The problem with an “if you build it, they will come” mentality in horseracing is that “they” sometimes need a lot more encouragement than the mere building of it, whatever it is, to “come.” Racing history is littered with well-intentioned projects that scarcely got off the ground because “they” – the owners, the trainers, the jockeys, and, in particular, the horses – never really materialised.
For instance, if you wanted to create a couple of important international races in the middle of an already busy global calendar, you would need to attract good international horses, and for that to happen, you would need a pretty sizeable carrot.
That was the challenge facing Belmont Park when it decided to bolster part of its 2014 summer programme with an inaugural Stars & Stripes Festival on July 5. They converted the G1 Jamaica Handicap into the G1 Belmont Derby Invitational and the G1 Garden City Stakes into the G1 Belmont Oaks Invitational – both to be run at 10 furlongs on turf – and they ensured international interest by pitching the purses at $1.25 million and $1 million, respectively, with prizes down to eighth in the Derby.
The result is that “they” have indeed come, or at least some of them. Neither race has attracted a proven top-notcher from abroad, but they will feature several very able performers at the next level. As these things go, that is a decent start.
Top of the batting order among the shippers in the Belmont Derby Invitational is arguably Toast of New York, who, despite his name and Kentucky breeding, is based in Britain. Rumours were that Toast of New York might have a tilt at the Kentucky Derby itself, but instead he won the UAE equivalent and then sat out Churchill Downs and Epsom Downs.
Toast of New York comes here off a three-month break and with only one run on turf (an unplaced one on his debut) to his name, but that UAE form looks solid and was not as unexpected as it might appear given the impressive displays the horse had put up on synthetic at a much lesser level previously. On Timeform form-based ratings, he is only a sliver behind Bobby’s Kitten and Dance With Fate of the home team.
Close on their heels is the Aidan O’Brien-trained Adelaide, an unexpected raider until recently, but a colt with potential who could very well play a major part in the outcome. He reverts to 10 furlongs, having been second to Eagle Top when he was the favourite over 12 at Royal Ascot, and anyone who saw his explosive turn of foot in victory at The Curragh the time before will not be holding that move against him.
Those who place store by manual fractional times – and I count myself very much among them – will be hoping for plenty from Adelaide at the weekend.
Gailo Chop represents France and something of a rags-to-riches story, having graduated from low-grade provincial racing there to land two G3s at Longchamp Racecourse this spring. He has a few lengths to find with the principals, but he might not have stopped improving, and ten furlongs on turf holds no fears for him.
Pornichet had similarly humble beginnings – even managing to win at an obscure French course called Pornichet-La Baule earlier this year – but hit the big time with a third in the classic Poule d’Essai des Poulains (French 2,000 Guineas) at Longchamp on his latest start.
That effort leaves Pornichet with a bit to find, but he has since been acquired by Australian training legend Gai Waterhouse, who runs the colt on Lasix (a personal first) and in first-time blinkers at Belmont.
The Belmont Oaks Invitational – a “Win And You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf – has a trio of challengers from outside American shores. Rosalind and Room Service, who dead-heated for first in the G1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland in April, set a good standard for the home defence, but the Francois Doumen-trained Xcellence is alongside them judged on her last two efforts.
Xcellence was third to the smart Avenir Certain in the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches (French 1,000 Guineas) at Longchamp and then the Prix de Diane at Chantilly Racecourse; and on the face of it, those performances are superior to those of the Irish raider Flying Jib, who got a sizeable weight pull from a couple of 4-year-olds when landing the G3 Athasi Stakes at The Curragh last time.
However, there are a couple of additional factors that may mean that Flying Jib bridges the gap to this better grade, namely the longer distance (she has run at no further than a mile to date) and the application of Lasix. She does look to be a better contender than her fellow Irish raider Wonderfully, last seen finishing out the back at big odds in the Irish 1,000 Guineas at The Curragh in May.
Rosalind was thrashed by Untapable in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs and had an abortive trip to Royal Ascot (where she unseated her jockey leaving the gate) since the Ashland, but Room Service bolstered her status with a defeat of Diversy Harbor in the American Oaks at Santa Anita Park. This may be a prize that stays at home.
It remains to be seen if the foreign raiders will find in Belmont’s turf course their own field of dreams, but they are at least giving it a fair shot. It might be for the longer-term good of the project if at least one of them prevailed, thereby ensuring that “they” will be back another year.
Simon Rowlands is head of international research and development at Timeform.