The Belmont Derby and Oaks

Martin Panza

Martin Panza (photo via NYRA.com)

When Martin Panza came to the New York Racing Association, he brought some innovative ideas with him. He was brought in to improve the NYRA racing product and restore New York racing to the clear leader in the industry it once was.

Some of his initial ideas were met with resistance by traditionalists, such as moving The Metropolitan Mile, one of NYRA’s most important races, and a long time Memorial Day tradition, to Belmont Stakes Day — and as part of the undercard no less. The Met Mile, a supporting feature and not on Memorial Day? Unheard of, they said.

Well, as it turns out, Mr. Panza was one of the first to recognize that these “super card” days is a direction that racing is heading. Kentucky Oaks Day and Derby Day are always popular and draw huge handles and interest. It is no different with The Breeders’ Cup, which evolved from a one-day affair to a two-day event.

It’s tough to knock the concept when the past performances come out for one of these cards. This Saturday, known as “Stars and Stripes Day,” I assume because of the close proximity to the Fourth of July, is no different. It’s a stellar card. The type we long for as fans and bettors. Say what you will, the concept works and, given the current state of racing, less is more. And more “super cards” is better for the game in the long run than less “super cards” and more run-of-the-mill, dull weekdays with small fields, insignificant handles, high take-outs and stands that you could fire a cannon into and not hit anyone.

What’s most interesting to me about Stars and Stripes Day is that it was designed to be anchored by two races expected to draw world-class fields and, specifically, European turf horses. The common school of thought is that European turf runners are better than ours here in the US — and they prove it when they come over to compete.

While not all do, many come here and run with Lasix for the first time and, regardless of your opinion on whether Lasix is a performance-enhancer or not, statistics say it is. The percentage of European horses that run here and win first time with Lasix is considerably higher than those who come here and run without it.

Belmont Park 4

Belmont Park

Have doubts? Let’s use an obvious example. Found, the filly that defeated Golden Horn in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf ran in the race with first-time Lasix. Golden Horn ran without it. Found could hardly warm Golden Horn up in their few European meetings, but she ran him down and beat him on the square in The Breeders’ Cup as one of the best win bets of a lifetime at 9-1 in a race literally only two horses could win.

Lasix helps.

No, it wasn’t the softer course that did Golden Horn in as many will argue. If that was the case, he would not have been a good second. He handled the going just fine.

Although The Belmont Derby was designed to attract European horses it was given a very American name. Although it replaced the Jamaica Handicap, it is really not similar or a replacement at all. The Jamaica was most recently run in October at 1 1/8 miles — and wasn’t even a turf race until 1994. The Belmont Derby is a whole new race, a whole new concept.

The real Belmont Derby, Martin Panza’s creation, was inaugurated in 2014 when the Jamaica was taken off the schedule and the Belmont Derby was run at 1 ¼ with a purse increase from $500,000 to $1,250,000. That’s more than enough Euros to get the overseas horses here. Interesting enough, though we know how all the European horses come here and prove they are better — although Tepin and Wise Dan may argue that point — the first two editions of the race were won by American horses.

Shug McGaughey’s Mr. Speaker won the inaugural Belmont Derby in 2014 and, here comes a shameless self-promotion, I tweeted out he would to all who would listen. He was over 20-1 if memory serves, as the European horses took all the money.

An American horse took the second edition as well, when the Alan Goldberg-trained Force the Pass crossed the wire in front. Americans 2, Euros zip. Granted it’s early and I am in no way questioning the breeding, training, and prowess of European horses. I have been playing European horses first-time-in-the-US since the ‘70s, long before it was fashionable to do so.

The Belmont Oaks is the filly counterpart of the Belmont Derby. The purse is $1,000,000 but the distance is the same 1 ¼ miles. As with the Belmont Derby, the Oaks, on paper, replaced the Garden City, but it is a totally different race.

The inaugural running was won by a European import Minorette, trained by Chad Brown. Although she was a Kentucky-bred by Smart Strike, Minorette began her career at The Curragh in Ireland.

The second edition was won by the great Lady Eli, who, after a life-threatening battle with the dreaded laminitis, is back on the work tab. I recently spoke to jockey Irad Ortiz about Lady Eli.

“I love her,” he said.

Who can blame him? She was magnificent and barely began to hit her best when she was sidelined. Ortiz is optimistic she’ll run again and that is a real credit to Chad Brown and his whole team, including the veterinarians who treated her and everyone in his barn. Chad’s dad messaged me on Twitter and said that Chad did not sleep for days when she was first struck.

When perusing the past performances for the Stars and Stripes card, it’s hard to argue against Martin Panza’s concept. The card is stellar. There are 13 entered in The Belmont Derby, with only three European-based horses — two from the always-dangerous Aidan O’Brien and one from the sharp Richard Hannon outfit. With rain in the forecast, things are still up in the air, but one my eye will definitely be on is Highland Sky. This colt has always been good, but is slowly getting better and better and looks like he will be coming late. He just may make it 3-0 for the US.

While the European horses look a little tougher in the Belmont Oaks, I’ll go American again: Pricedtoperfetion gets up late.

Jonathan Stettin
Jonathan has always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings, as he practically grew up at the racetrack. His mother, affectionately known as “Ginger,” was in the stands at Belmont Park the day before he was born as his father, Joe, worked behind the windows as a pari-mutuel clerk.

As a toddler, Jonathan cheered for and followed horses and jockeys, knowing many of the names and bloodlines by the time he was in first grade. Morning coffee in his household was always accompanied by the Daily Racing Form or Morning Telegraph.

At the age of 16, Jonathan dropped out of school and has pretty much been at the races full-time ever since. Of course, he had some of the usual childhood racetrack jobs growing up — mucking stalls, walking hots and rubbing horses. He even enjoyed brief stints as a jockey agent and a mutuel clerk (like his dad).

His best day at the track came on August 10, 1994 at Saratoga, when he hit the pick-6 paying $540,367.

Jonathan continues to be an active and successful player. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanstettin or visit his Web site at www.pastthewire.com.