Author: Michele MacDonald
Long promoted as ‘The Test of a Champion’, partly for its demanding 1 ½ miles on dirt and partly due to the lengthy list of superior runners who have emerged victorious in its 151 runnings, the Belmont Stakes failed to live up to that billing on June 8. At least, that’s the way it looks at this moment. With Sir Winston, who had not won in four previous races in 2019 and whose biggest previous claim to fame was as a Listed winner in Canada, sauntering across the finish line first, America’s 3yo division was left in shambles. It could be argued that there have been four separate Classic winners this season, noting that Maximum Security crossed the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby only to be demoted for interference while Country House was given the roses, and none at this point stands above the rest.
Even trainer Mark Casse, who emerged as the biggest victor in the Triple Crown series having also saddled Preakness Stakes winner War of Will, acknowledged that Sir Winston had not previously seemed to be even among the best in his own barn. Yet Casse had believed that the son of venerable 25yo sire Awesome Again would be able to not only withstand the distance but to thrive over it while others wilted, and he was proved correct in that viewpoint as jockey Joel Rosario gave the colt a smooth trip. “He’s an amazing little horse. If at this time last year, if you had asked me to rate our top 20 juveniles, he would have been about 16th or 17th.
But I’m very proud of him because he’s kind of what our operation represents, and that is I feel like we develop horses,” Casse said. “I start every horse out thinking that they are going to win the Kentucky Derby or the Oaks. And I will try different surfaces; I will try different methods. With a horse like Sir Winston, it paid off.” Juddmonte’s homebred Tacitus offered a stretch rally that took him to second, following his official placing of third in the Kentucky Derby, and longshot Joevia, a Listed winner, finished third after setting the pace. With no Triple Crown on the line this year and with War of Will fading after rating in a perfect position early, the Belmont Stakes seemed almost anti climactic as it followed seven other Grade One events on a star laden card that delivered some ‘jaw dropping’ performances by potential champions for the season.
Mitole, a bargain $20,000 yearling who was just a Listed winner at three but who has risen to be a multiple Grade On winner at four, extended his vaunted sprinting power to one mile in perhaps the best race of on the card. He refused to be caught after pressing Godolphin Mile winner Coal Front through blistering early fractions in a vintage edition of the Metropolitan Handicap. Underlining Mitole’s brilliance on this day, in addition to his time of 1:32.75 on a fast dirt surface, were those finishing just behind him: Bob Baffert’s multiple Grade One winner McKinzie and Godolphin’s dual Dubai World Cup hero Thunder Snow. “He’s obviously a very special horse. To beat the horses that were second and third obviously speaks for itself,” said winning trainer Steve Asmussen, who has now sent Mitole out for seven consecutive victories and eight in his last nine starts, beginning with a maiden score in February 2018.
A son of Eskendereya owned by Bill and Corinne Heiligbrodt, longtime clients of Asmussen, Mitole is “an amazing horse,” said jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. “He can come from the back, he can go in front, you can put him between horses and he always keeps trying his best.” To be fair, neither Thunder Snow nor McKinzie had an ideal trip. Thunder Snow had to switch paths to gain running room as he was trying to make his move in the stretch and jockey Christophe Soumillon’s quick darts for position momentarily blocked McKinzie and Mike Smith from a clear route to the finish line. “It was a very unlucky trip,” Smith said after McKinize finished three-quarters of a length behind Mitole while full of running. Thunder Snow was just a neck behind McKinzie, and trainer Saeed bin Suroor described his initial effort after the Dubai World Cup as ‘a huge race’.
Thunder Snow is set to return to train in England with a potential return to America for the prestigious Whitney Stakes over 1 1/8 miles on August 3 at Saratoga Race Course. Meanwhile, superstar performances were turned in by potential American turf champions Bricks and Mortar and the filly Rushing Fall in the Grade 1 Manhattan and Just a Game Stakes, respectively. Both are undefeated in four starts this season and both are trained by Chad Brown, who dominated the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival by sending out seven winners of the 18 stakes offered over three days of competition. Bricks and Mortar began his season with a sublime win in the inaugural $7 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes, defeating Coolmore’s multiple Group One placed Magic Wand and a bevy of Grade One winners such as Delta Prince, Yoshida and Channel Maker over sodden ground at Gulfstream Park.
In his typical fashion, the 5yo son of Giant’s Causeway unleashed a powerful rally to capture his third Grade One win in the Manhattan. “Once again, he exploded in the stretch. It just amazes me how consistently he is finishing on the turf. Very rare horse,” Brown said in praising Bricks and Mortar. He was even more effusive in his admiration of Rushing Fall, who earned her fourth triumph at Grade One level when never headed in the one mile Just A Game, finishing up in a dazzling 1:31.67 on firm ground after turning back a challenge from multiple graded winner Daddy is a Legend. “Brilliant performance, probably her best to date,” Brown said of Rushing Fall, who has lost only once in nine career efforts. “One of the greatest turf mares I’ve trained, for sure. I don’t use the word brilliant too often, but it was a real brilliant performance.” In fact, overall, Belmont weekend proved an excellent showcase for exciting fillies.
The 4yo Midnight Bisou earned her fourth Grade One win while cantering home in the Ogden Phipps Stakes for older females; Guarana, in only her second career outing, smashed a Stakes record while zooming past Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress in the onemile Acorn Stakes for 3yo fillies, finishing in 1:33.58, and Homerique, another Brown runner who last year finished only about a neck behind winner Laurens while third in the Prix de Diane (French Oaks), looked all class in taking her second consecutive American graded event in the Grade 2 New York Stakes. As to those 3yo colts, however, they have more work to do in order to establish order in their division. Casse said he will aim both Sir Winston and War of Will at the Travers Stakes, the race that unveiled the superstar talent of eventual Dubai World Cup winner Arrogate, at Saratoga.
Maximum Security is pointing to the Haskell Invitational Stakes at the track where he is based, Monmouth Park, while Country House just recently resumed galloping after recovering from an infection diagnosed in the days following the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps another colt will rise to the forefront, as did Arrogate, and outshine all the Triple Crown competitors. Or perhaps it will just be one of those years in which no single individual is much the best in the division. In this season of the unprecedented Derby disqualification, only time and more racing will reveal if there is true champion in these ranks.
Award winning International Journalist