By Dave Litfin
The Stars & Stripes Festival is the second-biggest day of the spring-summer meet at Belmont Park, offering six graded stakes worth $3.8 million. The 11-race card has an early first post of 12:30 EDT and starts off with a $250,000 guaranteed pick five. The stakes action gets underway in race 6 with the $150,000 Victory Ride (gr. III), which begins an all-graded stakes pick six with a $300,000 guaranteed pool.
Topping the card are two 1 1/4-mile, grade I turf races for 3-year-olds: the $1.25 million Belmont Derby Invitational and the $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational, which will be broadcast live on NBC starting at 4:30 along with the $500,000 Suburban Handicap (gr. II).
The $500,000 Dwyer (gr. III) and $400,000 Belmont Sprint Championship (gr. III) complete a sextet of competitive races.
Victory Ride (race 6, 3:20 p.m.)
A key fact to note is that Appealing Maggie comes off a pace-setting second in the Jersey Girl Stakes, a race with official fractions of 21.62, 43.55, 55.92 and 1:07.87 seconds.
Those times suggest that the lightly raced 3-year-old filly Kareena came within .21 seconds of the six-furlong track record set by the champion sprinter Artax, one of the fastest horses of the last 25 years. An alternate timing source on the New York Racing Association website had the race in 22.30, 45.30, 56.09 and 1:08.69, so Appealing Maggie may either be the speed of the speed or only third-fastest early.
Pace-wise, things set up well for evenly matched contenders Blast (#1), Flatterywillgetyou (#3), One True Kiss (#4), Malibu Stacy (#7) and Lost Raven (#8), although the latter takes the worst of the weights as the lone graded stakes winner.
Dwyer (race 7, 3:57 p.m.)
The Dwyer kicks off the second half of the season for 3-year-olds. The one-mile race is headed by Economic Model (#6) and Fish Trappe Road (#8), who turned in sharp efforts on the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) undercard, and Swipe (#7), who has had an ankle chip removed and undergone tie-back surgery since a runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I).
Economic Model has been first or second in all starts except for the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II), where it looks as though he just didn't handle the track.
Belmont Derby (race 8, 4:38 p.m.)
How fast has the turf been recently? Consider that the race (formerly the Jamaica at 1 1/8 miles in the fall) has been run twice since being renamed, re-positioned and lengthened, with Mr Speaker (2014) and Force the Pass (2015) posting nearly identical times of 2:01.18 and 2:01.16 seconds. A few days ago, a first-level allowance went in 1:58.48, just .69 seconds off Paradise Creek's 22-year-old course record.
For those contemplating the $500,000 guaranteed pick four that begins here, it's worth noting Beach Patrol was struck in the face by a rival's whip at the Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots late last year and resurfaced this spring to run three bang-up races for Phil D'Amato, who added a shadow roll to the colt's equipment. He was sold and transferred to Brown after a tough beat to Camelot Kitten in the American Turf (gr. II), and did not wear one as the beaten favorite in the Penn Mile (gr. III).
Judging from their form overseas, the impression is that either or both of Aidan O'Brien's runners, Long Island Sound (#7) and Deauville (#13) like to hear their feet rattle. After a rallying third in the Tercentenary Stakes behind last week's Coral Eclipse (Eng-I) winner Hawkbill, Long Island Sound may revert back to the more aggressive tactics he employed winning his first three starts.
Suburban (race 9, 5:13 p.m.)
Jimmy Jerkens takes aim at this long-time fixture with the double-barreled threat of Shaman Ghost (#3), and Effinex (#5). The former rose through the ranks rapidly at 3, capped by a victory in the Queen's Plate, and a decisive score in the Brooklyn (gr. II) four weeks ago indicates he has improved with maturity, Effinex is a tricky read after running next-to-last at 3-5 in the Stephen Foster (gr. I), but he won this race last year after being eased in the Brooklyn, and gets a switch back to Mike Smith, who was aboard for wins in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) and Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II).
Mubtaahij (#2) chased American Pharoah twice last year, and makes his first start since a runner-up finish in the Dubai World Cup (gr. I). This is also his first outing for Kiaran McLaughlin, whose Frosted recently won the Met Mile (gr. I) in a performance of historic proportions first time back from Dubai.
If you have an inkling about the Jekyll-and-Hyde runner known as Noble Bird (#1), let us know.
What you see is what you get from the consistent Eagle (#4), and he has already beaten Noble Bird and Effinex.
Belmont Oaks (race 10, 5:46 p.m.)
As with the Belmont Derby, there is a full house—three runners sent out by Chad Brown and two coming from across the pond for Aidan O'Brien.
Technically, Brown has won this race four straight times—with Samitar and Alterite when it was the Garden State and run at 1 1/8 miles in the fall, and the first two Oaks with Minorette and Lady Eli. Brown doesn't look quite as loaded this year with Pricedtoperfection (#3), Noble Beauty (#5) or Last Waltz (#9), but leave his horses out at your own peril.
O'Brien's duo of Galileo fillies, Ballydoyle (#7) and Coolmore (#13), were a neck apart in the Prix de Diane (gr. I) on soft turf less than three weeks ago. Ballydoyle, a group I winner over firm ground last fall, looks like the class of the field.
Ballydoyle will need to be at her best to run down Catch a Glimpse (#12), who is 7 for 7 on grass after getting away with murder on the lead in the Penn Mile. Her trainer, Mark Casse, won five stakes last weekend at Churchill Downs and Woodbine.
Belmont Sprint Championship (race 11, 6:23 p.m.)
Originally called the James Marvin and run as a hundred-grander at Saratoga Race Course, this is the race's third running since it was moved to Belmont and quadrupled in value.
The key lies in your assessment of defending titlist Private Zone (#2), who was scratched from the True North (gr. II) on June 10 due to the suspension of trainer Brian Lynch, who has since been reinstated. The three-time grade I winner has not run since fading to fifth as the Cigar Mile (gr. I) favorite last fall, but has turned in a series of fast workouts for his 7-year-old debut.
The beneficiaries of a hotly contested pace look to be Joking (#6), the last-to-first winner of the True North (gr. II); and Ready for Rye(#8), who has been knocking on the door with four in-the-money finishes in stakes on turf and dirt this season.
The bottom line: Below is a contender grid of the six stakes in A-B-C format.
|Victory Ride||8, 9||1, 3, 4, 6||7|
|Belmont Derby||6, 7, 13||9, 12||4, 8|
|Suburban||2, 3||4, 5||1|
|Belmont Oaks||7, 12||13||2, 4, 5, 6, 8|
|Belmont Sprint Championship||2||1, 6, 8||None|