Preakness Stakes runner-up Everfast flaunted speed and fitness in his final serious preparation for the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets when he covered five furlongs in 1:01 flat at Churchill Downs Monday morning.
With exercise rider Faustino Aguilar at the helm, Everfast broke off from the half-mile pole and clocked splits of 12.80 24.40, and 48.60 seconds with a gallop out to six furlongs in 1:13.60 and seven furlongs in 1:28. The move was the second for the son of Take Charge Indy in six days, as he also drilled a half-mile in :50.20 at Churchill on May 29.
“Everfast worked great today. It's a mile and a half race so we crammed two works back to back to make sure he is plenty fit,” trainer Dale Romans said. “The way he worked out there this morning he looked great. He went even early and finished fast and didn't want to pull up, which might be key going into the Belmont.”
Monday's work was the fastest five furlongs Everfast has officially recorded dating to last summer. Though the colt's closing kick nearly allowed him to complete a Hail Mary-pass as a 29-1 longshot in the Preakness, Romans wouldn't be surprised to see Calumet Farm's charge laying closer in the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes – a race where tactical speed is most crucial.
“I would say going a mile-and-a-half, any horse can be where they want. They're going to be going so slowly early on,” the Eclipse Award-winning trainer said. “I just felt like in the Preakness, even though he was coming off of a sprint, he'd have a strong finishing kick and it looked like a lot of speed in the race. But I'll let the jockey figure it out in the Belmont.
“In the Belmont, by the time they get to the eighth pole, they are all tired,” he added. “It is hard for a horse to kick. So I would think he would be laying a little bit closer.”
Upsetting the apple cart at a New York venue would be no new venture for Romans, who famously saddled Keen Ice to a stunning triumph over Triple Crown hero American Pharoah in the 2015 Grade 1 Travers Stakes. With one win in 11 starts, Everfast has been under the radar for most of his career but did tease of things to come when he ran second at odds of 128-1 in the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes on February 2.
“He's coming into it as good as he could be,” Romans said. “I didn't see [going to the Preakness] as big a chance as a lot of the media did. I feel like we are taking a horse that is live…and at the Preakness I think we took a live longshot.
“He showed [in the Holy Bull] then that he could compete with good horses. And like I've said many times now that once they show it that they can, then don't give up on them.”
In the weeks following Bourbon War's eighth-place finish the Grade 1 Preakness, trainer Mark Hennig has examined and reexamined all the factors that might have gone into the Tapit colt's disappointing performance, from racing for the first time with blinkers to being confused by the circumstances – mainly the loose horse – to being unfamiliar with the turns at Pimlico
“There's no indication why he threw in that race,” mused Hennig Monday morning after the Bourbon Lane Stable and Lake Star Stable color-bearer galloped 1 1/8 miles over the main track at Belmont Park, where he will likely face nine others in Saturday's 151st running of the Belmont Stakes.
“If you look at the chart of the race, he went from eighth, to eleventh, to eighth – maybe when he was taken outside on the backside he thought he was supposed to ease up because he was out of the bridle for about a quarter-mile, then picked it up again in the stretch.”
Certainly, said Hennig, there seemed to be no physical reason for it.
“He was not tired at all after the race,” said Hennig. “I don't know how much running he actually did. I held him for a bath after the race and he bit me in the stomach and tore my shirt. He was actually angry after the Preakness.”
Bourbon War has been nothing but bright and happy since returning to Belmont Park, said Hennig, having turned in a half-mile work in 48.74 seconds on Thursday. On Saturday, the blinkers – which were added after Bourbon War's fourth-place effort behind Maximum Security, Bodexpress and Code of Honor in the Grade 1 Florida Derby – will be removed, and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, a three-time winner of the “Test of the Champion” will be aboard.
“Put a line through the Preakness? Hopefully, that's the right thing to do,” Hennig said.
Todd Pletcher may not have the precise formula for winning the “Test of the Champion,” but with a 3-5-3 record since his first starter in 2000 (Impeachment finished fifth), he appears to have a line on some of the elements that lead to a successful performance in the Belmont Stakes, which will be run for the 151st time on Saturday.
That is why Pletcher, who won the 1 ½-mile race in 2007 with the filly Rags to Riches, in 2012 with Palace Malice and in 2017 with Tapwrit, will be saddling both Intrepid Heart, third in the Grade 3 Peter Pan on May 11 at Belmont Park, and Spinoff, second-to-last in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, in the 1 ½-mile race.
“In Intrepid Heart's case, literally, since the day he was purchased [for $750,000], the thought was in our minds that this horse is really bred for the Belmont Stakes,” he said of Robert and Lowana Low's Tapit colt. “Tapit has had tremendous success as a stallion in the Belmont, and this horse is out of a Touch Gold mare, and Touch Gold won the Belmont.
“He's also a half-brother to Commissioner, who lost [by a head to Tonalist] in the  Belmont,” he added. “There's a strong pedigree indication he'll handle the mile-and-a-half.”
Intrepid Heart has only started three times, breaking his maiden at Oaklawn Park by 7 ¾ lengths in February, taking an optional claimer at Keeneland in April and finishing third in the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan after stumbling at the start. On Saturday, he will be sporting blinkers for the first time in a race.
“John [Velazquez] has always thought he might need them, especially in his last race,” said Pletcher. “His last two works have been with blinkers, and he's seemed a little more focused and a little less distracted by his workmate but not at all overzealous. And hopefully, his little lack of experience will be offset by the one-and-a-half miles.”
Spinoff, a Wertheimer et Frere homebred, was 2-1-1 in four starts heading into the Derby, in which he was wide throughout and faded to finish 18 lengths behind Maximum Security.
“He did not like the sloppy track in the Derby, and he's come back from Churchill Downs and done well since,” said Pletcher, whose Tapwrit and Palace Malice both came off off-the-board finishes in the Derby to win the Belmont on five weeks rest. “His penultimate breeze [five furlongs in 59.91 seconds on May 25], I got him galloping out a mile in 1:37 3/5, which again is kind of consistent with the other breezes in other years with horses like Commissioner, Destin [second in 2016], Palace Malice, Rags to Riches and Tapwrit.”
Third in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special in his second start as a 2-year-old, the Hard Spun colt posted a front-running win in his 2019 debut at Tampa Bay Downs and then finished second after gaining the lead in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.
“We've had very high hopes for him,” said Pletcher. “He ran well in the Saratoga Special, and in the Louisiana Derby he got the lead and idled a little bit. In retrospect, the Louisiana Derby is a pretty strong race.”
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