Of the more than 4,100 races jockey Kyle Frey has ridden, the 150th running of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, presented by NYRA Bets, will be the most significant ride of his life.
Frey, 26, will be riding in his first Grade 1 on Saturday, June 9, when he is given a leg up by trainer Doug O'Neill to ride Grade 3 Peter Pan winner Blended Citizen in the “Test of the Champion.” Owned by Greg Hall, SAYJAY Racing and Brooke Hubbard, the bay colt will be one of as many as 11 lining up against undefeated Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Justify in the 1 ½-mile Triple Crown finale.
Frey, a native of Tracy, California, in the San Francisco Bay area, rode his first winner aboard Terina in a claiming race at Golden Gate Fields in December, 2010, then ventured to Parx Racing on the East coast the following year, bringing home 153 winners in 2011 to earn the Eclipse Award as the leading apprentice rider.
Now based at Santa Anita Park, Frey is relishing the chance to not only ride in his first Grade 1 race but to do so in an American classic.
“I definitely consider the Triple Crown races to be the pinnacle of it all as far as horse racing in America goes,” said Frey, who will be aboard the Proud Citizen colt for the fifth time. “It's definitely an honor to just be a part of it.”
In four previous starts as a 3-year-old, Blended Citizen ran late for a third-place finish in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields in February, won the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park on March 17 when outfitted with blinkers, and finished a troubled fifth in the Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland April 7 before breaking through with a wide-running victory in the May 12 Peter Pan.
“The Turfway race, and then the Blue Grass, were kind of speed- or off pace-favoring, and I just had to use him up too much to keep him where he was,” Frey said. “I think he's coming into himself, coming into his own both mentally and physically. Things are lining up perfectly for him. Everything is kind of falling into place in the nick of time.
“I think he's really maturing, and he's really figuring it out. His stride is ridiculous. It's amazing; one of his is like two on another horse. With those long-distance races, I think those horses can cover more ground without using themselves up.”
Kyle's grandfather, Paul Frey, rode 2,478 winners at Longacres and in California and rode On My Honors to a fourth-place finish in the 1963 Kentucky Derby; his father, Jay, galloped horses and was the valet for Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze.
Kyle came close to having a Derby mount of his own with Blended Citizen, but after tallying only 22 points on the Derby trail, the colt fell short, and was scratched as an also-eligible for the “Run for the Roses” the day before the race.
Instead, O'Neill and his connections shipped the Kentucky-bred to New York for the Peter Pan. Blended Citizen took to Belmont Park's big turns with gusto, coming six wide to win the 1 1/8-mile race by 1 ½ lengths, with something left.
“I was trying to get him pulled up, but when [NYRA TV analyst Maggie Wolfendale, on horseback] came up to me, he was trying to get going again,” said Frey, who was making his first appearance in New York.
“It was a nice little way to start it off,” he added. “I've been meaning to tell Blended Citizen's owners as a joke that they should be confident, I'm the only rider who wins at 100 percent here.”
When Frey exits the Belmont tunnel next Saturday in front of the 90,000 in attendance and millions more watching on TV, he says he won't lose focus as to the task at hand.
“I try to keep the same mentality for each race,” he said. “I certainly will have a healthy respect for the caliber of the race, but not to the extent where I'm worrying about it. I have a lot of faith in my horse and I feel like as long we do our homework, and with a little bit of racing luck, we'll be just fine.”
Frey has faced his share of racing injuries and numerous subsequent surgeries and rehabilitations over his eight-year career, but with his grandfather and dad, Frey has had plenty of help getting back into the saddle and honing his craft. Another major influence on Frey's career was his longtime agent Mark North, also a former jockey. North's sudden death from lung disease came just days after Frey won the Jeff Ruby.
“That was a big loss. He was much more than an agent for me,” Frey said of his mentor. “I had him when I got the Eclipse Award. It's a funny thing, years ago, he was watching replays with a top trainer at Golden Gate, and he told him, 'I'm taking this kid East and we're going to get an Eclipse Award.' I mean, talk about having faith. I felt like that went a long way for me to know that he always saw something in me.”
Blended Citizen, based at Belmont since the Peter Pan, is scheduled to turn in his final work on Belmont's main track Saturday afternoon at 12:50 p.m., before the start of the first race. O'Neill said jockey Mike Luzzi will be aboard for the move.
“It's been hectic, but we're excited to work him,” said O'Neill. “Things have been going well. Hopefully everything goes well tomorrow, and then we're just going to train him lightly up to the big day.”
A victory in the Belmont Stakes, Blended Citizen's first Grade 1 start, would add him to the list of seven others who swept the Peter Pan and Belmont Stakes double: Counterpoint (1951), Gallant Man (1957), Cavan (1958), Coastal (1979), Danzig Connection (1986), A.P. Indy (1992), and Tonalist (2014).
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