ELMONT, N.Y. - Trainer Christophe Clement will send out a pair of classy turf runners, the resurgent Za Approval and multiple graded stakes winner Speaking of Which, in Saturday's Grade 3, $200,000 Knickerbocker at Belmont Park.
The Knickerbocker - a 1 1/8-mile turf event for 3-year-olds and up - is the feature on a 10-race Saturday program.
Za Approval, who will run only if the going is firm, according to Clement, has not yet met expectations for his 2014 campaign, but appears headed in the right direction following a 1 Â¾-length win in the Real Courage Stakes at Belmont in his most recent start.
The 6-year-old son of Ghostzapper finished second by three-quarters of a length in last year's Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Mile behind Wise Dan, but has failed to recapture that form through five starts this year. The Clement trainee finished off the board in the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile and Grade 1 Maker's 46 Mile to begin the year, and subsequently finished third in the Grade 3 Poker at Belmont and fifth in the Grade 2 Nijinsky.
Given some time to recuperate after the Nijinsky, Za Approval returned in the Real Courage on September 7, in which he broke sharply and led throughout.
"I just think he's a better horse in the fall than in the summer; he's doing well," said Clement. "We used [the Knickerbocker] as a way to the Breeders' Cup last year, and we'll try to do the same [this year]."
Za Approval, 7-2 on the morning line, drew post 3 and will be ridden by Luis Saez. Regardless of course condition, Clement will saddle Speaking of Which, who has proven capable over all types of footing. The 5-year-old horse won the Grade 3 Tropical Turf Handicap four starts ago on "good" ground, finished third in the Grade 3 Colonel E. R. Bradley three races back on a course labeled yielding, and most recently won the Grade 2 Monmouth on firm turf.
His versatility will have to compensate for his lack of seasoning, however, as he has not raced since June 8.
"He was great in the Monmouth; Joe Bravo gave him a great ride," said Clement. "He came back and he was a bit sore after that race, so he had the summer off. He looks good and is training well. Let's go for it."
Speaking of Which drew post 4 with Manny Franco named to ride. He sits at 4-1 on the morning line.
Up With the Birds, the 3-1 morning-line favorite, will return to a course and distance he's fared well on in the past. Last year, the Stormy Atlantic colt won the Grade 1, 1 1/8-mile Jamaica Handicap on Belmont's inner turf by a half-length.
Since his Jamaica triumph, the Sam-Son Farm color-bearer has been inconsistent, finishing off the board in an allowance race at Keeneland and the Grade 2 Dixie at Pimlico, while turning in a spectacular performance in the Grade 2 Nijinsky, which he won by four lengths and garnered him a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 100.
In his most recent outing, the Grade 1 Arlington Million, Up With the Birds finished fourth, beaten five lengths.
"I was a little bit disappointed [with his performance in the Arlington Million], but it was a tough race," said Up With the Birds' trainer, Malcolm Pierce. "We picked [the Knickerbocker] because of the timing and distance; I think it suits him perfectly, and he ran so well in the Jamaica last year."
Up With the Birds will be ridden by Cornelio Velasquez, who was aboard for his Jamaica triumph, and the pair will break from post 7.
Rounding out the field are Plainview, a hard-trying son of Street Cry who has won eight of 32 career races; the Todd Pletcher-trained duo of Winning Cause and Mshawish; Legendary, winner of the Japan Racing Association Stakes in his latest start; and Tricky Hat, who won the John's Call at Saratoga Race Course two starts ago.
Easter Gift is entered for the main track only.