Imperial Racing millionaire Plus Que Parfait already has bested a talented field of international contenders on dirt when he captured the Group 2 UAE Derby in March. The Brendan Walsh trainee will look for similar success as he transitions to turf as part of a full 14-horse field of 3-year-olds in the 70th running of the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational on Saturday at Belmont Park.
One of five stakes as part of the Stars & Stripes Racing Festival, the 1 ¼-mile Belmont Derby, contested on the inner turf, will be broadcast live nationwide on NBC and kick off the New York Racing Association's inaugural Turf Triple series, offering $5.25 million in purse money for sophomores over three legs at Belmont and Saratoga Race Course.
Plus Que Parfait, who has already banked more than $1.5 million on the back of his three-quarter length victory in the UAE Derby on March 30 at Meydan Race Course, will be returning to turf for the first time since running third in his career debut in July 2018 at Ellis Park.
Following that effort, Walsh moved him to the main track, where the Point of Entry ridgling broke his maiden at third asking at 1 1/16 miles in October at Keeneland. A runner-up effort to Signalman by a neck in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club on November 24 at Churchill Downs capped his juvenile campaign, and after finishing out of the money in the Grade 3 LeComte and the Grade 2 Risen Star, Plus Que Parfait shipped to Dubai, where he won his first career stakes in the 1 3/16-mile UAE Derby over a fast track.
After placing eighth in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, Plus Que Parfait will be making the switch back to turf off the two-month break, drawing post 5 with jockey Tyler Gaffalione picking up the mount for the first time.
“He's doing great. He's been working really well on the turf at Churchill,” Walsh said. “We've been trying to do this, and I think he can run a big race. It might really suit him.”
Plus Que Parfait worked five furlongs in 1:00.80 on June 26 on the Churchill turf, where he also breezed four furlongs in 52.40 on June 11. Walsh said those works, along with the Belmont Derby's mile-and-a-quarter distance, could set his charge up well.
“It should be right up his street. I'm confident he's as good on turf as he is on dirt, and if he is, it should give him a live chance. He was in Dubai before the Derby, so we thought the right thing to do was just back off. But he's back ready and fit to go. We're expecting a big run. He's got a great temperament.”
The Belmont Derby starts the Turf Trinity for 3-year-old males and follows with the Grade 1, $1 million Saratoga Derby on August 4 at the Spa and concludes with the Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Derby on September 7 at Belmont. On Saturday, the Grade 1, $750,000 Belmont Oaks Invitational will also kick off the Turf Tiara for sophomore fillies.
“There's a lot more turf racing going on in this country than there was previously, and the big races are always welcome. There's a big international factor to it as well, so it's fantastic that there's something to entice the Europeans to come as well,” Walsh said. “It's a lot more competitive, and I think we need that.”
Among those international contenders are a pair of Irish-bred shippers for trainer Aiden O'Brien in Blenheim Palace and Cape of Good Hope.
Blenheim Palace, who has twice finished second in Group 3 races in his native country in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial on May 12 at Leopardstown and the Full of Surprises on June 29 at Curragh, will run back seven days after that last effort. The son of Galileo will make his first North American start with jockey Michael Hussey coming over to ride. The duo will break from post 11.
“A mile and a quarter really seems to have helped him,” said O'Brien assistant T.J. Comerford. “Each time out, he's progressed. He ran in front of Sovereign in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial, which was won by Broome. We ran first, second and third that day and the horse that ran third came back to win the Irish Derby (Group 1 at the Curragh, June 29). His form is there. He's a hearty horse and does a lot of shouting like Mendelssohn used to do. For him, going a mile and a quarter will be ideal as he stays well.”
His stablemate – and fellow Galileo colt – Cape of Good Hope, last ran at Royal Ascot, finishing 10th in the Group 3 Hampton Court at the Belmont Derby distance on June 20. In June, he ran fifth in the Group 1 French Derby. Seeking his first stakes win, Cape of Good Hope will break from post 9 with Wayne Lordan in the irons.
