The 15-horse field for the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational includes 10 horses with first or second place finishes in one or both of their most recent races. Nine of those 10 efforts came in stakes. Add to the mix a trio of horses shipping in from Europe, two from the powerhouse barn of Aiden O'Brien, and it appears the stage is set for a superb race to watch and on which to wager.
Among the North American contingent, Moon Colony won the Grade 2 Penn Mile Stakes five weeks ago so may be the closest in class to this grade 1 level. Digital Age (IRE), one of four in the Derby trained by Chad Brown, won the Grade 2 American Turf Stakes in May and brings similar credentials into this race. Grade 3 Pennine Ridge winner Demarchelier (GB), who is another Brown trainee, may be similarly situated, while Pennine Ridge runner-up Seismic Wave and third place finisher Social Paranoia are two more in top form. Another Brown trainee, Standard Deviation, won the non-graded Tale of the Cat Stakes last month and may fit with these, as might James W. Murphy Stakes winner English Bee.
Trying turf for the first time since a third place finish one year ago in his career debut, Plus Que Parfait won the Group 2 U.A.E. Derby in March and was last seen finishing ninth of 20 in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby. Master Fencer (JPN) closed fast from 19th to seventh in the Derby before a fifth place finish in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes and moves back to grass where he finished second in his career debut last fall.
The trio of European horses all add Lasix for the first time and each has run well enough in top races overseas to warrant a contender's chance in this race. All three ran in the Group 1 Prix Du Jockey Club Stakes in June, with Aiden O' Brien trainees Cape of Good Hope (IRE) and Blenheim Palace (IRE) finishing fourth and 14th, respectively, while Rockemperor (IRE) finished sixth.
Another horse some may consider with a chance is Spinoff, who is trying turf for the first time but bred to adore the turf. Spinoff, one of two horses trained by Todd Pletcher (the other Social Paranoia), finished second in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby prior to an 18th finish in the Kentucky Derby and a sixth place effort in the Belmont Stakes. Henley's Joy and also-eligible He's No Lemon round out the field.
Cape of Good Hope (IRE) can give world class trainer Aiden O'Brien his second win in this race. O'Brien shipped Deauville to win the 2016 edition of the Belmont Derby Invitational as well as saddled runner-up Adelaide in 2014. He also saddled Athena to win the 2018 Belmont Oaks Invitational so when he brings a horse from across the pond we can expect good things.
Cape of Good Hope (IRE) is one of only two horses in the field to have won at this mile and one-quarter turf trip, the win coming in the Blue Riband Trial Stakes in April. Sent to post at odds of 16/1 in the Prix du Jockey Club in June following the Trial, the colt had the benefit of stablemate Blenheim Palace (IRE) to set the early pace and did rally from nearly last but could only manage fourth in the 15 horse field. However, that effort earned him a 116 Equibase Speed Figure, which is the top figure earned by any horse in this field.
Dropped in class a bit for the Hampton Court Stakes at Royal Ascot last month, Cape of Good Hope (IRE) apparently didn't like the soft turf and finished 10th. Not only is Cape of Good Hope (IRE) proven at the distance and is in the hands of a trainer who has won the race previously with a horse shipping in from Europe, he is a full brother to champion Highland Reel, who won over $10 million including the Breeders' Cup Turf, and he's a full brother to Idaho, winner of over $1.6 million. As such, Cape of Good Hope (IRE) is my top choice to win this year's Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes.
Rockemperor (IRE), one of four trained by Chad Brown, showed he fit at the top level when second, beaten a neck, in the Prix la Force Stakes in April. That effort earned a 108 Figure. Prior to that, Rockemperor (IRE) won an allowance race at the mile and one-quarter distance of the Belmont Derby on an all-weather surface. Although sixth in the Prix du Jockey Club in his most recent race, Rockemperor (IRE) improved to a career-best 111 figure.
Trainer Brown is currently second in the trainer division on the North American Racing Leaders list with $12.8 million earned this year, but of that number $9.8 million has been earned by his starters on turf, where he excels, particularly with horses importing to the U.S. According to a STATS Race Lens query, Brown has won 25% of the time with foreign shippers in their first U.S. starts over the last five years, with 53% of those finishing in the top three. With Rockemperor (IRE) having shown he belongs in top company and can handle the 10 furlong trip, I think he could be quite competitive in this race.
Seismic Wave and Demarchelier (GB) finished second and first, respectively, in last month's Pennine Ridge Stakes and could be close at hand in the Belmont Derby with similar efforts. Seismic Wave has done little wrong in six races, winning two and finishing second or third in three of the other four. In the American Turf Stakes on Derby day, Seismic Wave was eight paths wide turning for home and flew from 10th to fourth but was too late to catch winner Digital Age.
That effort earned a career-best 100 figure and although he regressed to a 94 figure effort in the Pennine Ridge, the fact that race came over this inner turf course at Belmont may help him to run even better. Demarchelier (GB) is a perfect three-for-three in his career to date. Castellano has been in the saddle for all three and the colt continues to improve with each effort, earning a career best 95 figure in the Pennine Ridge. As such, I expect a good showing in the Belmont Derby but it is likely he will have to have another career-best effort to be competitive in this very deep and talented field.
I can't completely ignore Blenheim Palace (IRE) although I suspect the reason he was entered was to insure a good early pace for his stablemate Cape of Good Hope (IRE) as was the case in the Prix du Jockey Club. Blenheim Palace (IRE) is the only other horse, besides his stablemate, to have won at this 10 furlong turf trip. He earned that win in April in a field of 16. Although he faded to 14th after setting the pace in the Jockey Club, Blenheim Palace (IRE) showed he can run well on his own when second thereafter in the Intern Stakes just one week ago. B
linkers are added for the Belmont Derby, strongly suggesting the tactic will be to go to the front and hold it for as long as he can. Noting that was the same tactic used by trainer O'Brien's Hunting Horn in the Man o' War Stakes here at Belmont last month, and that one nearly pulled off the upset before fading to fourth very late in the race, there is reason to think Blenheim Palace (IRE) could get brave on the lead and be in the hunt to the wire in this race.
The rest of the Belmont Derby field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures in a representative race is Digital Age (IRE) (102), English Bee (96), Henley's Joy (97), He's No Lemon (102), Master Fencer (JPN) (106), Moon Colony (99), Plus Que Parfait (112), Social Paranoia (101), Spinoff (101) and Standard Deviation (96).
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