• Pletcher's first Belmont victory remains special • Rushing Fall stands out in a crowd of Grade 1 winners
ELMONT, N.Y. - A dozen years, more than 2,700 victories and some $233.6 million in purses earned have passed since the filly Rags to Riches won the 2007 Belmont Stakes, but even after all that time trainer Todd Pletcher can't help but smile when recalling his first victory in a Triple Crown race.
"One of the amazing things about it, especially in the year afterward, is how people would come up to me and recall where they were and what they were doing when she won," said Pletcher, who will be seeking his fourth victory in the 1 ½-mile "Test of the Champion" on Saturday at Belmont Park with Intrepid Heart and Spinoff. "It really was a special moment for a lot of people."
The now seven-time Eclipse Award-winning conditioner did not make a final decision on whether to start Michael Tabor's chestnut filly until the week of the race, not long after it was announced that Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense would not be running. The field remained a tough one by any standards, including, among others, Preakness winner Curlin, Derby runner-up Hard Spun and Santa Anita Derby winner Tiago.
Pletcher recalled how his heart sank the moment the gates opened, when Rags to Riches stumbled badly at the start, then put herself back into contention and went on to set 47,870 fans at Belmont Park and millions of television viewers' hearts pounding with her throatlatch-to-throatlatch battle with Curlin through the stretch, to win by a head.
"There were so many emotions packed into two-and-a-hal minutes," recalled Pletcher. "You went from thinking she lost all chance when she fell on her head at the start, to thinking maybe she can hit the board after she recovered, to thinking she was going to win, to holding your breath when Curlin came on ...it was a mile-and-a-half roller coaster."
The victory not only gave Pletcher (who had been 0-for-28 in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont) and jockey John Velazquez (0-for-20) their first Classic win, it went down in the history books as Rags to Riches became the first filly to win the Belmont since Tonya in 1905.
"And, to look back and see what [eventual two-time Horse of the Year] Curlin went on to do made it even more special," said Pletcher. "It was a chance to make history."
* * * Rushing Fall stands out in a crowd of Grade 1 winners
It takes some kind of effort to stand out in the Chad Brown shedrow, where top-level runners are the rule rather than the exception. With regards to both her physical appearance and her raw ability, multiple Grade 1 winner Rushing Fall is a head-turning attraction each time she hits the track.
The expected favorite for the Grade 1, $700,000 Longines Just a Game on Saturday afternoon has been among the most striking presences on the Belmont track each morning, the powerful stride and dapples across her bay frame. If the daughter of More Than Ready keeps adding layers to her game, stablemate Sistercharlie could face some stiff competition in her quest to defend her title as champion turf female this season.
The only blemish on Rushing Fall's eight-race record is a runner-up effort in the 2018 Grade 3 Edgewood Stakes, when she rushed to the lead and ended up beaten a neck. That move represented a departure from her usual late-running ways. She has since developed an arsenal that allows her to beat her competition in almost any manner she chooses.
In both the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland last October and her season-opening triumph in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley on April 13, Rushing Fall led at every call. Hence, no matter how Saturday's Just a Game shapes up from a pace standpoint, Brown has reason to be confident it will play into the 4-year-old filly's wheelhouse.
"It just developed. She's just a great racehorse and she's done it all on her own as far as her versatility in her races," Brown said. "It's nothing we trained her to do. She's a horse who is nearly undefeated, only one loss narrowly. When you get into these turf horses and they are nearly undefeated with normally larger fields and being more trip dependent and ground dependent, it's hard to run a record with a lot of 1s in the column."
Rushing Fall, a daughter of More Than Ready, has run exclusively in graded stakes company since breaking her maiden at Belmont Park in September 2017 and is unbeaten in three starts over the Just a Game's one-mile distance.
* * * Juddmonte's world-class legacy on display for Belmont Stakes Racing Festival
Juddmonte Farms won the 'Test of the Champion' 16 years ago when Empire Maker spoiled Funny Cide's bid for a Triple Crown in 2003. This year, with homebred Tacitus, it owns the 9-5 morning line favorite for the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.
Named after an ancient Roman senator, Tacitus was third in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby following the disqualification of Maximum Security.
His sire, Tapit, has produced three of the last five Belmont Stakes winners and currently leads all sires in North America in black-type winners. Tacitus' dam Close Hatches was voted Champion Older Filly in 2014 and was a five-time Grade 1 winner.
Hall of Famer Bill Mott trains Tacitus, who won the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby and the Grade 2 Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct.
