An historic disqualification and a loose horse were the highlights of this year's first two Triple Crown races, so racing fans were holding their collective breath as the field headed to the post for this Saturday's Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. The third jewel provided no such theatrics, but did produce a 10-1 upset in the form of Sir Winston.
Tracy Farmer's homebred got through a hole on the rail and then split horses to grant Mark Casse a second American Classic victory just three weeks after War of Will landed the Canadian Hall of Fame trainer his first.
“He's an amazing little horse. If at this time last year, if you had asked me to rate our top-20 2-year-olds, he would have been about 16th or 17th. But I'm very proud of him because he's kind of what our operation represents, and that is I feel like we develop horses,” Casse said. “I have this philosophy. I start every horse out thinking that they are going to win the Kentucky Derby, or the Oaks. That's what I do. And I will try different surfaces; I will try different methods. With a horse like Sir Winston, you know, it paid off there.”
A 3-year-old son of Awesome Again, Sir Winston defeated 9-5 favorite Tacitus by a length at the wire and completed 1 1/2 miles over Big Sandy's fast main track in 2:28.30. Jockey Joel Rosario crafted a beautiful trip to win his second Belmont Stakes, following a victory with Tonalist in 2014.
“He's a very nice horse and you have to let him do this thing. I'm really happy,” said Rosario, who also won the Belmont when Tonalist ended California Chrome's Triple Crown bid in 2014. “It seemed like he didn't mind [being] inside. I just took my time with him. For the distance, he broke very good. Today, he was a little closer, so I let him be where he was comfortable.”
Joevia left his inside post position with good speed and made the lead, tracked by Tax through moderate early fractions of :23.92 and :48.79. Spinoff was up close as well, with a wide War of Will flanking him in fourth through the sweeping clubhouse turn. Everfast kept pace along the rail there, with Tacitus behind him and between horses. Meanwhile, Sir Winston had a good position at the rail in third-last down the backstretch, saving ground and staying relaxed about seven lengths behind the early leaders.
After three-quarters in 1:13.54, Rosario gave Sir Winston his cue to move up the rail from seventh. He eased inside of Everfast and took up running in fourth position, but still found himself behind a wall of frontrunners rounding the last bit of the far turn.
Joevia and Tax had come head-and-head by the top of the lane, and with Sir Winston garnering the golden rail, the favored Tacitus was forced to take the overland route. The big gray was sent about six wide around the turn while second choice War of Will was five wide, but each was moving well and appeared to have every chance at the head of the lane.
Sir Winston saw daylight to the outside of Tax, and Rosario guided him over about four paths to take the opening just ahead of War of Will. The colt's turn of foot put him on the lead at the eighth pole, and his ground-saving trip left Rosario enough in the tank to fend off the late challenge from Tacitus.
At the wire, Sir Winston was a length ahead of Tacitus to win the Belmont. Joevia ran on near the rail to hold third over a hard-trying Tax, while Master Fencer didn't find his best stride until the final eighth of a mile but was absolutely flying to gain fifth.
Casse said War of Will and Sir Winston could both target the 10-furlong Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers on August 24 at Saratoga Race Course.
“I tell you what, they all better watch out going to a mile-and-a-quarter because Sir Winston will come running, too. Sir Winston is a pretty serious horse, so don't count him out,” Casse said.
Casse said he remained confident in War of Will's ability going forward.
“You didn't see the real War of Will today. I know that,” Casse said. “So, we've got to get back and figure out what's up and why he didn't run better.
“As far as War of Will, first we'll have a couple days and make sure how he is. [We'll] probably send him back to Kentucky [and] give him a little break. The plan would be, and I would have to discuss it with Gary Barber, but we're going to aim him for the Travers.
“Again I'll talk to Mr. Farmer but I don't think there's much out there he would enjoy more than winning the Travers, so I'm sure he'll be all for that,” he added.
Tacitus, the winner of the Grade 2 Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets in April at Aqueduct Racetrack, finished three-quarters of a length clear of Joevia for second, giving Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott his second runner-up finish in the Belmont and first since Vison and Verse in 1999. Mott won the 2010 Belmont with Drosselmeyer.
“It looked like he kind of ducked in a little bit in mid-stretch at the eighth pole. He came running and finished up the race good, but it looked like he just got going too late,” Mott said. “I probably shouldn't comment too much without seeing the rerun, but it was a little bit of a wide trip. We did have a bit of a wide trip, which you never like. He came running and looked like he was traveling better than anybody. We planned to try and be in contention at the quarter-pole and he was. He just couldn't get there.”
Joevia, who gave New Jersey-based trainer Gregory Sacco his first Belmont starter, held strong in the stretch after setting a comfortable pace, outkicking Tax by a length to take third. It was the second straight strong performance for Joevia, who won the Long Branch at Monmouth Park on May 12 after being disqualified to 11th in the Wood Memorial for causing interference.
“That was quite a thrill. He's a really talented colt,” Sacco said. “We knew the Wood wasn't any indication of his ability. He's a 3-year-old improving at the right time of the year.
“I didn't think he'd cave with those [slow] fractions,” he added. “He showed a lot of tenacity. Maybe about the eighth pole, I think my blood pressure went through the roof. We knew he had to improve. We thought he would. Of course, training is one thing, but he put it all together last time in the Long Branch. It was in lesser company but he did it effortlessly. He had to step up to the plate today and he did.”
Starters in the Wood Memorial comprised the second-through-fourth-place finishers in the Belmont, with the Danny Gargan-trained Tax completing the superfecta.
“I'm real proud of him. He ran big,” Gargan said. “He'll move forward off this race. Obviously, when you run fourth in the Belmont, the Travers is in the back of your mind. This horse does his best running when he has eight weeks between starts, so we'll see where we're at.”
The Japanese-bred Master Fencer was fifth, followed by Spinoff, Everfast, Intrepid Heart, War of Will and Bourbon War.
Foaled on his owner's Shadowlawn Farm in Midway, Ky., Sir Winston is a second-generation homebred out of the Grade 3 winner La Gran Bailadora (Afleet Alex). Farmer purchased Sir Winston's granddam, Affirmed Dancer (Affirmed), as a weanling at Keeneland for $150,000, and raced her to a listed stakes win and graded placing.
Sir Winston's career began with a pair of off-the-board finishes at Churchill and Saratoga before the colt broke his maiden in his third outing at Woodbine. He followed that up with a third in the G3 Grey Stakes and win in the listed Display Stakes, but as a 3-year-old he was unable to earn enough points to contest the Kentucky Derby. His best finish this year before the Belmont came in a runner-up effort to Global Campaign in the G3 Peter Pan Stakes. Overall, Sir Winston has won three of his 10 starts to earn over $1 million.
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