ALWAYS ON SATURDAY
By JOHN PIESEN
No doubt that John Velazquez made a lot of money for a lot of folks last Saturday when -- with an assist from Mike Smith -- he gunned Union Rags down the rail to a career victory in the Belmont Stakes.
(I only wish that maybe at least one media person had noticed the connection between Union Rags and Eight Belles -- namely that Union Rags' owner (Phyllis Wyeth) has a summer home in Maine named Eight Belles, the building for which the ill-fated 2008 Kentucky Derby runner-up was named by owner Rick Porter, a neighbor.)
So what's Johnny V going to do for an encore this Saturday?
Here's the deal...
Johnny will ride the favorites in the second, third and fourth races (R King of the Road, Ender Knievel and Raise the Flag) at home office Belmont Park, rush back to the jocks' room, pack his tack, and join colleagues Leparoux, Castellano and Napravnik for the ride to JFK Airport where they will catch a private plane to Louisville hard by the Ohio River.
This trip became a go when Churchill Downs, which normally runs days, decided to run this Saturday card in the evening with a 6 p.m. kick.
Once settled in at Churchill, Johnny V will ride four favorites on the 11-race card: Sisterhood in race four; Coup in race seven (the Regret); Wise Dan in race eight (the Stephen Foster), and Mr. Producer in race nine, a maiden-special.
If all goes well, the riders will be back in their Long Island homes by the wee hours Sunday morning, and ready to ride the Sunday afternoon card at Belmont.
Other than the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, this is the marquee day (evening) of racing at Churchill, and management expects upwards of 30,000 folks to party into the night.
Life is good.
Here's a look at the meat of the card, starting with...
Sisterhood exits a Keeneland blowout for trainer Ward, and well may repeat with Johnny V from post 10 in a field of 11 in this $62,500 grass allowance at 1 1/16 miles. Breaking Promises has won two of last three for trainer Maker, and is first-time Castellano. Strong Willed Lady was no match for Breaking Promises last Fall at Turfway, but her last was a beaut, and switches to Leparoux. Quick Praise, with Rosey up, could complete PPS (private plane super).
If Right to Vote runs back to his Peter Pan placing at 47-1, he'll take some catching under Castellano in the $100,000 Matt Winn, a Grade 3 for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles. He broke his maiden with JC last fall at Belmont. Stealcase is a 320K son of Lawyer Ron from trainer Casse, the top dog in Canada, and son of Linda Casse of Capitol OTB. Master Rick failed to fire at 4-1 behind Right to Vote in the Peter Pan. In the hunt off prior Hot Springs form. Assmussen (more on him later) bookends this race with Macho Macho and Master Rick.
Velazquez is fresh from winning the Hilltop on the Preakness undercard on Coup, a homebred filly by Empire Maker in the $100,000 Regret for 3-year-old fillies on the turf. That makes Coup the only stakes-winner in this field of 11. Grudges don't last long (sometimes) in this game. Trainer Matz and jockey Julian are re-united (with Colonial Flag) one week after all that Union Rags nastiness. The 475K Pleasant Tap filly steps up seeking her third straight.
Last week in this space, we pointed out that Mike Smith, who hates to fly, was flying 3,000-miles from LAX to ride Paynter in the Belmont. This week he's making the trip halfway across the country to ride Royal Delta in the $150,000 Fleur de Lis for fillies and mares at nine furlongs. Obviously, trainer Mott and/or the new owners were unhappy with the filly's ninth in the Dubai World Cup when she got shut off at the head of the stretch. Royal Delta returns to the track where she won the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic last Fall to clinch the 3-year-old filly championship. St. John's River loves Churchill, gets five pounds from Royal Delta, Rosie and the rail, but she needs to find a way to make up the 14 lengths RD beat her in the BC.
Wise Dan will be odds-on under Johnny V as he shoots for his fourth straight graded stake triumph in the $400,000 Foster, a Grade 1 at nine furlongs. Trainer Lopresti plans to scratch entrymate Successful Dan. Alternation (Luis Q) and Nehro (Nakatani) finished a nose apart in the Pimlico Special, and figure that close again. Ron the Greek exits a victory in the Santa Anita Handicap, and a fast-closing second to Alternation in the Oaklawn Handicap. Lezcano doesn't lose this Mott mount. Nates Mineshart has won four of his last five, all by open lengths, and is very much the one to catch from the one-hole. The winner goes to the head of the class in the NTRA poll.
Meantime, some notes and quotes...
- Jockey Elliott is doing some double-duty on Saturday, if not in the same fashion as Johnny V. and friends.
Stewart will start Saturday at his usual haunt of Philly Park aboard Jazzit in the sixth, Palamonium in the seventh, and World Gone Wrong in the eighth, then drive to Monmouth Park to ride Diminutive for Tony Dutrow in race 11, the $60,000 Just Smashing Stakes. But here's the kicker. Dutrow will run the favored Singlet as an uncoupled entry. I guess you can watch the board.
- If you thought the Vegas fight last week produced a bad decision, check out Thursday's ninth at Belmont. Leroidessioux, the 2-1 favorite, had the length of the stretch (in fact the entire six furlongs) to get by 30-1 shot Side Party Ralph, but couldn't do it. The stewards, who usually are hitting the elevator as the ninth-race field is hitting the finish line, bailed out the chalk by DQ'ing the winner for incidental contact, the worst of which occurred after the line.
- Speaking of bad calls, Churchill Downs Wednesday announced revised parameters for inclusion in the Kentucky Derby. Under the new format, a victory in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park carries the same weight as the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Steve Asmussen was quoted thusly in Daily Racing Form: "I guess the wrong person's horse got excluded. I am absolutely opposed to these changes, The Derby seems to be the only thing in racing that is working, so why have they tinkered with it?" Well, for one thing, the story got to lead the sports page in Thursday's editions of USA Today.
- A fond farewell to Presious Passion, a front-running winner of three Grade One stakes and $2.7 million, who was retired this week by trainer Mary Hartman. Happy to say the 9-year-old gelding retires sound, and will live out his days with his buddies on a Florida farm.
- Jockey Dominguez, who rode five winners last Saturday on Belmont Stakes Day, might equal or surpass that total this Saturday what with Johnny V and Castellano leaving early. Ramon's very live mount in the Hill Prince is Summer Front, who exits a nightmare trip in the Peter Pan. His chief rival in the Hill Prince, a $150,000 Grade 3 for 3-year-olds at a mile on the grass, looks like Howe Great, most recently a troubled third to Noble Max in the American Turf on Derby Day at Churchill.
My selection for the Hill Prince, and other Belmont races, will be up and running online, and on the John Piesen Hot Line at 1-888-612-2283.
Thanks for checking in. See you back here next Friday.
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