FRAC DADDY -- Freedom Child is widely expected to be one of the principal speed horses, if not the front-runner, in the 145th Belmont Stakes, but trainer Ken McPeek has been pretty adamant all week that his Frac Daddy is going to be rolling out of post position 1 and heading to the lead.
McPeek sent the Arkansas Derby runner-up out Friday morning for his usual “Belmont Gallop” – back up to the quarter-pole, jog to the wire, a full trip around and a strong final three-eighths of a mile – and Frac Daddy returned to the barn full of energy.
“We’re sending him from the inside,” McPeek said. “I’m telling Alan, ‘Go.’ We’re not going to give up the one path without a fight. We’re going to try to keep him right in there, and if someone wants to go with us, they can. Because I think that’s the way he needs to run, and if he’s got the class to carry himself, fine, and if he doesn’t have the class, we’ll know.”
Freedom Child starts in post position 2, right next to Frac Daddy. McPeek is aware this is his primary early rival, with the next speed horse in the gate being Oxbow in post position 7.
“It looks like the two horse, if he breaks well, and he wants to drop in, we don’t want him to drop in,” said McPeek. “We want to hold that. I’ll tell Alan, ‘You have to keep him in that gap, and don’t let the two horse drop in front of you. That’s the key to us having any chance.”
FREEDOM CHILD -- On the eve of the Belmont Stakes, trainer Tom Albertrani decided to give Grade II Peter Pan winner Freedom Child an easy Friday morning.
“We just jogged him one time around,” Albertrani said. “The track wasn’t too bad. It was sealed pretty tight, just hard, so we opted to jog once today. He looked great. He’s on his toes.”
In the Peter Pan, Freedom Child broke from post 1 and led all the way around, winning by 13 1/4 lengths in 1:49 for 1 1/8 miles over Belmont Park’s sloppy, sealed main track.
The chestnut Mailbu Moon ridgling and jockey Luis Saez, Jr. will start from post 2 in the 1 ½-mile Belmont. He is the co-fourth choice on the morning line at 8-1.
“The only thing I’d be concerned with is as long as he leaves there good and keeps clear into the first turn,” Albertrani said. “After that, whatever happens is going to happen, but as long as we get a clear run into the turn and wherever he’s going to be placed, as long as he’s doing it easy, that’s my only concern.”
Owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, St. Elias Stable and Spendthrift Farm, Freedom Child is one of seven Belmont horses to have won on an off track, including Kentucky Derby winner Orb.
“Depending on the pace, as long as we’re in control early on, if he runs anything like he did in the Peter Pan I think he’ll do it on the front end,” Albertrani said. “Orb, depending on where he’s going to be, if the pace is strong, naturally he’s going to come running. That’s the only horse, I think, that’s going to be a factor in the race as far as the closers go. But, if we’re on the front end and we’re not setting anything too quick, I think our horse will be very effective.”
Albertrani has been in two previous Belmonts, running third with Brilliant Speed in 2011. He has maintained a quiet confidence all week.
“The only thing about the Belmont is the mile-and-a-half distance,” he said. “That’s where everybody’s not sure how far their horse will go. If it was a little shorter, I’d probably be even a little more confident. But, I’m happy with the way the horse is training, and I think he’ll carry himself a mile and a half.”
GIANT FINISH -- Giant Finish was one of the first ones out on Belmont Park’s main track this morning, beating most of the rain as he had an easy jog around the oval.
“We were one of the lucky ones,” said Chip Dutrow, who is assisting his brother, Tony, in preparing the New York-bred son of Frost Giant for the Belmont. “It went really well for him.”
In his two outings over a sloppy track, Giant finish was fifth in the Damon Runyon after being bumped at the start, and 10th in the Kentucky Derby. He also was second and third in two starts over a synthetic surface.
“His dad could run on top of anything, and he looks like he’s following in his footsteps,” said Dutrow.
GOLDEN SOUL -- With one day to go until Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, trainer Dallas Stewart is getting a sense of déjà vu.
Stewart will send out Golden Soul in the Belmont, five weeks after the Charles Fipke homebred ran second at odds of 34-1 in the Kentucky Derby, beaten 2 1/2 lengths by Orb.
Orb and Golden Soul are among the 10 Derby horses to return in the Belmont, including Oxbow, who won the Preakness on May 18 after finishing sixth in the Derby.
“I’m feeling that he’s as good now as he was then,” Stewart said of Golden Soul. “I’m feeling good about him up here. Other than Orb, he beat them all.”
Under Robby Albarado, who finished second in the 2007 Belmont with Curlin and in 2008 with Denis of Cork, Golden Soul will break from post 14, outside the entire field.
