Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Looking for Irish War Cry to Bounce Back in Belmont

Handicapper Dave Litfin examines Saturday's top graded stakes.

The Triple Crown trail comes to an end on Long Island June 10, with the 149th running of the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G1), the last of 10 stakes to be run on a marathon 13-race card that gets underway at 11:35 EDT.

The winners of the Triple Crown's first two legs—Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing—are sitting this one out, and Preakness runner-up Classic Empire, who would have been favored, was withdrawn from consideration due to a foot abscess. So this edition of the “Test of the Champion” may lack star power, but nevertheless, a good-sized field of 12 trying to negotiate 1 ½ miles makes it a fun betting race.

The Belmont is the last of six grade 1 races on a program that features the return of two-time champion Songbird in the Ogden Phipps Stakes (G1), and several guaranteed multiple-race pools, most notably a $1.5 million all-grade 1 pick four on races 8-11. Here's a look in chronological order:

Acorn Stakes (G1) (race 4, 1:11 ET): Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher have each won this race three times, and they respectively send out the first two betting choices, Abel Tasman (#3) and Sweet Loretta (#7), who are the only grade 1 winners in the field of eight 3-year-old fillies.

As difficult a setup as Abel Tasman had when a distant second at odds of 9-10 in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1), that's how good a setup she got to win the Kentucky Oaks (G1) at odds of 9-1; she was last of 14 behind a fast early pace, and swept past the field on the far outside in her new blinkers.

Meanwhile, Salty (#8) was next-to-last through the early stages of the Oaks, but wound up being bumped in tight quarters on the far turn, and bottled up approaching the stretch en route to a fifth-place finish.

Sweet Loretta, who dead-heated for the win in last year's Spinaway (G1), returned with a sharp rail-skimming victory in the Beaumont (G3), which upped her record in one-turn races to 4 for 4.

Benner Island (#5) and Union Strike (#1) are within the realm of possibility, based on their photo finish in the Eight Belles (G2).

A – 3, 7, 8
B – 1, 5

Ogden Phipps (race 5, 1:52 ET): You have to feel bad for Carina Mia (#7), last year's Acorn winner, who tried Songbird (#5) twice last year in the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Cotillion Stakes (both G1), and couldn't get within five lengths of her on either occasion.

Songbird probably would've made her seasonal debut in a race like the Santa Margarita Stakes (G1), but her training was delayed a bit after she kicked a wall in her stall and developed some filling in a leg. So, she has been shipped across the country for what will be her first one-turn outing since two sprints to begin her career at Del Mar as a 2-year-old.

Songbird doesn't figure to be firing on all cylinders first time out since her memorable Breeders' Cup clash with Beholder, but probably runs her record to 12-for-13 anyway. She will be a stand-alone single for most bettors in the final leg of a $500,000 guaranteed pick five.

It's wide open underneath among Highway Star (#1), Paid Up Subscriber (#2), Bar of Gold (#6) and Carina Mia.

I'm just watching in appreciation of Songbird, who is “one of the ones” in my book.

Longines Just A Game (G1T) (race 8, 3:38 ET): Celestine (#5) used the Sand Springs Stakes and the Honey Fox Stakes (G2T) at Gulfstream Park as steppingstones to last year's renewal, in which she left a dozen rival fillies and mares reeling after a mile in 1:31.64 seconds, a mere .01 seconds off Elusive Quality's Widener course mark.

Shortly after finishing off the board in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1T), the 5-year-old mare by Scat Daddy fetched $2.55 million at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale, and she was subsequently transferred from Bill Mott to Christophe Clement.

Celestine returned to win the Sand Springs and Honey Fox early in the season, each time controlling a slow pace. This could be a tougher situation due to the presence of Sassy Little Lila (#6), who led for every stride but the last in the American Oaks (G1T) to close out her sophomore campaign.

The likeliest beneficiaries of contested fractions are Dickinson (#1) and Roca Rojo (#2).

Dickinson unleashed an impressive burst of late speed to run down four-time grade 1 winner Lady Eli in the Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1T) last out, improving to 5 for 6 since switched to turf.

