By Ed McNamara
Before the Breeders’ Cup changed everything in the mid-Eighties, for generations championships were determined on Saturdays in October at Belmont Park. If you wanted to clinch an Eclipse Award, you had to do it at the big horse park in New York. No tradition lasts forever, even though back in the day it seemed as if it would.
Saturday’s four Grade 1 stakes at Belmont — the Champagne, Frizette, Flower Bowl and Jockey Club Gold Cup — are preps for the main events on Nov. 6-7 at Keeneland. They still carry a lot of prestige among breeders and are worth a total of $900,000, but no longer are they ends in themselves. They also don’t attract the deep fields they once did. The Champagne has only six horses, the Frizette seven, the Flower Bowl eight and the Gold Cup six.
Like many 2-year-old stakes on the main track, the Champagne and Frizette aren’t good betting races. Too often the odds-on favorite wins, and when it doesn’t, the result can defy logic.
A lightly raced horse that didn’t look like much on paper pays $38.40, with the reaction generally “Well, no way I could have had that one.” Sharp handicappers love to smoke out winners whose odds range from 7-2 to 6-1, but rarely does a mid-priced horse finish first in such races.
I won’t be betting the Champagne or the Frizette, but I’ll offer a few thoughts on them. I’ll focus on the pick 3 linking the Flower Bowl, Gold Cup and the Sands Point. I’ll also take a shot at Keeneland’s Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup. Unlike the four stakes at Belmont, the QE2 is not part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge, but it is the best betting race of the day.
$250,000 Champagne Stakes (G1), mile, 2-year-olds
The 3-for-3 Jackie’s Warrior, trained by Steve Asmussen, will be a very short price, with Reinvestment Risk (Chad Brown) his main rival. They ran 1-2 last time in Saratoga’s Grade 1, 7-furlong Hopeful, which Jackie’s Warrior dominated by 2 1/4 lengths despite being geared down late. A third possibility is Midnight Bourbon, also part of Steve Asmussen’s stable. Midnight Bourbon is 1-for-3 at a mile, a distance that neither Jackie’s Warrior nor Reinvestment Risk has attempted yet.
$250,000 Frizette Stakes (G1), mile, 2-year-old fillies
Vequist shipped from Parx to Saratoga, crushed the Grade 1, 7-furlong Spinaway by 9 1/2 lengths and paid $15.20. No way you’re getting 6-1 this time. She drew the disadvantageous rail in the one-turn mile, so maybe she’ll be vulnerable. Trainer Butch Reid isn’t overconfident. “She has to confirm the Spinaway,” Reid said. “Anybody can do it once. You have to do it a couple of times to prove you belong at that level.”
No one in the race has run a mile on the dirt, so keep an open mind. Cantata, part of an uncoupled Asmussen entry, came from just off the pace at 6 1/2 furlongs to take her career debut by 10 lengths. She could be a star in the making, and stablemate Joy’s Rocket, 2-for-3 at 5 and 5 1/2 furlongs, could serve as a rabbit to soften up Vequist. And it would be no shock if Grade 3 Schuylerville winner Dayoutoftheoffice, 2-for-2 by 10 3/4 lengths, can stretch out successfully.
$250,000 Flower Bowl Stakes (G1), 1 1/4 miles, turf, fillies and mares
Cambier Parc (1), a two-time Grade 1 winner for Chad Brown, has by far the best company lines, with a win over stablemate Newspaperofrecord on her resume. Cambier Parc was second last month in her 4-year-old debut in the Grade 2 Canadian at Woodbine. She tired late as the 4-5 favorite and should be fitter. I’ll use her and stablemate Nay Lady Nay (6) in the first leg of the pick 3.
$250,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), 1 1/4 miles
Everybody’s favorite money burner, Tacitus (4), will be bet heavily again even though he’s 0-for-5 in Grade 1’s and 1-for-5 at 1 1/4 miles (two seconds, two thirds). You can’t count on him and you can’t leave him out, especially in this five-horse field, one of the least impressive in the 102 runnings of the venerable Gold Cup. Will he hang and finish second, as he did last time at 3-5 in the Woodward at Saratoga? Or will he dominate as he did in Belmont’s Suburban Handicap on July 4?
The best of his four opponents are Todd Pletcher’s Happy Saver (1), who’s 3-for-3 and bypassed the Preakness for this, and Mystic Guide (5), who in the Jim Dandy finished 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Jesus’ Team, a distant third in the Preakness. Happy Saver and Mystic Guide are eligible to improve, and considering all the money I’ve lost on Tacitus, I’ll use the two 3-year-olds with him just in case the big gray disappoints again.
$150,000 Sands Point Stakes (G2), mile, turf, 3-year-old fillies
Chad Brown’s Selflessly (3) upset multiple-stakes winner Sweet Melania last time and will be tough again. The other one on the ticket is Christophe Clement’s Speaktomeofsummer (3), a bad-trip fourth following a narrow victory in the Grade 2 Lake Placid at Saratoga. I’ve cashed a few tickets on Miss J McKay, named for the late, great sports announcer Jim McKay, who graced the Triple Crown for so many years. She’s only 1-for-6 on turf and never has been farther than 7 furlongs, so I won’t be playing her.
$500,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1), turf, 1 1/8 miles
Magic Attitude (4) won so easily in her North American debut that I don’t fear a Euro-bounce. The French shipper dominated the Grade 1, 1 1/4-mile Belmont Oaks, beating one of her rivals in here, Antoinette, by 2 1/4 lengths after gliding the final furlong in 23 1/5 seconds. Besides Antoinette, Sweet Melania and Harvey’s Lil Goil have solid credentials, but I don’t think Magic Attitude will have any problems beating them.