“I think the first turn will be important,” Stewart said. “Obviously, we don’t want to be way, way wide. We’ll just let Robby handle that. If everybody breaks good, I suppose he’ll just take him back and drop him in. If they don’t, he’ll just try to work him over. He could be a little wide, but I guess that’s OK if he’s not in traffic. We’ll just have to see.”
Golden Soul jogged 1 1/2 miles on the main track Friday morning. He had been galloping since his arrival late Tuesday afternoon, following a similar pattern Stewart employed following the Derby.
“He gallops so strong all the time,” he said. “He galloped almost two miles every day, and that’s even more taxing than working. And he did serious, old-time gallops. I think through the stretch, he’s going to have a good bit of stamina, because he’s feeling great.”
Stewart feels Albarado, aboard for the first time in the Derby, will have a better feel for Golden Soul, and is also glad to have Albarado’s experience on his side.
“You can’t make all kinds of moves going a mile and a half, and he knows that,” Stewart said. “Robby feels great about him. He’s got the foundation, the freshness, the soundness, the pedigree. He’s feeling right. He looks great, and the track shouldn’t be a problem for him if it’s muddy or whatever. It’s all good.”
INCOGNITO -- In giving his analysis of Incognito’s chances in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin used modern technology to make his point.
Sitting at the desk inside his barn 11 office Friday morning, McLaughlin propped up his iPad and called up the replay of the Grade II Peter Pan from the New York Racing Association website.
In his stakes debut, Incognito ran near the back of the pack from post 8 and was dead last with an eighth of a mile to run, before closing with a flourish along the inside to miss third by a nose.
His effort was easy to overlook behind that of the winner, Belmont contender Freedom Child, who led gate-to-wire to win by 13 1/4 lengths.
“If you just read the chart, it looks like he just ran even,” McLaughlin said. “But he was last, taking a lot of mud in the face, and at the three-eighths pole, he dropped over to the inside. He came flying up the rail when he got a clean face, and he actually galloped out in front of the winner. That’s pretty strong.”
Incognito, who will run in the silks of Godolphin Stable in the Belmont, galloped over Belmont’s training track on Friday. He will be ridden for the first time by Irad Ortiz, Jr., who replaces injured regular rider Mike Luzzi.
“I was talking to Irad this morning. The thing is, we have to settle early,” McLaughlin said. “A lot of people think you have to be close, but we would like to settle back, mid-pack toward the rear. We can’t win if we’re up 1-2-3-4, in my opinion. We’ll be back and we might take mud in the face for a while. We’d like to get clear when it’s time to go.”
Dealing with kickback has been an issue with Incognito, who had won two straight prior to the May 11 Peter Pan, including a victory over older horses in an optional claimer on April 13 at Aqueduct.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s dry and fast, he doesn’t like dirt in his face so much. He just doesn’t like it,” McLaughlin said. “We have enough time and distance for the most part to get the last five-eighths with a clean face.
“He definitely was flying late up the rail and galloped out in front of all of them. We’ve always liked him. He really wants the distance.”
MIDNIGHT TABOO / OVERANALYZE / PALACE MALICE / REVOLUTIONARY / UNLIMITED BUDGET -- With the track sloppy during Friday training hours, trainer Todd Pletcher elected to tweak the training routines for his five Belmont Stakes entrants.
Midnight Taboo (Mike Repole) galloped 1 3/8 mile, Palace Malice (Dogwood Stable) and Unlimited Budget (Repole) galloped 1 1/4 mile, and Revolutionary (WinStar Farm) and Overanalyze (Repole) jogged.
Pletcher worked as a foreman and later as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas from 1989-1995, and his group represents five of the nine Belmont Stakes entrants that are trained either by Lukas or by his former employees. Lukas trains Oxbow and Will Take Charge, and his former assistants Dallas Stewart and Kiaran McLaughlin train Golden Soul and Incognito, respectively.
Pletcher said it’s no surprise Lukas’ employees have used his training and managerial techniques as a blueprint for success.
“When you look at the résumés of some of the guys who have worked under him, it’s pretty impressive what they have been able to accomplish,” said Pletcher. “A lot of that is credit to spending time with him.”
Pletcher, who trains more than 100 horses, said his time with Lukas taught him the importance of being organized.
“When you’re training more than, say, 20 horses, the bigger your stable gets and the more locations you’re at, the more organized you have to be,” said Pletcher. “That was one of the things we learned. You kind of get what you put into it. I think over a period of time if you cover all of your bases and pay attention to the little things, then things fall into place.”
ORB -- After watching Kentucky Derby winner and Belmont Stakes morning-line favorite Orb gallop a strong 1 1/2 miles this morning over Belmont Park’s main track, Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey pronounced the colt “good to go” for tomorrow’s “Test of the Champion.”
“He’s ready,” said McGaughey, who was accompanied to the track by Stuart S. Janney, III, who co-owns Orb with Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps.
