Week Before Belmont, Focus on 3-Year-Old Turf Runners

Dave Litfin handicaps some of weekend's top stakes races.

As the racing world awaits Justify's Triple Crown bid next week, another flashy unbeaten 3-year-old runs at Belmont Park in the June 2 $200,000 Pennine Ridge Stakes (G3T).

Analyze It, perfect from three starts for Chad Brown so far, will be odds-on in the 1 1/8-mile race scheduled for the inner turf course. Also, 3-year-old grass runners are also spotlighted in Saturday's richest race, the $500,000 Penn Mile (G2T), one of seven stakes worth a combined $1.3 million at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course.

The most prestigious race is the $400,000 Beholder Mile (G1) out at Santa Anita Park, in which Unique Bella, a troubled second at 1-5 in the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) last out, tries to make amends over a track where she has notched all six of her stakes victories.

As well, there are two very competitive sprint stakes for older males: the $175,000 Connaught Cup (G2T) going seven furlongs on turf at Woodbine, and the $100,000 Aristedes at six furlongs on the main track at Churchill Downs.

Beholder Mile (SA, race 9, 4:53 PT): As track announcer Vic Stouffer described, Unique Bella "... completely blew the break" in the the Apple Blossom, before rushing up headstrong and wide around the first turn to contest enervating early fractions, after which she could not fend off five-time stakes winner Unbridled Mo

Unique Bella (6) did fight on to hold second while not beaten up late by Mike Smith, in what was her first foray outside Southern California and her first over a wet track. And while she has been tardy from the gate before, her average margin of victory at Santa Anita has been seven lengths, the closest call a hard-fought decision over Paradise Woods in the La Brea (G1).

Paradise Woods (4) also comes off a defeat at odds-on, when a fading fourth as the 4-5 choice in the Santa Monica (G2) in her only appearance of the season. The daughter of 2012 Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Union Rags  may appreciate stretching back out to two turns, as her two prior routes over the track were blowout wins in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1) and the Zenyatta (G1) last year.

The multiple graded stakes winner Vale Dori (5) should improve off a fifth-place finish in the Adoration (G3) first time back from a layoff of just over nine months.

A - 6
B - 4
C - 5

Pennine Ridge (Bel, race 9, 5:50 ET): Analyze It flashed onto the scene last fall with two scintillating wins: a key-race maiden debut at Belmont over a couple next-out graduates, and a score in the Cecil B. DeMille (G3T) out at Del Mar over Pubilius Syrus, who has since won two stakes.

Returned for his seasonal debut in the Kentucky Utilities Transylvania (G3) at Keeneland, Analyze It (4) unleashed another devastating turn of foot to win by better than five lengths over Captivating Moon, who subsequently dead-headed for second with Untamed Domain in the American Turf (G2T). 

Analyze It is using this race as a steppingstone to the $1.2 million Belmont Derby (G1T) July 7, and his task will be made easier by the fact that Hawkish, the morning-line second choice, will opt for the Penn Mile.

That ostensibly leaves Untamed Domain (6) and Catholic Boy (3) as the main obstacles for the favorite. However, I'm wondering if Up the Ante (1) might be able to set up shop on an easy lead from the inside post. His front-running maiden win earlier at the spring meet was also his initial grass race on Lasix, and represented a significant improvement.

A - 4
B - 1, 3, 6

Penn Mile (Pen, race 9. 7:45 ET): The aforementioned Hawkish (6) was fourth behind morning-line favorite Maraud (3) in the Palm Beach (G3T) three months ago, while making just his second career start.

Before and after that misfire, though, Hawkish has been very, very impressive. He blew by the field with an eye-catching late rush to win his debut Jan. 6, and seven weeks ago he drew off at will to win a one-mile allowance in course-record time at Aqueduct Racetrack. The scary thing is that he is being developed by Jimmy Toner, whose horses typically improve with experience and maturity. 

Other than a fifth-place finish behind the freakish Analyze It in the Transylvania, Maraud has been perfect this year, winning on firm, good and yielding turf for Todd Pletcher, capped by a nice rebound to take the American Turf.

There is rain in the forecast, and besides Maraud, no one else in the field has experience on non-firm ground other than He's Bankable (8), who comes off a wire-to-wire triumph in the English Channel over ground rated "good" at Gulfstream Park. The son of Arch has led early in four of five starts wearing blinkers, and appears quick enough to clear over to the inside soon after the start.

Therapist (4) has won four of five starts, the lone blemish a third to Maraud in the Palm Beach first time back from a layoff of just over four months. His trainer, Christophe Clement, won the 2017 Penn Mile with Frostmourne.

A - 3, 6
B - 4, 8

Connaught Cup (WO, race 8, 4:57 ET): The key to this event is what to make of Forge, the 2-1 morning-line choice who ships north from Saratoga Race Course for Bill Mott, and whose best races are a cut above the others.

Forge, you see, is a Jekyll-and-Hyde type. Since being imported to the United States, the Juddmonte Farms homebred has been unable to put peak efforts back to back. He has previously bounced from a 114 Equibase Speed Figure to a 98, and from a 117 ESF to a 99, and is now coming off a 113 earned for a third-place finish in the Maker's 46 Mile (G1T).

The alternatives are the local runners Conquest Panthera (2) and Tower of Texas (3). The former is third back from a layoff after a good runner-up finish in the Elusive Quality at Belmont. The latter won this race from off the pace by a nose as the 3-1 favorite a year ago, but he was off the board in the Maker's 46 Mile most recently.

A - 2, 7
B - 3

Aristedes (CD, race 10, 10:42 ET): Late on a "Downs after Dark" card comes this tough little dash where a case can be made for five of the seven entrants.

The pace projects to be lively, with Smart Spree (1) gunning from the rail, and Chief Cicatrix (7) probably getting sent from the outside post. 

Mr. Crow (5) has done his best work when able to mix it up early as well, so the prospect of contested fractions would seem to play into the strengths of Wilbo (3), second in last year's Aristedes, and Awesome Saturday (6). The latter was widest into the stretch, loomed boldly late, but was edged in the Commonwealth (G3) at seven furlongs last out. He may like the cutback in distance.

A - 3, 6
B - 7