Amerman Racing's Oscar Performance will seek his fourth consecutive win against graded stakes company in taking on an accomplished 11-horse field of 3-year-olds and up in Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park.
The 41st running of the Joe Hirsch, contested at 1 ½ miles on the Widener turf, is one of four graded stakes on Saturday's docket, serving as the centerpiece on a day that includes the Grade 3, $200,000 Pilgrim, the Grade 1, $400,000 Beldame and the Grade 1, $350,000 Vosburgh. The winner of the Joe Hirsch will earn automatic entry to the Grade 1, $4 million Longines Breeders' Cup Turf on November 4 at Del Mar.
Oscar Performance is coming off a 2 ¼-length score in winning the Grade 1 Secretariat on August 12 at Arlington Park, building on victorious efforts in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby and Grade 3 Penning Ridge. The 3-year-old son of Kitten's Joy, who burst onto the scene last year with a win in the Pilgrim and the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, is ready for his first test against older competitors, trainer Brian Lynch said.
“This will be his first kick at the can against older horses, but we're confident that he can hold his own,” Lynch said. “You hit a much more seasoned group of high-level, competitive horses, whereas in the 3-year-old division, you can catch a lightly raced group who might not have the miles on them or have fought in the heavyweight bouts. It's great to have this type of test.”
Lynch said he is optimistic that Oscar Performance, who has six wins in nine career starts, will do well running at 1 ½ miles for the first time. The Kentucky homebred is 3-for-3 in his career at Belmont.
“If they're bred to get the mile and a half, they'll get it. It's all about the pace scenario,” Lynch said. “If he's able to sit on comfortable fractions, he'll give you that good quarter-mile kick. Fortunately enough, we know he has a good kick and tactically, he's a nice forwardly placed horse. If there's no pace in the race, he's going to have a nice kick when they start sprinting. He seems to appreciate firm turf, so that can be in his favor, too.”
Jose Ortiz is slated to ride from post 3.
Trainer Chad Brown, who won the 2016 Joe Hirsch with Big Blue Kitten, will saddle Beach Patrol, Money Multiplier and Fanciful Angel.
James Covello and Sheep Pond Partners' Beach Patrol has registered triple digit Beyer Speed Figures in his last five races. The 4-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid edged clear of Fanciful Angel to win the Grade 1 Arlington Million by a half-length on August 12.
Beach Patrol has finished on the board in four of his last five starts, including a third-place finish in the Grade 1 United Nations on July 1. Jockey Joel Rosario will break from post 5.
Money Multiplier has done well since receiving a nearly nine-month break after capping his 4-year-old campaign with a sixth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Turf. The Lookin At Lucky ridgling won the Grade 2 Monmouth on July 30 before finishing a half-length behind Sadler's Joy, earning runner-up status in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer on August 26. Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, who was aboard for those last two starts, has the return call from the inside.
“He came back really well off his break and has had two good races in a row,” Brown said. “They key for him is if he catches firm ground.”
Fanciful Angel earned a 100 Beyer for his North American debut in the Arlington Million. Brown, who took over the training duties after the race, said the 5-year-old Irish bred was impressive shipping to the United States after racing exclusively in England and the United Arab Emirates.
“Since he's come over to us, he's training well. I like him more and more each week I see him,” Brown said. “The mile and a half is a question mark for him, if he can stay that far. But I think it's worth a shot.”
Irad Ortiz, Jr. will break from post 9.
Sadler's Joy, who went from last-to-first to win the Sword Dancer, has finished on the board in nine straight starts, including the last six in graded stakes. The Tom Albertrani trainee has three wins in four starts at 1 ½ miles. The ultra-consistent 4-year-old, who ran third in the Manhattan in his last Belmont appearance, will leave post 4 with Julien Leparoux aboard.
Trainer Dermot Weld will saddle The Grey Gatsby in his first North American start. The 6-year-old Irish bred was shipped over with stablemate Zhukova and arrived at Belmont on Tuesday. Weld said Zhukova, a 5-year-old mare who beat males in the Grade 1 Man o'War on May 13 at Belmont, will skip the Joe Hirsch and instead run in the Grade 1, $500,000 Flower Bowl on October 8.
The Grey Gatsby, who won multiple group races in Europe, including the 2014 Group 1 Irish Champion and that year's Group 1 Prix du Jockey Club, will have the services of Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez in drawing post 10.
“I want to see him put it together. I think he'll appreciate going the distance and I hope he gives Johnny a good ride,” Weld said. “He's been a little unlucky this summer, but he loves firm ground, so that's the main reason we're running him. Our ground [in Ireland] has gone soft over here. The main thing for him is that he loves fast ground, and that'll be very helpful for him.
“We're fortunate to get someone as talented as Johnny V. I'll leave it all to him.”
Ascend will be returning to the site of his most impressive career effort when his 1 ¼-length win in the Grade 1 Manhattan on June 10, Belmont Stakes Day, earned him a personal-best 104 Beyer.
The 5-year-old son of Candy Ride, who rallied from last in a 12-horse field to finish fifth in the Arlington Million last out on August 12, will be competing at 1 ½ miles for the first time for trainer Graham Motion.
“I've been happy enough with him, the distance is a question mark, but I see no reason why he can't handle it,” Motion said. “He handled the mile and a quarter and when he ran at Arlington, had it been a little further, I don't know if he would have won, but he would have been even closer after spotting the field a lot of ground after leaving the gate.”
Ascend drew post 6 with Joe Bravo aboard. His stablemate, Mekhtaal, made his first nine career races in France before running 10th in the Arlington Million. The English-bred will make his first start at Belmont, breaking from post 8 in tandem with Junior Alvarado.
“He has some really good back class and has been working good,” Motion said. “I feel like this race is coming up at the right time for them.”
Rounding out the field is Channel Maker, for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, out of post 7; and Converge and Tricked Up for trainer Naipaul Chatterpaul, who drew posts 2 and 11, respectively.
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