Later Friday morning, McGaughey reflected on his personal journey the past five weeks, beginning with Orb’s 2 ½-length victory at Churchill Downs in the first leg of racing’s Triple Crown.
“It’s been a very eye-opening experience, in a positive way,” said McGaughey. “I guess I never really took the time, maybe, to think, ‘You’ve had a pretty good career. You’re in the Hall of Fame. You won the Kentucky Derby, among a lot of other big races. You’ve been lucky to compete in a lot of big races, and you’ve been able to work since 1985 with some great people.’ I’ve accumulated a lot of great people around me, which is one of the things I’ve always tried to do – surround myself with people I have confidence in.”
McGaughey said the biggest, and most pleasant, surprise has been the overwhelmingly positive feedback he’s gotten from acquaintances, friends, the media and racing fans.
“I just never dreamed I would get such a good reaction,” he said. “Even after the Preakness, I was walking down the track, signing people’s hats they were hanging over the rail, and someone was asking me why I did that, and I said, ‘They were nice enough in defeat, I should be nice enough to stop.’ Nancy Kelly (of the Jockey Club) said when I walked past her section, everyone there stood up and applauded. I was disappointed, not for myself, but for the people who put so much into him, and his following that he didn’t get to run his race. I mean, if he had come running and got beaten a neck or something, OK, but I don’t think he got to run his race.”
The moments after Orb’s victory in the Run for the Roses remain the most vivid for McGaughey.
“Getting down to the track afterward, I saw Jenn (Patterson, Orb’s exercise rider) and she looked at me and said, ‘You know, we did it.’ I don’t think I’ll ever forget that,” he said. “We put our hearts and souls into it. I keep saying I come third in this equation – the Phipps and Janneys come first, the people come second, and I come third. So the reaction … I just never dreamed all that existed. The headlines ‘Shug wins his first Derby’ and ‘Shug this’ and ‘Shug that’ and all that.
"I was at an event on Monday, and the emcee singled us out. The reaction last night at the thing in the city (Belmont Stakes Charity Celebration) was remarkable. And that’s just the little things. I’ve been very, very surprised by the outside reaction. I never did sit down and think about it, but it’s been a surprise, in a very positive way. Maybe all these years, I took all that for granted. You get cards and notes and stuff, people you don’t know, from distant friends, and some of the things that were said, even when we lost …. Anyway, I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
OXBOW / WILL TAKE CHARGE -- After D. Wayne Lukas put his contenders, Oxbow, the Preakness Stakes winner, and Will Take Charge, through their final paces this morning at Belmont Park, the Hall of Fame trainer spoke outside his barn about his four Belmont Stakes winners.
Asked which one was the best, he said, “Probably Tabasco Cat,” the first of his four in 1994. “Thunder Gulch (1995) was a real warrior. He showed up every time. Tabasco Cat was mentally a very tough horse to train. Even ‘Mack’ Miller, the Hall of Famer, came by the day after and said, ‘I watched that horse train all week, and I didn’t think there was any way in hell you could win the Belmont with that horse.’ He wrote me a beautiful letter, which I still have, after the race. It was a real accomplishment for him to do it, and, of course, we did it for the right people, too.”
Tabasco Cat was bred and owned by Overbrook Farm and David P. Reynolds, and he overtook Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin nearing the final furlong and won by two lengths under Pat Day in a compact six-horse field.
“Editor’s Note (1996) just ground them down. He just kept grinding and grinding,” Lukas said, “and Commendable (an 18-1 long shot in 2000), I caught them all of balance with that. I told Pat Day, ‘You’re going to turn for home three lengths in front, and Aptitude is not going to be concerned about you. He’s going to be looking over his shoulder to see who’s coming, and you’re going to go home in 25 and change, and he’s going to have to do 23, and he’s not going to be able to do it.’”
Commendable actually came home in 26.08 seconds for the final quarter-mile under a vigorous hand ride by Day, while Aptitude rallied from sixth to be beaten by a length and a half.
Lukas has been saying all week that everyone tends to overanalyze the Belmont Stakes contenders, and, in the end, nobody knows which horses can run well at 1 1/2 mile and which can’t
“We’re all in uncharted water,” he said. “You can go over it and over it, but a lot of them just can’t run that far, especially when they’re pressured. A lot of them will maybe get it in the third race on Wednesday, but when we get into this situation with a little more quality, we’re still guessing a little bit.”
VYJACK -- Trainer Rudy Rodriguez and Vyjack, beat the heaviest rain by being one of the first horses out when the main track opened at 5:30 Friday morning.
“We got lucky. It was just sprinkling a little bit,” Rodriguez said.
The Belmont will be the first race for Vyjack since finishing 18th in the Kentucky Derby on May 4 at Churchill Downs over a sloppy, sealed track.
