A winner of his last five races and undefeated in six career tries at the distance, Southern Springs Stables, Robert LaPenta and Head of Plains Partners' Whitmore will put both streaks on the line in Friday's Grade 2, $250,000 True North at Belmont Park.
The 39th running of the six-furlong True North, for 4-year-olds and up, is one of five stakes, four graded, worth $1.55 million in purses on a 11-race program topped by the Grade 2, $500,000 New York for turf females 4-years-old and up that helps comprise the second day of the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.
Also on the card are the Grade 3, $400,000 Belmont Gold Cup Invitational, run at two miles on the Widener Turf for older horses; Grade 3, $250,000 Bed o 'Roses Invitational for older females at seven furlongs on the main track; and the 120th renewal of the $150,000 Tremont for 2-year-olds.
Whitmore, based in Kentucky with trainer Ron Moquett, is coming off a half-length victory over multiple Grade 1 winner and 2016 champion sprinter finalist A.P. Indian in the Grade 3 Maryland Sprint May 20 at Pimlico on the undercard of the Grade 1 Preakness.
The gelded 4-year-old son of Pleasantly Perfect has not lost since fading to 19th in the 2016 Kentucky Derby following three solid efforts on the Triple Crown trail last winter and spring in Arkansas. He has yet to be beaten in his career around one turn, going back to his fall 2015 unveiling at Churchill Downs and including his first graded triumph in the Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap April 15 at Oaklawn Park.
Moquett is confident in calling Whitmore the best sprinter in the country, particularly after the race in Maryland where A.P. Indian appeared to have things his own way on the front end.
“I am biased, but I believe that he is and I think we're going to see better from him. As he keeps mining his craft and improving and maturing, we're going to have a lot of fun with him,” Moquett said. “He's competitive going long, but he's more superior going short.”
Whitmore tuned up for the True North with a half-mile work in 48 seconds June 2 at Churchill Downs, ninth-fastest of 54 horses. Regular rider Ricardo Santana Jr. will be aboard from post 8 of nine at co-highweight of 124 pounds.
“We're letting him decide when he runs. After the work and how he came back, we decided he wants to run now,” Moquett said. “We'll probably space his races a little bit more after the True North, with our main focus being the Breeders' Cup and getting there to win it.”
Among Whitmore's challengers in the True North is Belmont-based millionaire Stallwalkin' Dude, trained and co-owned by David Jacobson. The 7-year-old gelding owns 18 wins, including seven in stakes, among those a win in the Grade 3 Bold Ruler last fall, and $1.35 million in purse earnings from 52 career starts.
Stallwalkin' Dude, second in the 2015 True North, is coming off a 1 ¾-length triumph in the six-furlong Diablo May 7 at Belmont, just five weeks following a sixth-place finish behind Mind Your Biscuits in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen.
“He's very good, as good as he's ever been,” Jacobson said. “We were a little concerned with his last race coming back so quick from Dubai, but it didn't seem to faze him in the least. He should run a big race.”
Stallwalkin' Dude, a $16,000 claim in the fall of 2014, has won nine-of-24 lifetime tries at six furlongs and is 4-for-10 for his career at Belmont with two seconds and two thirds. Joe Bravo is named to ride from post 4 at 124 pounds.
“I like him at six furlongs the best. With his style, it looks like he should like seven-eighths but he just has that kick at three-quarters,” Jacobson said. “Every time he runs, I pinch myself. I'm just so lucky to have a horse like that. It's an honor to train him.”
Jacobson also entered multiple stakes-placed Chief Lion in the True North. Second in the Grade 3 Tom Fool March 11 at Aqueduct, the 7-year-old gelding raced close to a wicked pace in the Diablo before tiring to finish last of seven. He will carry 118 pounds, including jockey Flavien Prat, from the rail.
Making his second start and first in a stakes since being purchased privately by trainer Jorge Navarro for owners Albert and Michelle Crawford is El Deal. The 5-year-old son of Munnings cruised to a front-running 7 ¾-length victory April 22 at Charles Town in the first try for his new connections.
El Deal won his first four starts for trainer Andrew Lakeman capped by the six-furlong Gold Fever in May 2015 at Belmont. In his lone previous graded stakes attempt he ran fourth after setting the pace in the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector Jan. 1 at Gulfstream Park.
South Florida-based Tyler Gaffalione, the second-winningest jockey in the country this year, will ride from outside Post 9 at 118 pounds.
“I used to train for the same owner so I always had my eye on that horse when the offer came through and the owner wanted to sell,” Navarro said. “I love speed and I love sprinters and I knew I could put more speed in the horse. He's doing good. The last race, I know it was Charles Town but he ran a huge race to win the way he did.”
Rounding out the True North field are millionaire Green Gratto, winner of the Grade 1 Carter Handicacp April 8 at Aqueduct who was fourth in the Diablo last time out; multiple stakes winner Fellowship, coming off a seventh-place finish behind Shaman Ghost in the Grade 3 Pimlico Special May 19; 2015 Grade 2 Amsterdam winner Holy Boss, fourth in the Maryland Sprint; and Diablo runner-up Noholdingback Bear, winner of the 2016 Grade 3 Gallant Bob.
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