FRAC DADDY -- Trainer Ken McPeek has run four horses in the Belmont Stakes: Pineaff (ninth in 1999), 70-1 winner Sarava in 2002 and Atigun (third) and Unstoppable U (sixth) last year. This year, McPeek will saddle Frac Daddy, who finished 16th in the Kentucky Derby, but was second at nearly 24-1 in the Arkansas Derby.
McPeek said yesterday that he has developed a routine for this race he calls the “Belmont Gallop” for preparing runners for the Belmont Stakes.
“We back up to the quarter-pole, we jog to the wire – of course, that’s where they start the Belmont,” McPeek explained. “We gallop a full turn and pick it up the last three-eighths. I think horses thrive on repetition. We’ve done that, and it’s been successful, so we’re keeping it.
“This isn’t rocket science. You try to get them in the habit of knowing where to get started. This colt has a lot to learn, but I think he’s got talent.”
McPeek had high hopes for his first Belmont Stakes runner, Pineaff, but was badly beaten by Lemon Drop Kid, trained by the late Scotty Schulhofer.
“I took notes from Scotty Schulhofer,” McPeek said. “I ran a horse I thought had a legitimate chance, who didn’t handle any of it. I think I learned a real big lesson that day. I think I overtrained that horse. I think they’ve got to handle this race track.
“They have to have had some experience here, whether physical or mental. You look back at all the Triple Crown winners; they trained here a portion of their careers. Schulhofer, I remember a quote by him. He said, ‘They can either do the distance or they can’t.’ But he always half-miled his horses into the race. He never worked them a mile or a mile and an eighth, or even three-quarters. He just half-miled them. I took notes from that. When we went with Sarava, we half-miled him into the race. It was similar.”
Frac Daddy’s three published workouts since the Kentucky Derby all have been at a half-mile, or four furlongs.
FREEDOM CHILD -- In 2006, trainer Tom Albertrani entered a Triple Crown race with a fresh, talented horse and came away with an upset victory.
Seven years after Bernardini’s triumph in the Preakness, Albertrani is taking aim at the Belmont Stakes with Freedom Child, who has been gaining plenty of attention leading up to the race.
“Everyone’s been talking about this horse quite a bit all week,” Albertrani said Thursday, after Freedom Child galloped 1 1/4 mile on the main track. “Hopefully, it gives you a little more confidence. I like what I’m seeing. I’m getting all the good signs. He couldn’t be doing any better.”
Albertrani had similar feelings going into the Preakness with Bernardini, whose victory was overshadowed by the breakdown of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. Bernardini would go on to prove himself with wins in the Grade I Travers and Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup and be named Champion 3-Year-Old Male.
“I just felt with the way Bernardini was training going into the Preakness, I had about the same level of confidence as I do going into this race with this horse,” Albertrani said. “Not knowing what the outcome’s going to be, I’m just saying my level of confidence in both cases would be about the same. As it turned out, Bernardini did win, but when you know your horse is training well and they’re doing good, you’ve got that confidence that they should perform well.”
Terry Finley, the founder and president of Freedom Child’s co-owner West Point Thoroughbreds, is also feeling good about the colt’s chances.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had a buzz horse like this in a real big race,” Finley said. “I’m very confident. I’ve kind of learned over the years, why not be confident, even if you’re 15 or 20-1? People get to fretting, but it’s just great what’s happening. What if we’re not disappointed? It’d be a pretty cool day.”
GIANT FINISH -- Giant Finish, at 30-1 one of the long shots in the Belmont field, had an easy day on the track two days after his final Belmont breeze, but continued to please Chip Dutrow, who is assisting trainer Tony Dutrow in preparing the Frost Giant colt for Saturday’s race.
“He looks good out there,” said Chip Dutrow. “He’s getting over the track well, and everything is fine.”