Roca Rojo is a nose away from a four-race winning streak, after returning with a hard-fought victory in the Distaff Turf Mile (G2T), where she was forced out of her customary late-running style to track a slow pace set by Believe in Bertie, who has been in raging form this year.

A – 1, 2
B – 5

Mohegan Sun Metropolitan Handicap (G1) (race 9, 4:41 ET): Just a fabulous betting race with a full field of 12, and it's interesting that the first two morning-line choices, Mor Spirit (#9) and Sharp Azteca (#5), have similar run-and-gun tendencies.

Mor Spirit pulled and steadied his way to a fourth-place finish in the Malibu Stakes (G1) behind runner-up Sharp Azteca. However, he has been positioned on or near the early lead in three starts since then, and appears to have really turned a corner for trainer Bob Baffert.

I'm looking for those two to become embroiled in a dispute for the lead, and banking on Tommy Macho (#11) and/or Awesome Slew (#12) to come and get them. Neither could catch a loose Sharp Azteca in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) back in February, but this is a better situation for them.

Tommy Macho has won a couple of one-turn mile stakes with competitive figures, and has been freshened since a tough-trip third in the Carter Handicap (G1).

Whereas Mor Spirit is doing better since allowed to roll early, Awesome Slew has improved since taken further back off the pace in three starts coinciding with a trainer change to Mark Casse, beginning with the second-place finish to Sharp Azteca. He won the Commonwealth Stakes (G3) after that, and then made up nearly all of a 12-length deficit to fall a head short in the Churchill Downs Stakes presented by TwinSpires (G2).

A – 11, 12
B – 5, 9

Woodford Reserve Manhattan (G1T) (race 10, 5:37 ET): They generally run this race until a horse trained by Chad Brown reaches the front—or at least that's what it seems like, since the Eclipse Award-winning conditioner has taken the last three runnings, and four of the last five.

Brown takes three shots with Beach Patrol (#1), Wake Forest (#2) and Time Test (#4), but this is a competitive field where several others have realistic chances.

I'm somewhat against morning-line favorite World Approval (#3) and co-second choice Divisidero (#7), because they just haven't shown the same kind of finishing punch at 1¼ miles as they have in shorter races.

And if Wake Forest deserves a mulligan for failing to fire on a boggy course in the Man o'War, so does Sadler's Joy (#9), who was stalled in traffic on the rail turning for home, then altered course and finished willingly to just miss the second spot.

I'm also giving the German invader Potemkin (#6) a shot to make some noise. The 6-year-old gelding has won group stakes in three countries, he likes firm going, and he's 4 for 6 at the distance.

A – 2, 6, 9
B – 1, 3, 7

Belmont Stakes (G1) (race 11, 6:37 ET): Given the long list of foreign-bred horses who have hit the board in this race, I was on Epicharis (#11) until it became known that he's been treated for lameness in his right front leg, and hasn't been able to go to the track for a few days.

So I am back to my Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) pick, Irish War Cry (#7), who had good position outside the leaders for a mile but came up empty. In retrospect, it may not have been as good a trip as it seemed, because there's the distinct possibility the rail was the best place to be in the wake of some late-afternoon rain.

In four graded stakes starts, Irish War Cry has shown up twice, winning the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) and the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2), and throwing in the towel in the Fountain Of Youth Stakes (G2) and the Derby. If the good Irish War Cry shows up—you know, the one that likes to bully everyone around—he wins; if he meets any adversity, he probably packs it in. To me, that makes him a 50-50 proposition, so if he's really going to be something like the 7-2 morning line, I'm in.

His main threats seem like Tapwrit (#2), Gormley  (#3), Lookin At Lee (#6) and Senior Investment (#8). It's tough to drum up sincere enthusiasm for any of them, but we'll rank it this way in the cash-out leg of the $1.5 million pick four and the $500K pick six:

A – 7
B – 2, 6
C – 3, 8

Best of luck, and enjoy your morning, afternoon and early evening at Belmont Park.