ELMONT, N.Y. - Drawing a talented field of 11 runners headlined by defending champion Legendary and multiple graded stakes winner Mr Speaker, Saturday's Grade 3, $200,000 Knickerbocker Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on the inner turf at Belmont Park will look to establish some order in the older turf horse division on the East coast.
Trained by Niall Saville and based out of Fair Hill, Md. for owner Walter Swinburn, Legendary has yet to reach the winner's circle in five starts this year, but last out showed his best performance racing three-wide to finish second to Mr Speaker in the Grade 2 Commonwealth Cup at Laurel Park.
With three wins from four lifetime starts at Belmont, including a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap on June 6, Legendary will look to turn the tables on Mr Speaker. Listed at 8-1 on the morning-line with regular rider Sheldon Russell aboard, Legendary will depart from drawing post position 8.
Mr Speaker, who has three wins from seven lifetime starts at Belmont, and two wins from five starts on the year, will look to recapture the form that earned him his first Grade 1 victory on the turf in last year's Belmont Derby. A 4-year-old son of Pulpit, Mr Speaker began his year with a fourth-place finish in an allowance race at Keeneland before entering the Grade 3 Fort Marcy on May 2 where he ran wide to finish seventh.
Following a brief layoff, he returned to win an optional-claimer at Belmont on July 15 before again trying grades stakes level competition on August 15 in the Grade 2 Sky Classic at Woodbine, where he finished fourth, and followed that effort to earn his second win of the year last out in the Commonwealth Cup.
"I think he's doing very, very well," said Hall of fame trainer Shug McGaughey. "I was very pleased with his allowance win here [at Belmont] before we went to Saratoga. He had a little bit of a rough trip in Canada, then he came back and trained very well and ran well at Laurel and the same kind of goes for here. He's run good over this turf course more than once and even though it's a deep field I'm looking forward to running him. "
The 4-1 morning-line second choice, Mr Speaker will leave from post 9 with jockey Jose Ortiz in the Irons.
Looking to rebound from a troubled break in his first graded stakes start in North America following two optional claiming wins at Saratoga Race Course this summer is 5-year-old German-bred Messi for trainer Graham Motion and owner Gestut Brummerhof . Last out, in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at 1 ½ miles, Messi finished a disappointing seventh but Motion is encouraged with the cutback in distance for the Knickerbocker and the way the horse has been training entering the race.
"He seems to be doing well," said Motion. "We've been pointing for this race since Saratoga and I think shortening him up in distance will do him some good. He never settled [in the Sword Dancer] to be honest. That's why I'm hoping that shortening him up in distance will help.
Drawing post 2, Messi will depart with Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez aboard.
Rounding out the field is Middleburg for trainer Christophe Clement who most recently won the Grade 3 Cliff Hanger Stakes on August 23 at Monmouth Park; Mexikoma for Team Valor and trainer Michael Dilger who impressively won an optional claimer on September 13 at Belmont by eight lengths; Blingo for trainer John Sherrifs who will be making his first sart of the year; All Included for trainer Todd Pletcher, who last out finished third in the Grade 2 Bernard Baruch on September 7; V. E. Day for trainer Jimmy Jerkens and owner Magalene O' Bryant, Hothersal for trainer Jason Servis, and Cage Fighter.