Bred in New York by Andrew Cohen, Giant Finish began his career facing state-breds at Aqueduct Racetrack, then finished second in the John Battaglia Memorial and third in the Grade III Spiral, both over the artificial surface at Turfway Park. Sent off at 38-1, he beat almost half the field in the Kentucky Derby when 10th over a sloppy, sealed track.
“I think he’s the kind of horse who can run on anything,” said Dutrow.
GOLDEN SOUL -- With exercise rider Emerson Chavez up, Kentucky Derby runner-up Golden Soul galloped 1 1/4 mile on Belmont Park’s main track Thursday morning.
“He was fresh, strong, into it,” trainer Dallas Stewart said. “His energy was good. He came back good, and grazed really good for about an hour. He’s all set.”
The Charles Fipke homebred has just a maiden victory to his credit but has been competitive in graded stakes. He was sixth, beaten only 2 3/4 lengths, in the Grade ii Risen Star and fourth by 4 3/4 lengths in the Louisiana Derby.
At Churchill Downs on May 4, he got an inside trip under Robby Albarado and sailed over the sloppy, sealed surface to finish just 2 1/2 lengths behind winner Orb at odds of 34-1. There is the prospect of another wet track for Saturday’s Belmont.
“He’ll handle it fine,” Stewart said. “He handles everything that’s thrown at him; traffic, weather. He’s on his game.”
INCOGNITO -- All signs continue to be positive for Incognito, per trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
The son of 1992 Belmont winner A.P. Indy and grandson of 1977 Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew galloped 1 1/2 mile over Belmont Park’s training track on Thursday.
“He trained great,” said McLaughlin, who won the 2006 Belmont with Jazil. “He went real happy and smooth. He looked great. We’re very happy with him.”
The prospect of wet weather for Saturday is less of a concern for McLaughlin than where Incognito and new rider Irad Ortiz Jr. find themselves during the race.
“The track might be wet, we don’t know,” McLaughlin said, “but we just have to work it out. He handles it wet; he just doesn’t like it in his face. At a mile and a half, Irad can work a spot out to get a clean face at some point in the race. It won’t be a big deal.”
McLaughlin joined Dallas Stewart, retired Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr. and D. Wayne Lukas for dinner at Todd Pletcher’s home in Garden City, N.Y. Wednesday night. McLaughlin, Pletcher and Stewart all worked under Lukas before going out on their own.
“It was fun. It was great to get-together, because Wayne’s in Kentucky most of the time,” McLaughlin said. “We’re all good friends. It’s nice, because Wayne was a teacher and a coach before he was a trainer, and he’s still a teacher and a coach. That’s why he’s helped us so much in life.”
MIDNIGHT TABOO / OVERANALYZE / PALACE MALICE / REVOLUTIONARY / UNLIMITED BUDGET -- Todd Pletcher’s five Belmont Stakes contenders took to the main track on Thursday, with all five galloping various distances.
Overanalyze and Revolutionary galloped one mile, Palace Malice and Unlimited Budget traveled 1 1/4 mile, and Midnight Taboo went 1 1/2 mile.
“It’s just a feel for what they need,” said Pletcher of how he selects the gallop distances. “It’s one of the things we do every morning; we decide based on how much they put into it, how much weight they carry and how much they are eating.”
Pletcher, who will become the first trainer in the modern era to send out five horses in a single running of the Belmont Stakes, said he considers many factors when determining whether a horse is worthy of competing in the 1 1/2-mile race.
“First and foremost, you need a horse of enough quality to go long, and they need to have the pedigree and running style that suggest they’ll get the distance,” said Pletcher, who trains Overanalyze, Unlimited Budget, and Midnight Taboo for Mike Repole, Revolutionary for WinStar Farm, and Palace Malice for Dogwood Stable.
With more than a third of the Belmont Stakes entrants in his barn, Pletcher appears to be well hedged for any possible pace scenario on Saturday.
“Palace Malice will be laying close, Revolutionary will be laying back, and we have three who will be laying somewhere in the middle,” said Pletcher. “From that standpoint, they all complement each others’ running styles. You always worry when you have more than one horse in the race that you have two front-running, headstrong horses, but in this case I think everyone works well together.”