"Everything has gone smooth since the Derby," said Juddmonte Farms' General Manager Garrett O'Rourke. "He tried really hard and took a lot of the worst of a bad track that day. He's a big horse and to me, that's the biggest factor. Now, Bill seems to be passing on the vibes that the horse has blossomed with the extra time. He's been working well over the Belmont track. We just hope that the extra month and extra fitness can suit him well."
Tacitus' dam Close Hatches won the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps five years ago today, defeating Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Sylmar and multiple Eclipse Award winner Beholder.
"The real pride in our operation is the effort that goes into developing these families, sowing the seeds and having it come into fruition," O'Rourke said. "In this case, Close Hatches was one of Prince Khalid's all-time great mares and it's exciting for her to produce a horse of this caliber. It's interesting that on the same day five years ago, she put up one of her greatest performances against Beholder and Princess of Sylmar in the Ogden Phipps. It was a very memorable performance."
Juddmonte Farms will also be represented on Saturday by Environs in the Grade 1 Just a Game. After winning her North American debut in April at Keeneland by 3 ½ lengths, the daughter of prolific Juddmonte sire Dansili raced back in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile, finishing fourth.
Trained by Chad Brown, who won the past two editions of the one-mile event over the Widener turf course, Environs is out of the Oasis Dream mare Zatsfine who is a half-sister to Grade/Group 1 winners Proviso and Byword.
"She's another one with a lovely pedigree," O'Rourke said. "One of the biggest takeaways from our history is bringing over offspring of Dansili and they find improvement over American tracks on firm surfaces. She didn't get that on Derby day. She worked well with Chad's other fillies over the winter at Palm Meadows. Obviously, she hasn't yet faced the talent that she will on Saturday, but that's what we'll find out."
Juddmonte has won the Just a Game four times with Antonoe (2017), Proviso (2010), Ventura (2008) and Intercontinental (2004).
O'Rourke is hoping that Honest Mischief can give farm-favorite dam Honest Lady another Grade 1 winner when he makes his stakes debut in the Grade 1, $400,000 Woody Stephens presented by Mohegan Sun. A Grade 1 winner, Honest Lady is out of the prolific Juddmonte broodmare Toussaud, who also produced 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker and Grade 1 winners Chester House and Chisseling. Honest Lady also produced First Defence - the maternal grandsire of Tacitus.
Honest Mischief enters the Woody Stephens from an eight-length maiden victory at Keeneland, which earned a 97 Beyer Speed Figure.
"Honest Lady was a tremendously campaigned race mare and broodmare, but she's probably the favorite mare of about 80 percent of the farm," O'Rourke said. "She has the temperament of a dog, is very intelligent and just a sweetheart of a mare. It would be great to have a son of hers at a high caliber given her age  and a Grade 1 win would make him an excellent stallion prospect. We'd love for him to pull it off."
O'Rourke has developed a strong connection to the well-bred equine families that he has been fortunate enough to manage over the years.
"It's one of the real luxuries that people like myself have had in working for Prince Khalid," O'Rourke said. "Great broodmares from generation to generation. You see all of these great broodmares producing runners that share the same traits and same attitudes and they all become like family. There's a connection to people who know them so well. I definitely think it's something that has kept Prince Khalid in the game for 40 years."
One can look forward to a full sibling to Tacitus in the near future as Close Hatches is again in foal to Tapit. She also has a foal by Curlin on the ground and an unraced 2-year-old named Atheer. Named for the Arabic word meaning "highly ranked" or "honorable," Atheer is by Malibu Moon and currently at Juddmonte Farm in Lexington.
* * * Mitole puts streak on the line in G1 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap
L. William and Corinne Heiligbrodt's Mitole, unbeaten in six races dating back to March 2018, will put that win streak on the line when he stretches out to the one-mile distance for the first time in Saturday's Grade 1, $1.2 million Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap.
Mitole, who was given time to mature after winning the 2018 Chick Lang Stakes on the Preakness undercard, has come back even stronger as a 4-year-old. After winning two races easily at Oaklawn to start the year, he had no trouble making the step up to Grade 1 competition when he bested a quality field by 3 ½ lengths in the Churchilll Downs Sprint May 4. That win garnered high praise from his owner William Heilighbrodt, who has been in racing more than 30 years and has had several top sprinters, including Posse and Ladytak.
"I've been in racing a long time and he's the fastest I've ever had," Heiligbrodt said. "He's an unusual horse in the way he runs and trains. He never looks like he's going as fast as he is. He just does things so easy."
Mitole successfully stretched out to seven furlongs in the Churchill Downs Sprint and Heiligbrodt is confident he can handle the one-turn mile despite not only facing other top sprinters, but the likes of top distance horses in multiple Grade 1-winner McKinzie and two-time Dubai World Cup winner Thunder Snow.
