ELMONT, N.Y. - The top three finishers of the Grade 1 Travers will face older horses, including Grade 1 Whitney winner Moreno, on Saturday in the Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.
The 1 Â¼-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup for 3-year-olds and up is a Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" race in the Classic division and is one of six graded stakes on the TVG Super Saturday card. With $3.4 million in stakes purses, TVG Super Saturday is the Belmont fall meet's most lucrative day of racing.
The Jockey Club Gold Cup will be shown live on an NBC Sports Network broadcast that begins at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time.
The 2014 Jockey Club Gold Cup has attracted the winners of the NYRA circuit's three biggest races for 3-year-olds: Tonalist, who took the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, and stablemates V. E. Day and Wicked Strong, who respectively have won the Grade 1 Travers and Grade 1 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial. The most recent 3-year-old to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup was Summer Bird, who had previously captured the Belmont and Travers.
In the 1 Â¼-mile Travers on August 23, Wicked Strong stalked the pace in third and led by 1 Â½ lengths at the stretch call before V. E. Day closed hard from seventh to get up by a nose in the last stride. Tonalist, who raced in second early, couldn't match strides with V. E. Day and Wicked Strong in the stretch and finished third, beaten 2 Â½ lengths.
Both V. E. Day and Wicked Strong are trained by Jimmy Jerkens.
"I realized inside the eighth pole it was going to be between our two [horses]," said Jerkens, who picked up his second Travers victory, having also won it in 2010 with Afleet Express. "I thought Wicked [Strong] was going to hold on, but [V. E. Day] switched his lead and surged the last three jumps and nailed him right on the wire. I mean it was really the very last jump. It was disheartening for Wicked Strong. You know, he ran so hard. He didn't cut out the pace, but he was pretty close to a lively pace. He pretty much ran all the way."
The Travers was V. E. Day's graded stakes debut and fourth consecutive victory. The winning streak also includes a half-length maiden score in an off-the-turf race in May at Belmont, a two-length triumph on Belmont's inner turf course in July, and a head victory in the restricted Curlin on July 25 at Saratoga.
Previously, V. E. Day, a son of 2007 Champion Turf Horse English Channel, was fifth in January and second in March in a pair of maiden races on the grass at Gulfstream Park.
"We even entertained the thought of running [V. E. Day] for a high-priced claiming race [during the winter at Gulfstream Park]," said Jerkens. "Thank God we didn't, but we were toying with that idea, because he was taking a long time to kind of turn the corner. Then all of a sudden, after his second turf race, he seemed to kick in, and he's just been doing everything right ever since. It's one of those strange things. Horses can really surprise you that way."
V. E. Day, who is owned by Magalen O. Bryant, was installed as the 5-1 fourth choice on the morning line. He'll leave from post 10 with Javier Castellano aboard.
Centennial Farms' Wicked Strong, the 3-1 morning-line favorite for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, took a big step forward in April when he registered a 3 Â¼-length upset at 9-1 in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack. He finished fourth in his next two starts, the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby in May at Churchill Downs and the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes in June at Belmont, the latter in a dead heat with California Chrome.
Jerkens placed blinkers on Wicked Strong for the Grade 2 Jim Dandy in July at Saratoga, and the colt responded by winning by 2 Â¼ lengths. The trainer took nothing away from his Travers' performance and said a victory in that race would have put him in the running for championship honors.
"Certainly there's nowhere near the hype before the Travers or before the Derby and everything like that, but he certainly has had his share of it this year, and he certainly didn't disgrace himself [in the Travers]," said Jerkens. "Probably on that particular day it probably would've been a little more important just for that particular timeframe for the order to have been reversed just because it would've made Wicked Strong a dual Grade 1 winner."
Rajiv Maragh will ride Wicked Strong from post 3.
Tonalist, owned by Robert Evans, has returned to the scene of his two biggest wins, the Grade 2 Peter Pan in May and the Belmont Stakes in June.
Making the fourth start of his career in the Peter Pan, Tonalist set the pace and drew clear to win by four lengths in the slop. In the Belmont, he tracked the early leaders in third and made a late surge to nip Constitution on the wire. He was second to Wicked Strong in the Jim Dandy prior to his third-place finish in the Travers.
Tonalist will race with blinkers off in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
"Tonalist was a little more aggressive than I wanted him in both races in Saratoga," said Clement of the equipment change. "He's an older horse than he was in May or June and he's more mature. He's been working without blinkers after the Travers and has been working very well."
Joel Rosario has the call aboard Tonalist, who drew post 8 and was tabbed as the 4-1 third choice on the morning line.
Although Moreno won the Grade 1, 1 1/8-mile Whitney on August 2, his trainer, Eric Guillot, said the 4-year-old gelding's best race came in July at Belmont Park when he was second, beaten three lengths, in the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap at 1 Â¼ miles.
Moreno, owned by Southern Equine Stables, drew post 11 for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the same post he had for the Suburban. After hustling to take his customary spot up front, Moreno set fractions of 23.58 and 46.92 and led coming into the stretch before giving away to Zivo.
"Every guru has said, 'Guillot, you know, the No. 11 hole [in 1 Â¼ mile races at Belmont] is deadly," said Moreno's trainer. "Sure enough, I broke with him and I was three lengths behind the pack; it's just that simple, and all the way outside. So literally, once again, like I said this a thousand times, I had to go :22 and change to go :23 and change. I had to make up three or four lengths and shake him up and use him up, and then got pressed by another horse all the way for three quarters of a mile."
Moreno led from start to finish in the Grade 1 Whitney and was in front for most of the way in the Grade 1 Woodward, also at 1 1/8 miles, on August 30 at Saratoga before yielding late to Itsmyluckyday after a protracted stretch battle.
"[Moreno] does not want anything right next to him," said Guillot. "So [jockey] Junior [Alvarado has] already been told [about it]; that little flaw in him is something that we have worked on, and that [Alvarado] knows to [try to get a way from a challenger] if we find ourselves on the lead turning for home."
Alvarado once again will guide Moreno, the 7-2 second choice for the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Thomas Coleman's Zivo, a 5-year-old New York-bred who won his first graded stakes in the Suburban, made a mild run to finish fourth by three lengths in the Woodward.
"He ran well in the Suburban, he can handle a mile and a quarter, and he likes Belmont's track," said trainer Chad Brown. "We gave him a prep race in the Woodward, and I thought he ran well considering the little bit of a layoff, cutback, and how Saratoga maybe isn't his favorite track. He seems to be coming into the Jockey Club Gold Cup in terrific shape."
Jose Lezcano will ride Zivo, 6-1, from post 4.
Zivo will be joined in the starting gate by stablemate Last Gunfighter, a John Gunther homebred who won the Mountainview Handicap in May at Penn National before finishing ninth in the Suburban, fifth in the Whitney, and sixth in the Woodward. Last Gunfighter's biggest win came one year ago in the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup.
"He breezed well and the owners want to take a shot, so I don't see any reason to not go in the race," said Brown.
Last Gunfighter, 20-1, will have the services of Joe Bravo from post 2.
The Gold Cup field also includes Micromanage, winner of the Birdstone in August and third in the Grade 3 Greenwood Cup in his past two starts; Prayer for Relief, third in the Woodward; Long River, seventh in the Woodward; Speak Logistics, fifth in an optional claimer in August at Saratoga; Stephanoatsee, fifth in the Woodward; and Big Cazanova, a speedy South American import who has won two straight optional claimers over Del Mar's Polytrack.
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