When Martin Panza first conceptualized the Belmont Gold Cup Invitational Stakes (G2T) in 2014, his goal was to create a rich marathon turf test that would enhance the lead-up to the Belmont Stakes (G1) while attracting international attention and providing fans an intriguing wagering opportunity.
Four years later, the New York Racing Association's senior vice president of racing operations can check all of those boxes.
A highly competitive field of 10 will travel two miles June 8 on Belmont Park's Widener Turf course in the fifth edition of the $400,000 Gold Cup, which has quickly risen to grade 2 status, and will feature a trio of strong European challengers. After attracting just one foreign-based horse in its first three runnings, the Gold Cup became an international sensation with six such shippers last year, including the top four finishers, led by victorious Red Cardinal.
"It's a cool race," Panza said. "You don't see two miles on the turf that often. It's fun to watch, and we're very pleased to take a race that didn't exist and bring it to where it is now, moving from a grade 3 race last year to a grade 2 this year."
This year's imports also should have a major say in the outcome and feature Call To Mind, a colt with connections as famous as they come. The homebred Galileo 4-year-old is owned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
In the span of two days during the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, the cards will feature a horse owned by the woman who wears the crown of England and Justify, who will try to become the 13th Triple Crown champion in the following day's Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1).
"When the race became graded a year ago it opened the door for more Europeans to run and now we're getting great representation from overseas," Panza said. "Does it get any better than having a horse owned by The Queen?"
Call To Mind, who drew the rail and will be ridden by Javier Castellano, enters the Gold Cup with two wins in eight career starts for trainer William Haggas. His most recent win came at a mile-and-three-quarters distance on turf in the Goodwood Revival March Stakes in August and in his previous start he finished third in the Mansionbet Yorkshire Cup (G2), also at 14 furlongs, at York May 18.
While Call To Mind has not raced beyond a mile-and-three-quarters, the other two Europeans are no strangers to two-mile stakes. Funny Kid, a Kentucky-bred Lemon Drop Kid 5-year-old trained by Christophe Ferland, has raced at both two miles and 2 1/16 miles on a synthetic surface, finishing first and second, respectively, and was third in a handicap last year at Deauville. He enters off a victory in the Prix de Barbeville (G3), going about two miles (1.92 miles) at ParisLongchamp.
Group 3-placed Prince of Arran, a British-bred 5-yerar-old Shirocco gelding, has raced two miles or more on eight occasions but has struggled lately. In his past two starts, he was sixth in a 2 5/16th-mile handicap on turf May 11 and eighth in the Dubai Gold Cup Sponsored by Al Tayer Motors (G2) at Meydan before that.
"This horse will love the distance. The longer he goes, the better he gets," said trainer Ian Wilkes. "It's hard to get that much distance. It's a unique race, but he's a unique horse."
Though Nessy is based in the East, Wilkes said he couldn't resist an opportunity to run in the San Juan Capistrano because of its distance, the improvement he's seen in the homebred gelding, and owner Ed Hudon's fondness for the race.
"He's just starting to mature," Wilkes said of Nessy, who will be ridden by Hall of Famer Mike Smith, his jockey in the San Juan Capistrano. "I think this is going to be his best year, and he'll get better next year. He's a late bloomer and winning the Capistrano was important. It was for the owner. It's a race he always wanted to win. The race is a grade 3 and worth $100,000 now, but that was a race he has always admired. When the owner puts the money into the game like Ed, you try to come through for him."
A win for Ed and Sharon Hudon in the Gold Cup would also delight the connections, especially if they can beat a horse owned by The Queen.
"It's no problem running against The Queen, if I beat her," said Wilkes, who was born in Australia. "But if she kicks my butt, I won't feel too good about it. I know the Europeans are not going to be easy to beat."
Bloom Racing Stable and Allen Racing's Run Time won the two-mile H. Allen Jerkens Stakes on the turf Dec. 30 at Gulfstream Park, but was then 10th in the Mac Diarmida (G2T) at Gulfstream Park and 13th in the Dubai Gold Cup.
Runnymede Racing's Postulation won the 1 11/16-mile American St. Leger (G3T) last year at Arlington International Racecourse and was sixth in the 1 3/8-mile Man o'War Stakes (G1T) at Belmont in his most recent start.
"When you get The Queen of England involved in your race," Panza said, "you know you're moving in the right direction."
Belmont Park, Friday, June 08, 2018, Race 10
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Call To Mind (GB) Javier Castellano 115 William J. Haggas 7/2 2 2Cooptado (ARG) Dylan Davis 115 Thomas Morley 30/1 3 3Prince of Arran (GB) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 117 Charlie Fellowes 12/1 4 4Funny Kid (KY) Maxime H. Guyon 121 Christophe Ferland 5/1 5 5Canessar (FR) Feargal Lynch 115 Arnaud Delacour 6/1 6 6Nessy (KY) Mike E. Smith 121 Ian R. Wilkes 5/2 7 7Run Time (KY) Luis Saez 115 Michael J. Maker 15/1 8 8Postulation (KY) Florent Geroux 121 Edward L. Graham 10/1 9 9Focus Group (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 117 Chad C. Brown 10/1 10 10Rocketry (KY) John R. Velazquez 117 James A. Jerkens 8/1
Belmont Park, Friday, June 08, 2018, Race 10