“The ground didn't help last time as it was soft the first two days at Ascot. He likes hard ground,” Comerford said. “He won at Epsom on hard ground going a mile and a quarter. He was ridden patiently and came home well. He's a grand horse and he's arrived well.”
Trainer Chad Brown will enter four formidable contenders, including Peter Brant's undefeated Demarchelier. The English-bred is 3-for-3, improving his Beyer Speed Figures in every start, including an 89 for winning the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge on June 1 at Belmont.
Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, aboard for all three victories, will ride again, departing from post 10.
Digital Age is also unbeaten in three starts, breaking his maiden on January 19 at Tampa Bay Downs before edging Forever Mo by a head in the Columbia on March 9 over the same track. Stretched out from a mile to 1 1/16 miles, the Irish-bred son of Invincible Sprit earned a 91 Beyer for his three-quarter of a length score over A Thread of Blue in the Grade 2 American Turf on May 4 at Churchill. Irad Ortiz, Jr. will ride in Digital Age's Belmont debut, breaking from post 13.
Standard Deviation, who Klaravich Stables also owns along with Digital Age, is coming off his first stakes win in the Tale of the Cat on June 1. Standard Deviation is 2-1-2 in six career starts, drawing post 2 with Jose Ortiz.
Rockemperor will be making his first start after his first seven races in France for trainer Simone Brogi. With Brown taking over the training responsibilities, the Irish-bred son of Holy Roman Emperor, who previously ran sixth in the French Derby, drew post 14 with Hall of Famer John Velazquez set to ride.
With the U.S. and Europe well-represented in the Belmont Derby, Katsumi Yoshizawa's homebred Master Fencer gives the race a Japanese-bred contender as well.
Trained by Koichi Tsunoda, Master Fencer competed in the two-thirds of the Triple Crown with a rail-riding sixth in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and a wide-rallying fifth in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets, just a head shy of Tax for fourth.
Following the “Test of the Champion” placing, the son of Just a Way stayed in New York and put in his final breeze before the Belmont Derby, going four furlongs in 51.61 on the Belmont training track Wednesday. Previously piloted by Julien Leparoux in North America, Master Fencer will reunite with jockey Suguru Hamanaka, drawing post 7.
“The horse is getting bigger and stronger. It's the third time he's run in the U.S. and we've been able to make certain adjustments to help him,” said Tsunoda. “With Suguru Hamanaka riding him yesterday and today, Master Fencer has been responding to him very well. I'm very happy with how the horse is looking right now.”
Like Plus Que Parfait, Spinoff is also making the switch from American Classic race-participant to turf contender. The Todd Pletcher trainee, who ran 18th in the Derby and sixth in the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on June 8, will make his first start on grass, leaving from post 10 in tandem with Luis Saez.
Pletcher's other entrant, Social Paranoia, has never finished out of the money in eight starts, posting a 1-3-4 record in eight races, including back-to-back third-place graded stakes-efforts in the American Turf and the Pennine Ridge. Manny Franco has the call from post 8.
Moon Colony won his first stakes last out in the Grade 2 Penn Mile on June 1 at Penn National, drawing away from Casa Creed by 1 ¼ lengths for trainer Mark Casse. The Uncle Mo colt, purchased for $400,000 at the 2017 Keeneland September Sale, will have Leparoux's services from post 1.
Rounding out the field is English Bee, winner of the James. W Murphy on May 18 at Pimlico for trainer Graham Motion, leaving from post 4 under Junior Alvarado; Seismic Wave, third last out in the Pennine Ridge, for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott out of post 3 with Joel Rosario set to ride; Henley's Joy, trained by Mike Maker, was fourth in the Pennine Ridge and second in the Grade 3 Transylvania on April 5 at Keeneland. He drew post 6 with Jose Lezcano on the call. He's No Lemon, conditioned by Motion, is an also-eligible.
The Belmont Derby is slated for Race 9 on Saturday's 11-race card. First post time is 1 p.m. Eastern.
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