ORB -- Kentucky Derby winner Orb had a strong 1 3/8-mile gallop Thursday morning at Belmont Park, and trainer Shug McGaughey said he sees “no negatives” as the colt heads into Saturday’s 145th running of the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Stakes as the 3-1 favorite to rebound from his fourth-place finish in the Preakness.
“He’s traveling really well over the track,” McGaughey said of Orb. “I haven’t lost confidence in him at all.”
McGaughey, who was “quietly confident” heading into the Derby and “more uptight” as the Preakness approached, said he’s been enjoying the buildup to the rubber match with Preakness winner Oxbow, trained by fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.
“You get a guy like Wayne, he makes it fun,” said McGaughey. “He’s complimentary as well as competitive. I’m the same way; I’m competitive, I want to beat him. Wayne’s a remarkable guy. To still be at the top of the profession as long as he’s been there, all the changes he’s brought to the thoroughbred industry … he’s got a real admirer in me.”
In addition to the Preakness winner, Orb must also contend with 12 others, including a quintet of horses from trainer Todd Pletcher that comprises over a third of the field.
“I look at his individually,” said McGaughey. “I think Overanalyze and Revolutionary are both horses we’re going to be worried about. Overanalyze ran a really good race in the Arkansas Derby, and Revolutionary has had a very good spring and ran well in the Derby. I’m going to look at them a little harder than the others. What I will look at all of them for is where they’re going to fit in for the pace scenario. I’ve got a pretty good idea, but we’ll see what happens.”
OXBOW / WILL TAKE CHARGE -- After sending out Preakness winner Oxbow and Grade II Rebel winner Will Take Charge out for routine gallops on Wednesday, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas talked about his two Belmont horses. While Oxbow has a win of the second jewel of the Triple Crown on his resume, it was Will Take Charge, eighth in the Derby and seventh in the Preakness, whom Lukas talked up.
“I look at the circumstances and read what I’ve got in front of me,” said Lukas. “If I see any brilliance in the horse at any point in time, and it’s been dormant for a race or two, or the surface doesn’t suit the horse, or something, as long as I know it’s there and I’m not living in a fantasy land, I’m there. He won the Rebel. He’s a dangerous horse in this race, too. The configuration of the track ought to help him, with those long, sweeping turns. He’s a long-striding colt.”
By contract, Oxbow is a compact runner who when comfortable develops and maintains a high cruising speed.
“It probably doesn’t complement his style,” Lukas said of the huge Belmont oval, but he’s such a tough horse and a fighter; he keeps coming back.”
Lukas’ reputation for winning with horses that seem improbable is well-known; his previous Triple Crown victory prior to the Preakness was with 18-1 Commendable in the 2000 Belmont Stakes.
“I think Wayne Lukas, who a lot of people have to look up to, is a guy that has no fear whatsoever,” said Ken McPeek, who will saddle longshot Frac Daddy in the Belmont. “(Oxbow) has two bad races on his page, and then he comes back and wins the Preakness because he’s tenacious and he keeps coming back and he doesn’t have any fear. It’s not about high percentages, or me; it’s about taking a chance and rolling the dice.”
VYJACK -- Multiple graded stakes winner Vyjack returned to the track Thursday morning for the first time following his final pre-Belmont Stakes breeze in 59.04 on Tuesday.
Trainer Rudy Rodriguez had Vyjack out shortly after the main track opened at 5:30 a.m., as has been his custom this week.
“The horse jogged very good this morning,” Rodriguez said. “He was happy; he was bouncing around. It looks like he bounced good out of the work.”
Vyjack will break from post 11 under new rider Julien Leparoux in the Belmont, his first race since finishing 18th of 19 in the Kentucky Derby on May 4.
“So far, so good,” Rodriguez said. “He’s been eating very good, he’s very strong, and he’s healthy. He’s walking like he’s very proud of himself.”