After nailing down the top two spots in two grade I turf stakes of 1 1/4 miles or longer for older horses at Belmont Park last season, the Chad Brown-trained duo of Slumber and Big Blue Kitten will aim for more success in those familiar conditions June 11 in the $1 million Knob Creek Manhattan Stakes (gr. IT) on the inner turf at Belmont.
While both horses finished behind Manhattan foes Divisidero and World Approval in the May 7 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes (gr. IT) at 1 1/8 miles on the Churchill Downs grass, Slumber and Big Blue Kitten have proven tough when stretching out in distance on the Belmont lawn.
Last year Michael Dubb, Sheep Pond Partners, and Bethlehem Stables' Slumber upset the Manhattan field at 14-1, when he rallied from eighth and drew off to secure his first grade I win in the 1 1/4-mile race as Brown secured his third Manhattan win in the past four years. The son of Cacique was followed home by stablemate Big Blue Kitten.
In a win that helped him nail down champion turf horse honors last fall, Ken and Sarah Ramsey homebred Big Blue Kitten turned the tables on his stablemate in spectacular fashion, rallying from 19 lengths back to win the Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT). In edging Slumber by three-quarters of a length that day, Big Blue Kitten, by Kitten's Joy, set a course record of 2:23.39 on firm turf.
The two closed out the season with the top finishes of any U.S.-trained horses in the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) at Keeneland as Big Blue Kitten finished third and Slumber fourth. Both horses opened their 2016 campaigns in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, where Slumber finished third and Big Blue Kitten was fifth.
Brown said Big Blue Kitten needed the race while Slumber ran well despite some bad racing luck.
"It was a little short for him. It was a difficult race off the layoff. He was a little far back and the race really didn't set up for him," Brown said. "He seemed to get a lot out of that race, and has trained strong since then. I expect him to move forward off of that effort."
"(Slumber) was a bit unlucky in his last race," Brown said. "He encountered a bit of trouble late in the race inside of horses. I thought maybe if he could have gone to the outside, he would have made a closer race out of it."
While those two figure to be formidable, Brown also has entered two more talented runners in Flintshire , who will be making his first start for Brown and is the 8-5 morning-line favorite; and Wake Forest, who enters off a May 14 victory in the Man o' War Stakes (gr. IT) at Belmont. Brown said it's possible that either Slumber or Wake Forest, who share the same ownership group, would skip the Manhattan and point to the grade I United Nations July 3 at Monmouth Park.
Last year while trained by Andre Fabre, Flintshire demonstrated a devastating turn of foot that propelled him to a 2 1/2-length victory in Saratoga's grade I Sword Dancer. He returned to France and finished second in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I), his second consecutive runner-up finish in that race, and then concluded the season by finishing second in the group I Hong Kong Vase, a race he won in 2014.
Because Flintshire's connections believed the son of Dansili would relish the firmer ground and faster pace associated with American turf racing, the horse was sent to Brown in March.
The original thought had been to kick off Flintshire's 2016 season in the United Nations, but then came a June 4 work on the turf at Belmont—a five-furlong move in 1:00 3/5—and Brown had a change of heart.
"The work was outstanding," Brown said. "The horse looks fit and ready to go. It's a great opportunity to run for a huge purse in a very prestigious race and run out of your own barn and not have to ship. So, when I saw that final piece of work, it convinced me to run."
Brown said Wake Forest has made great strides since being purchased privately last fall in Europe.
"It's been impressive how this horse has developed all winter," the trainer said. "When we got him in, he trained okay, not spectacular. Then with each race that went by, I saw the horse really improve and now I see the horse in top form in the mornings and afternoon."
Gunpowder Farms' Divisidero will try to continue momentum after nailing down his first grade I score in the Turf Classic. Trained by Buff Bradley, the 4-year-old Kitten's Joy colt flashed plenty of talent last year in winning the American Turf Stakes (gr. IIT) at Churchill and the Pennine Ridge at Belmont. Bradley said with less early speed expected, Divisidero may have to adjust.
"We're going to need to pay attention to what is going on there with the pace and maybe be a little closer, because the pace figures to be a little bit slower than his last race." Bradley said.
In his lone previous try at 1 1/4 miles, Divisidero didn't fire, finishing seventh in last year's Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes (gr. IT).
Live Oak Plantation homebred World Approval, who finished second in the Turf Classic, will try to build on that effort—his first grade I placing—in the Manhattan. Trained by Mark Casse, the Manhattan will mark the longest start to date for the 4-year-old Northern Afleet gelding, who won a pair of grade III stakes at 1 1/8 miles on the turf last year.
The Shug McGaughey-trained Ironicus , the second choice at 4-1, looked strong in winning Belmont's Fort Marcy (gr. IIIT) over a yielding turf course five weeks ago. The 5-year-old will be asked to step it up in the Manhattan, his first grade I start.
Trainer Bill Mott, who has won three prior editions of the Manhattan, has entered both Take the Stand and Triple Threat. The latter lost his rider when he and another horse clipped heels at the five-sixteenths pole in the Turf Classic. Take the Stand, winner of the grade II Muniz Memorial Handicap at the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in March, is making his grade I debut.
Belmont Park, Saturday, June 11, 2016, Race 10
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1World Approval (FL) Julien R. Leparoux 122 Mark E. Casse 12/1 2 2Slumber (GB) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 122 Chad C. Brown 10/1 3 3Wake Forest (GER) John R. Velazquez 122 Chad C. Brown 10/1 4 4Take the Stand (ARG) Joel Rosario 122 William I. Mott 15/1 5 5Big Blue Kitten (KY) Joe Bravo 124 Chad C. Brown 6/1 6 6Ironicus (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 122 Claude R. McGaughey III 4/1 7 7Oathkeeper (KY) Florent Geroux 114 Mikel Delzangles 30/1 8 8Triple Threat (FR) Jose Lezcano 118 William I. Mott 30/1 9 9Grand Tito (KY) Luis Saez 118 Gustavo Delgado 20/1 10 10Flintshire (GB) Javier Castellano 122 Chad C. Brown 8/5 11 11Divisidero (KY) Edgar S. Prado 122 William B. Bradley 8/1
Belmont Park, Saturday, June 11, 2016, Race 10