ELMONT, N.Y. - A field of 11 will go to the gate for a strongly competitive edition of the Grade 1, $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational at 1¼ miles on the inner turf as the main event on Saturday's Stars & Stripes Racing Festival program at Belmont Park.
Amerman Racing's Oscar Performance will look for his second straight victory after a 1 ½-length win in the 1 1/8-mile Grade 3 Pennine Ridge on June 3. The Kitten's Joy ridgling worked 59.95 seconds over the firm Widener turf course on Sunday morning in his final preparation for Saturday's Derby. Trainer Brian Lynch said he's confident his speedy colt will give a good display of his talent this Saturday.
"He's going into the race in very good order," Lynch said. "We've had no hiccups. The prep was obviously the Pennine Ridge, and he fired a big one in there so it gives us the confidence to go forward with him, and there's no reason to say he shouldn't run big here this weekend."
Oscar Performance debuted with a lackluster sixth-place finish at Saratoga, but he returned a few days shy of a month to best nine others by 10 ¼ lengths before winning the Grade 3 Pilgrim by six lengths at Belmont. Almost a month later he added the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf to his win column, closing out his 2-year-old campaign.
After two disappointing efforts as a 3-year-old in both the Grade 3 Transylvania at Keeneland, and the Grade 2 American Turf at Churchill Downs, Oscar Performance reclaimed his winning ways with a wire to wire victory in the Pennine Ridge.
"His first start he may might have needed the race; the second start he just didn't like the really soft turf course at Churchill that day," Lynch said. "He got down in the worst of it, and there was an enormous amount of rain leading up to it, it was soft as hell, and he didn't want to play."
Oscar Performance will break from post 4 with regular rider Jose Ortiz in the saddle.
A pair of European shippers belonging to Mrs. John Magnier will contest for the purse under the successful tutelage of Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien, who captured this race last year with the Irish-bred Deauville.
Homesman, winner of the Grade 3, Airlie Stud Gallinule Stakes at Curragh, will make only his third career start and is joined by the more experienced Whitecliffsofdover, with two wins from seven starts. Both Kentucky-breds by War Front bring a few questions that can only be answered in Saturday's Derby.
"Homesman is very lightly raced. He's actually grown up to be a fine, big horse," assistant trainer T. J. Comerford said. "They're two similar horses. Homesman is progressing, it's a big step up for him, but he's entitled to do so."
Whitecliffsofdover has never run past one mile thus far, but is bred to run the 1 ¼ miles needed on race day. The Belmont course could benefit his style as well.
"I don't think the distance will be a problem," Comerford said. "It's not going to be a hard mile and a quarter like a mile and a quarter at home. It won't be a problem to him. I suppose the ground that which we don't get at home as often as you get here should be a good look for him. He won his maiden on even ground, and was impressive that time, so he'll handle it."
Homesman will run from post 3 with Colm O'Donoghue aboard, and Whitecliffsofdover will break from post 10 with jockey Wayne Lordan.
Another strong one-two punch will come from Hall of Famer Bill Mott's barn with both Good Samaritan and Yoshida running for Winstar Farm. The Japanese-bred Yoshida wired the field to break his maiden by four lengths in his second start at Keeneland then returned to win the James W. Murphy Stakes at Pimlico after getting squeezed at the start only to come from far back and win by four lengths. The versatile son of Heart's Cry will get to prove his worth in the Derby.
"My horses are doing well," Mott said. "I really haven't looked at the others yet, but my horses have worked well. Yoshida has run a couple of good races, and looked good doing it like the race at Pimlico. He's just short on seasoning."
Good Samaritan has never fired an off-the-board performance through five starts, highlighted by a win in the Grade 2 Summer Stakes at Woodbine before placing third behind Oscar Performance in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. The Harlan's Holiday colt has settled as the runner-up thus far in 2017 placing second in the American Turf and Pennine Ridge. Saturday could be his day to step up.
"He usually settles early, and doesn't show speed, comes from the back," Mott said. "He's had two good races, but he'll have to move forward to win this one."
Good Samaritan drew the rail with Joel Rosario, and Yoshida drew post 7 and will have Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez aboard.
Looking to get back on track will be Fern Circle Stable's Senior Investment, last seen finishing fifth in the Belmont Stakes. The Discreetly Mine colt will return to the grass on which he made his career debut a little over a year ago, a fourth-place finish against maiden special weight company at Ellis Park.
A brisk 59.89 seconds over a firm Widener turf course with jockey Dylan Davis aboard on Sunday morning should have trainer Ken McPeek's hard charging chestnut ready for race day, but unlike the others distance is not the issue, but instead his liking of the lawn.
"Senior Investment seems to be in another element, so that's exciting." McPeek said. "He's been competitive at high levels. Whether he can handle distance grass races is another deal, but it looks good. The distance will be good. He seems to be a really efficient mover too, which you have to be on the grass. But it's kind of tricky. If I took him to a track like Monmouth for the Haskell or Saratoga for the Jim Dandy, then I'm worried that those distances aren't quite long enough for him. We'll try him here and, if nothing else, we'll learn something about him."
Senior Investment will break from the outermost post 11 and will have Dylan Davis aboard for the first time in the afternoon.
Others entered to run in the Belmont Derby are Ticonderoga from post 2 for trainer Chad Brown; Called To The Bar from post 5 for trainer Pia Brandt; Arklow from post 6 for trainer Brad Cox; Makarios, from post 8 for trainer Nick Zito; and Big Score from post 9 for trainer Tim Yakteen.