By Ed McNamara
Fate jinxed this Belmont Park spring-summer meeting. COVID-19 delayed its opening by 40 days. The scrambled Triple Crown schedule shortchanged the Belmont Stakes, turning it into a 9-furlong prep for a Kentucky Derby 11 weeks down the road. Injuries to the undefeated trio of Nadal, Charlatan and Maxfield left it with only one marquee colt. Fortunately, Tiz the Law stayed healthy and excelled, because without him the “Test of the Champion” would have been a glorified allowance race.
Still, there has been some upside to the shutdown of New York racing from mid-March to June 3. Usually, the Belmont meet is heavily front-loaded, with little of consequence happening after Belmont Stakes day. Trainers preferred to save their best runners for Saratoga, making Belmont’s final five weeks uninspiring. Not so this year.
There are four graded stakes on Saturday’s card, including two – the Just a Game and the True North – usually run on Belmont day. Last weekend’s Belmont undercard was good but far from great – fewer stakes, small fields, heavy favorites – but Saturday’s program is payback for that minor disappointment.
Churchill Downs’ opening was pushed back three weeks to May 23, and the home of the delayed Derby also has a strong program Saturday. It’s Stephen Foster day, the meeting’s No. 3 draw behind the Derby and Oaks. Even with no spectators, it will feel like big-time racing is back in Louisville.
Champion Midnight Bisou, a strong second against males on Feb. 29 in the $20 million Saudi Cup, will face her own sex in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap. Tom’s d’Etat should get a challenge from the peaking By My Standards in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster.
Let’s see if we can cash some tickets at America’s two most important tracks.
Is this a first? Chad Brown has two horses in a grass stakes, and neither (My Sister Nat, Fools Gold) is among the favorites. Let’s live dangerously and start the pick 3 by throwing both out.
Playing the usual role of Chad is the hot Graham Motion, with likely pacesetter Mean Mary (7) and tough closer Mrs. Sippy (6). A possible upsetter is Call Me Love (1), second to Brown’s Rushing Fall on June 3 in her U.S. debut. I’m also using long shot Valiance (5), who’s 3-for-3 at shorter distances on turf for Todd Pletcher. I’m thinking that her pedigree (by Tapit out of an Empire Maker mare) and tactical speed will let her get 10 furlongs.
Is Firenze Fire (8) the same horse who dominated at Belmont for the suspended Jason Servis? If so, he’ll stalk a hot, contested pace, pounce and win. I have a feeling he may not be what he was, which makes this a very confusing scramble.
Promises Fulfilled (7) also may have slipped, he needs the lead, and he’ll have to fight for it with Diamond King and Yorkton. That led me to outsider Wicked Trick (3), whose off-the-pace style may set up the perfect trip. I’ll be using Wicked Trick along with Firenze Fire and Promises Fulfilled.
Grass superstar Uni (6) — 7-for-8 at a mile, 3-for-4 at Belmont, 4-for-4 off extended layoffs for Chad Brown – is a must-use. Her speedy stablemate, Newspaperofrecord (4), shapes up as her main threat, so I’ll put her on the ticket, too.
Got Stormy (0-for-3 this year) hasn’t been close to the world-class turfer she was last year, and the others don’t class up to Chad’s pair.
Midnight Bisou is one of the world’s best horses, but that doesn’t mean this race will be a walkover. She’s 0-for-2 at Churchill, only 2-for-6 at 9 furlongs, and will have to catch Serengeti Empress. The front-running 2019 Kentucky Oaks heroine is the lone speed, and she could be very tough to run down if she can set easy fractions. Throw out Serengeti’s 11th-place dud last time in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, when she surrendered after she couldn’t get to the lead from post 11.
The old saying is that class laughs at pace, and Midnight Bisou should get up in time with her usual powerful rally, but you can’t be certain. I’ll make a win bet at nice odds on Serengeti Empress and back myself up with exactas. I’ll do a $14 play with Midnight Bisou on top of Serengeti Empress and reverse it for $6.
The 7-year-old Tom’s d’Etat has run only 17 times but has won 10 of them, including his last three in a row. He loves Churchill (3-for-7, 2 seconds) and will be a short price, but I’ll be riding with the dramatically improved 4-year-old By My Standards. He’s 3-for-3 this year, all easy victories, and 3-for-3 at the distance. Yes, he’s 0-for-2 over the track, but both were on sloppy surfaces and can be easily excused. One was in his debut after a poor start; the other was in the Kentucky Derby, and everybody gets a pass for that.
By My Standards has turned into a serious horse and is training brilliantly at Churchill. I’ll play him to win and in exacta boxes with Tom’s d’Etat and late-running Owendale.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.