A diverse and compelling cast of sophomores is set to square off in the fifth running of the Grade 1, $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational on Saturday at Belmont Park, led by Catholic Boy for owners Robert LaPenta, Madaket Stables, Siena Farm and Twin Creeks Racing Stables.
The Belmont Derby serves as the centerpiece of Stars & Stripes Day, which also features the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational, Grade 2, $700,000 Suburban Handicap, Grade 2, $350,000 Belmont Sprint Championship and Grade 3, $300,000 Dwyer. The race will be televised nationally as part of Belmont Park Live on FS2, while the Dwyer, Sprint, and Oaks will comprise an NBC broadcast from 4:30 to 6 p.m. ET.
Trained by Jonathan Thomas, Catholic Boy enters the 1 1/4-mile turf event for 3-year-olds off an eye-catching score in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge, the local prep for the Belmont Derby. Pitted against the previously unbeaten Analyze It in the Pennine Ridge, Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano immediately sent Catholic Boy to the lead, a position he had never been in before in his career, and the two skipped around the Belmont inner turf with Analyze It in close pursuit. The pace quickened considerably around the far turn as Analyze It ranged up to confront Catholic Boy, and at the top of the stretch Analyze It appeared to have the race in hand with Catholic Boy pinned to his inside. However, once Castellano steadied Catholic Boy and angled him to the outside of his rival, the two re-rallied and surged late to nip Analyze It by a neck on the wire.
“We were really proud of his effort,” said Thomas. “Javier was able to execute a plan we had put together in the paddock at the last minute, and we were thrilled with the result. Analyze It is a nice horse. Obviously, it was an oddly run race, and the verdict is still out on where [Catholic Boy] will be positioned [in the Belmont Derby]. We've always felt he had mile and a quarter capabilities, though. He's a mentally relaxed horse and everything we see from him in the mornings and afternoons makes me think he'll appreciate the distance.”
The Pennine Ridge, run on June 2 at Belmont, was Catholic Boy's first start on turf since finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf on November 3 at Del Mar. Sandwiched in between, the More Than Ready ridgling picked up a win in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct Racetrack and finished second in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs before a fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Florida Derby dashed his Kentucky Derby dreams.
“If you look at his body of work, we weren't overly surprised he ran so well in the Pennine Ridge. He's done little wrong on turf,” said Thomas. “We started him out on turf primarily just to go a route of ground; he was never going to be effective sprinting. I think the [Belmont Derby] will really play to his strengths.”
To be ridden again by Hall of Famer Castellano, Catholic Boy will break from post 7.
Analyze It, now 3-for-4 in his career, will get another crack at Catholic Boy on Saturday. The talented son of Point of Entry had racked up wins in the Grade 3 Cecil B. DeMille at Del Mar and Grade 3 Transylvania at Keeneland, his seasonal debut, before falling short in the Pennine Ridge. The bay colt's trainer, Chad Brown, believes there may be reason to expect a different outcome in the Belmont Derby.
“I thought he ran into a really good horse in Catholic Boy in the Pennine Ridge,” said Brown, who trains Analyze It for William Lawrence. “He ran very well; our horse had no excuse. He might've had a little time between races where I could've had him a little better. It's not an excuse, he had every chance to win, but I believe this horse can move forward now that he has some recent fitness in him. I might've given him a little too much to do after the Transylvania heading into that race.”
Prior to missing by a neck in the Pennine Ridge, Analyze It's average margin of victory was a robust 5 1/4 lengths. He will break from post 3 with Jose Ortiz in the irons.
Another runner with only one blemish on his record from four career starts, Hawkish, will go out for trainer Jimmy Toner and owners AJ Suited Racing Stable, Robert LaPenta, and Madaket Stable. The bay gelding burst onto the 3-year-old turf scene with a sensational debut on January 6 at Gulfstream Park, and after a hiccup in the Grade 3 Palm Beach has registered impressive scores in an optional claimer at Aqueduct and most recently in the Grade 2 Penn Mile on June 2 at Penn National.
“You don't know until you try,” Toner said of the Belmont Derby's 1 ¼-mile distance. “We know he's a top miler and that's the unknown factor here, if he can get the mile and a quarter, but we'll find out. He gallops a mile and a half every day. I think the key is being rateable. If he isn't too aggressive early and settles in, I think you're OK. I think it's when you get those speed-type or fast horses that are not rateable, or get aggressive, then it's hard for them to settle in to go a mile and a quarter. So far, he's shown that he's OK with everything.”
Hawkish will enlist the services of jockey Manny Franco, and the pair will depart from post 8.
This year's European contingent will be headed by Hunting Horn from the barn of trainer Aidan O'Brien, who won the Belmont Derby in 2016 with Deauville. The Coolmore color-bearer is coming off an impressive 4 1/2-length win in the Group 3 Hampton Court on June 21 at Royal Ascot. He will be ridden by Ryan Moore from post 4.
Kentucky Derby darling My Boy Jack, who was a surprise second choice in the wagering to Justify in the Run for the Roses, will make the switch back to turf for the Belmont Derby, a surface over which he has a win and three second-place finishes from five starts. The son of Creative Cause picked up wins in the Grade 3 Southwest and Grade 3 Lexington on the Kentucky Derby Trail before finishing a fast-closing fifth in the Derby, his most recent outing. Trained by Keith Desormeaux, My Boy Jack will be ridden by his brother Kent, and the two will leave from post 9.
Rounding out the field are Channel Cat, the third-place finisher from the Pennine Ridge; Encumbered, most recently fifth in the Penn Mile; Kingstar, who won his 2018 bow at the newly revamped Longchamp; and Maraud, a multiple graded stakes winner on turf exiting a fourth-place finish in the Penn Mile.
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