"This will be a big test for him," Heiligbrodt said. "He's never been to Belmont. He's never been this far. And, he's never faced this kind of competition. There's plenty of competition in this field. But, he is bred to go longer. We have big hopes that he'll run well. I'm looking forward to the race."
* * * If the shoe fits...Tax training well into G1 Belmont Stakes
Trainer Danny Gargan said Tax has stepped up his training the week leading into the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.
Owned by R A Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Hugh Lynch and Corms Racing Stable, the gelded dark bay son of Arch was 14th in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby last out and has recorded two breezes at Belmont Park heading into the final leg of the Triple Crown, the latter of which was a half-mile move in 49.03 seconds over the main track, where he was sporting new glue-on shoes.
"He trained great all week long. I'm really happy with how he has been doing," Gargan said. "This last week might be the best he's trained since the Derby. I think he's really come around, maybe putting the glue-ons on turned him around more than anything, but he's done tremendous this week."
Claimed by Gargan for $50,000 following a two-length maiden victory over the main track at Keeneland in October, Tax went on to win the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct two starts later before a strong runner-up effort behind Belmont Stakes favorite Tacitus in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets.
Bred in Kentucky by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, Tax is out of the Giant's Causeway broodmare Toll, who is out of two-time graded stakes winner Yell.
* * * Hennig has trio ready for BSRF action
Trainer Mark Hennig will be an active participant over the next two days with three horses set to start in stakes, including Bourbon Lane Stable and Lake Star Stable's Bourbon War in Saturday's Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.
Bourbon War, one of three Tapit colts in the field, will be looking to rebound from a poor performance in the Preakness Stakes when eighth of 13 three weeks ago. One start prior, he had finished fourth in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, just missing a chance to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
"He's good, all's well. I wouldn't change a thing," Hennig said of his second Belmont starter. "I think being based here [at Belmont Park] helps. He stayed pretty busy at Pimlico. He's an active horse and stayed kind of busy because there's a lot going on [in the stakes barn]. Here you don't have to disrupt their routine, which is pretty nice.
"We tried the blinkers in Preakness and that didn't pan out too well. We're taking those off this time. For me, he's a horse that likes to run on the inside of horses. In the Preakness, he found himself out in the middle of the track again. Hopefully, we're going to resolve that Saturday."
One day before the Belmont, Hennig was to saddle Courtlandt Farms' Strike Power in the Grade 2, $250,000 True North Stakes and John O'Connor's Semper Sententiae in the Grade 2, $600,000 New York Stakes.
Strike Power, who had surgery to correct a breathing issue last fall, was to be making his second start of the year following an impressive five-length length in a Gulfstream allowance race April 25, while Semper Sententiae would be making her fourth start. The 4-year-old filly, who has not been worse than third this year, most recently finished second in Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay Stakes May 4.
* * * Intrepid Heart blossoming into a top-level contender
G1 Belmont Stakes contender Intrepid Heart was a bit behind schedule going through the sales ring, but still fetched $750,000 at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale last April.
While most 2-year-olds in training sales begin their heavy lifting toward the end of the calendar year, Intrepid Heart did not begin breezing until February. Nevertheless, this didn't concern consigner Niall Brennan, who believed that buyers at the sale would be attracted by his notable pedigree. By Tapit, Intrepid Heart is out of the two-time stakes winning Touch Gold broodmare Flaming Heart, who produced three-time graded stakes winner and 2014 Belmont Stakes runner up Commissioner.
"We got him after Christmas and many 2-year-olds that go through the sales are already breezing by then," Brennan said. "He didn't get to start breezing until February. In his case, nothing was wrong, he was just a little behind the eight ball. He was always improving with each work and I knew that when I saw him work that he would be a good horse."
Tapit's progeny, who have won three out of the last five editions of the 'Test of the Champion', have a reputation of being tough to work with, but Intrepid Heart was an exception, according to Brennan.
"He was very nice to be around, especially for a Tapit. He was a gentleman," said Brennan. "Tapits can be tough-minded and tough to deal with. Intrepid Heart was good feeling and had good energy. He had a lot of class and was focused, putting his mind to his business and behaving himself."
Intrepid Heart's conformation was as attractive as his pedigree.
"People saw a big, growing horse and the smart buyers took a closer look and realized that he had the potential," Brennan said. "There were four or five legitimate buyers."
Bloodstock agent Jacob West purchased the colt on behalf of owners Robert and Lawana Low.