“When we were at Churchill with that mud over there, I don’t think he ever looked comfortable on that track,” Rodriguez said. “Right now, everything’s good. He galloped pretty good this morning. He looks like he’s in the right frame of mind.”
Owned by David Wilkenfeld’s Pick Six Racing, Vyjack won the first four starts of his career including the Grade 2 Jerome and Grade 3 Gotham. His first loss came in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial, where he was third, beaten a length, by Verrazano.
Listed at 20-1 on the morning line, Vyjack will break from post 11 in the 14-horse field.
“In a perfect world, we’d like to be sitting third or fourth, but we’ll see how it goes,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully, he breaks good and we’ll take it from there. We just have to take a look and see what’s going on.”
Julien Leparoux will be aboard Vyjack for the first time, replacing Garrett Gomez off the Derby effort. Leparoux was third in last year’s Belmont with 20-1 long shot Atigun.
“The owner wanted Julien because he has very good hands and he thought he would fit the horse pretty good,” Rodriguez said. “I agree that he’s got very, very good hands, and I think he’s going to get along great with the horse. He’s one of the best riders in the country. We’re just hoping for the best.”
The only geldings to win the Belmont are Crème Fraiche in 1985 and Ruler On Ice, who paid $51.50 in 2011.
WOODY STEPHENS STAKES -- Let Em Shine ships in from California with the highest Beyer Speed Figure on the Belmont Stakes card. The speed merchant, owned by William Peeples and trained by Adam Kitchingman, spices up a deeply contentious 29th running of the Grade 2, $400,000 Woody Stephens presented by NYRA Rewards, a seven-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds.
After fading in the final furlong last December in his debut, Let Em Shine turned into a rapid monster, whipping Bob Baffert’s Triple Crown hopeful Govenor Charlie by 7 ½ lengths at Santa Anita, winning a high-level optional claimer by 4 ¼ lengths, and then moving to the synthetic surface in his most recent start and winning the Came Home Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park by 4 ¾ lengths, running seven furlongs in 1:21.35 and earning a 109 Beyer Speed Figure.
Only filly Dreaming of Julia, with a 114, has a higher Beyer Speed Figure this year among 3-year-olds.
With that, Peeples began to think forwardly about the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, according to Kitchingman, who will be racing for the first time at Belmont Park in a training career that dates back to 2002.
The owner made a last-minute decision to run in the Woody Stephens, Kitchingman said.
“We didn’t have any straight 3-year-old races to run in California,” the trainer explained. “It cost a lot of money to come out here, close to $30,000 for the weekend. With the plane flight, nominations for the race, plane tickets for the groom, hotels, and all that kind of fun stuff. It adds up. We think the horse has a good chance. He’s training great.”
Let Em Shine, by Songandaprayer, has been galloping over the Belmont surface for three days, and Kitchingman said, “So far, so good. No problems.”
In the race, he will have to deal with Baffert again, this time in the form of Zee Bros, who won the $100,000 Chick Lang Stakes on Preakness Day at Pimlico. The son of Brother Derek is also a confirmed front-runner like Let Em Shine.
“We’re going to be on the lead,” Kitchingman said. “I just hope they’re not going too fast. There is no question Baffert’s horse won’t let this horse get away on the front. I’d just hate to see a speed duel and the best two horses not hit the board.”
Kitchingman, a native of Melbourne, Australia, said he marveled when he got his first look at Belmont Park, and he is delighted he has a horse good enough to have gotten him here.
“I loved the backside, the trees, the barns, the places to graze. It’s a beautiful racetrack,” he said. “This is by far the best horse I’ve ever trained. I’m just a small barn that doesn’t get too many chances.”
SECRETARIAT COMMEMORATION -- In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Secretariat’s sweep of the Triple Crown, NYRA has placed a blue-and-white striped pole inside the main track that marks 31 lengths, the margin of Secretariat’s victory in the Belmont, from the finish line.
Using Equibase’s official measurement of one length (8 feet, 2 inches), NYRA erected the marker 253 feet, 2 inches away from the finish line. The pole shows that Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by more than three-quarters of a sixteenth of a mile.
Track announcer Tom Durkin developed the idea for the monument and said the inspiration goes all the way back to 2004 when Smarty Jones was attempting to win all three legs of the Triple Crown.
“When Smarty Jones was running in the Belmont Stakes I thought he might possibly win by as much as Secretariat,” said Durkin. “I did a stand-up on NBC and went to the maintenance people here and got one of those surveying wheels. I marked off that distance and I put a little red tape mark on the rail. This year I asked if there could be a monument in recognition to the greatest effort by a thoroughbred ever. I think it’s noticeable and people will say, ‘What’s that?’ and others will tell them, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, wow!’”