here we go again.' But he put him away, and turning for home, you could see he wasn't stopping. It looks as if our patience has paid off."

The victory was appropriate and timely for Godolphin, coming only days after Sheikh Mohammed announced he was donating $5 million to the Red Cross Relief Fund. It also corresponded with the announcement on Sept. 22 that the United Arab Emirates, one of three nations to recognize Afghanistan's Taliban government, was cutting all ties with them.