"He was a May foal and life for him would start after Saratoga and after the fall because of his physical make up. It didn't really affect our decision," West said. "When you have that pedigree, by Tapit out of a Touch Gold mare, it was a very easy determination. We just gave him some time to grow up and mature."
Brennan takes pride in developing young horses and hopes that the future continues to be bright for Intrepid Heart.
"It gives credibility to what we're doing," Brennan said. "We're around these horses and obviously they have to be good and sound, but talent is key. Hopefully he becomes a good stallion one day."
* * *
Sisterson hoping for big day on Belmont undercard in Manhattan, Woody Stephens
Jack Sisterson is looking at what could be the biggest day of his less-than-one-year training career on a blockbuster Belmont Stakes Day card when he sends out Bandua in the $1 million Manhattan and Lexitonian in the $400,000 Woody Stephens presented by Mohegan Sun.
A native of England, Sisterson played soccer and studied equine business at the University of Louisville, most recently was the assistant for Doug O'Neill and played a prominent role in handling Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another in 2012 and Derby winner Nyquist in 2016.
He was hired as the private trainer for famed Calumet Farm 11 months ago, and has sent out 100 starters through Thursday, June 7. He's had 12 winners, including Lexitonian's victory at 17-1 odds in the Grade 3 Chick Lang Stakes at Pimlico on Preakness Day, May 18.
In the seven-furlong Woody Stephens, Lexitonian is listed at 15-1 in a field of 11 3-year-olds, with Mind Control the 5-2 favorite.
"We try not to set the bar too high, and this is a tough race,'' said Sisterson. "But we have confidence in him, and are expecting a big race. He ran on Derby day [fifth in an allowance race at Churchill Downs], and came back two weeks later with a big race at Pimlico. Like Derby horses, he'll be running in three races over five weeks, but he has a ton of energy."
A 3-year-old chestnut son of 2004 champion sprinter Speightstown, Lexitonian has won 2-of-5 starts for earnings of $172,410. He will be ridden by Joel Rosario and leave from the No. 10 post.
Sisterson has another live long shot in Bandua, listed at 30-1 in a stellar 10-horse field for the 1 ¼-mile Manhattan on the inner turf led by 7-5 favorite Bricks and Mortar, 9-2 choice Channel Maker and 6-1 choices Robert Bruce and Olympico.
"He's coming into this in great shape,'' said Sisterson of Bandua, who will be ridden by Tyler Gaffalione and leave from post No. 6. "He's a really nice horse, but when it comes to a race, he's all business. I think this is a good spot for him."
Bandua, a 4-year-old gray/roan son of The Factor, has run on turf and dirt. He ran fourth in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap and seventh in the Grade 3 Westchester at Belmont in his last two starts, both on dirt, and has two wins for eight starts on turf. He worked four furlongs in 49 seconds at Keeneland on June 2.
"Dirt may not be his preferred surface, so this race comes at a good time to go back on the grass,'' said Sisterson. "He's run some big numbers on grass.''
* * * Triple Crown jockey autograph signing on Saturday
Jockeys Mike Smith and Jean Cruguet, who have piloted the only two horses to have won the Triple Crown while undefeated in Justify and Seattle Slew, will be joined by champion American Pharoah's rider, Victor Espinoza, for a special autograph session at Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes Day, Saturday, June 8.
The autograph session will begin at 11 a.m. in front of the Secretariat mural in Belmont Park's grandstand and is set to conclude at 1 p.m.
Smith, who entered racing's Hall of Fame in 2003, became Justify's regular rider for his second start, in an allowance race on March 11, 2018, and was aboard for the colt's next four victories in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, the Grade 1 Preakness and the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes.
Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Justify was retired following the Belmont having won all six of his starts for $3.78 million. He currently stands at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Kentucky.
Seattle Slew had won all six of his starts, including the Grade 1 Champagne, the Grade 1 Flamingo and the Grade 1 Wood Memorial with Cruguet in the irons, before embarking on his unprecedented sweep of the Triple Crown in 1977. After his front-running victory in the Belmont, he would suffer his only off-the-board outing his next start, finishing fourth in the Swaps, and did not race again until the following year. He retired having won 14 of 17 starts, with two seconds and earnings of more than $1.2 million.
After losing his very first start, American Pharoah got the services of Espinoza and the pair would go onto victory in his next eight starts, including his rousing triumph in the 2015 Belmont Stakes, in which he broke a 37-year-old Triple Crown drought dating back to Affirmed in 1978. The Baffert trainee suffered his second career loss in the Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga Race Course, but came back to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. He also stands at Ashford Stud.
For more information on Belmont Stakes Racing Festival events, please visit https://www.belmontstakes.com/event-info/event-lineup