Oscar Performance will not ease into his 4-year-old season.
When the three-time grade 1 winner makes his 2018 debut June 17 at Belmont Park, a tough group of seven rivals is expected to challenge him in the $300,000 Poker Stakes (G3T) on the Widener Turf.
Amerman Racing's Oscar Performance hasn't raced since finishing his 2017 season with a ninth-place finish in the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf (G1T) at Del Mar, a race the Kitten's Joy ridgling led early before fading in the stretch. Before that effort, Oscar Performance won two of the biggest turf races for 3-year-olds in North America: the Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes (G1T) at Belmont Park and the Secretariat Stakes (G1T) at Arlington International Racecourse.
Trained by Brian Lynch, Oscar Performance won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T) at 2 before registering another strong season on the grass last year. In his first start against older horses in the 1 1/2-mile Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes (G1T) in late September, Oscar Performance finished third.
In Sunday's one-mile race, Oscar Performance will be looking for his fourth stakes win at Belmont—he also won the Pilgrim Stakes (G3T) at 2 and the Pennine Ridge Stakes (G3T) last year. From April 18 through June 12, Oscar Performance worked nine times at distances from three furlongs to five furlongs at Keeneland and Belmont.
Oscar Performance had a setback after a May 22 breeze when he was sent to the Ruffian clinic across the street from Belmont because of a case of colic. He has since worked three times—the last two on Belmont's dirt training track—heading into the 33rd running of the Poker.
"It's always a lot of pressure on a horse like this, being a high-profile horse in his first race back. You just hope you have him tight enough," Lynch said. "It seems like he's doing well, and the proof will be in the pudding come Sunday."
While Oscar Performance appears prepared for his return, an accomplished field awaits, including last year's Poker winner, Ballagh Rocks. Campaigned by Donegal Racing and Madaket Stables, 5-year-old Ballagh Rocks will be making his first start since finishing second in the Maker's 46 Mile Stakes (G1T) at Keeneland. That effort marked the third time the son of Stormy Atlantic has earned a grade 1 placing.
The runner-up from the 2016 Poker returns in Force the Pass. After missing all of last season, the son of Speightstown returned with a narrow victory in the Cliff Hanger Stakes May 5 on the Monmouth Park turf. Like Oscar Performance, Force the Pass also put together a strong 3-year-old campaign, highlighted by a win in the 2015 Belmont Derby.
"He ran well last time, but it's a tougher group now, so we'll see," said trainer Alan Goldberg. "It looks like he's improving, so hopefully he shows it this weekend."
Champion trainer Chad Brown will send out Made You Look, a 4-year-old son of More Than Ready who won an optional-claiming allowance race May 11 at Belmont. Made You Look won the With Anticipation Stakes (G2T) at 2 and the Dania Beach Stakes (G3T) last year.