There are not many races that trainer Todd Pletcher can say that he’s never won on the New York racing circuit.
This past summer at Saratoga Race Course he added the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes to his resume of training wins, and this afternoon at Belmont Park he’ll send three horses to the post looking to claim his first ever Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational.
The $1 million Gold Cup, run over 1¼ miles over the Belmont dirt track, is the feature race on the Super Saturday card at Belmont that includes six consecutive graded stakes races. The Super Saturday races serve as key prep events leading up to the Breeders’ Cup championships at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 1 and 2. All six of the graded stakes races are win-and-you’re-in races that qualify the winners for the Breeders’ Cup championships.
As for Pletcher and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he sees a deep and talented field in the starting gate this afternoon.
“I would say it’s a very strong renewal,” said Pletcher, who will saddle Palace Malice, Cross Traffic and Vitoria Olimpica in the Gold Cup. “It’s a tall order for everybody in there, really.”
Palace Malice (4-1), the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy winner, comes off a disappointing fourth-place finish in the Travers, a race where most pundits thought he was the best horse in the race. A bad stumble at the break cost him the race. Pletcher lamented the bad break, but was quick to point out the recovery he made in the late stages of the race.
“To be honest I was shocked that he got as close as he did once he got off to the start that he did,” said Pletcher in a NTRA media call earlier in the week. “Unfortunately for him it took him out of his game plan and the sort of stalking position that we were able to get in the Belmont and the Jim Dandy. It was a huge effort on his part to only get beat three quarters of a length.”
Jockey Mike Smith, who experienced the bad break aboard Palace Malice, likes the son of Curlin’s chances today when he faces older horses for the first time. “For a 3-year-old he’s a big, strong horse. He’s very powerful and certainly wants every bit of the mile and a quarter. He’s already proven that, so that’s something to our advantage,” said the Hall of Fame jockey. “And there are a lot of older horses in there, and I’m not really sure if they want to go a mile and a quarter to be honest with you.”
The race has attracted some highly-regarded horses with two-time winner Flat Out (3-1), Whitney winner Cross Traffic (5-2), Kentucky Derby winner Orb (9-2) and Woodward winner Alpha (8-1) all entered in the Gold Cup. Cross Traffic passed on the Woodward for the Gold Cup and a chance to get to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It will be the 4-year-old’s first trip at 10 furlongs in his career.
“We decided to pass the Woodward, which was sort of a difficult decision because he was training very well,” said Pletcher.
“We just felt we wanted to get to the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the best possible way we could, and felt like that passing the Woodward and waiting on the Jockey Club would hopefully put us in the best position.”
Flat Out will attempt to become the second horse in history to win three consecutive editions of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Kelso won his third consecutive Gold Cup in October of 1962.
“I think it’s great a horse can participate in it three times in a row,” said Hall of Famer Bill Mott, Flat Out’s trainer. “It’s a testament to the horse’s durability and class.”
Jockey Club Outlook: 1-Palace Malice; 2-Cross Traffic; 3-Flat Out
The Grade 1 Beldame is a race speckled with royalty. Last year’s Beldame winner and two-time Breeders’ Cup Distaff champion Royal Delta (3-5) will face off against the likely winner of the 3-year-old female division, Princess of Sylmar (2-1). This will be the stiffest test that the Princess will face all year after winning three straight Grade 1 races, the Kentucky Oaks, the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama for Pletcher.
Ironically the Smith and Pletcher combination that will team up in the Gold Cup will be rivals in the Beldame, as Smith, aboard Royal Delta, has a contract to ride her until she is retired. Javier Castellano, the current riding leader for the Belmont fall meeting, has the mount on Princess of Sylmar.
When asked to compare the 5-year-old mare to former Horse of the Year Zenyatta, another horse that Smith rode during her nearly unblemished career, Smith was complimentary of Royal Delta.
“They both have tremendous strides. Royal Delta has a high cruising speed, and of course, Zenyatta had that amazing powerful closing kick is the difference in the two, but they both have tremendous strides,” said Smith.
Give Pletcher credit for not ducking the race with Royal Delta and the older mares, as he had an opportunity to run Princess of Sylmar last weekend in the Cotillion, a $1 million race restricted to 3-year-old fillies.
“The year that she’s had has been unbelievable, and winning the Alabama and Coaching Club and the Kentucky Oaks in a row, it’s pretty hard for any 3-year-old filly to do. But we have a lot of respect for Royal Delta and she certainly is going to be the mare or filly to beat in this race,” said Pletcher.
It looks like a two-horse race for this one and Royal Delta fended off a younger challenger last year in It’s Tricky – defeating her by an astounding 9½ lengths in last year’s Beldame.
The champion 3-year-old filly of 2011 and Champion Older Female last year should roll to victory today against a younger filly that has had a taxing 3-year-old campaign to date. So we’re riding the Mike Smith train today, the Hall of Fame rider has a way to come up big in the sport’s biggest races.
Beldame Outlook: 1 - Royal Delta; 2-Princess of Sylmar; 3-Lady Cohiba
Gene Kershner , a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association.