By Mike Farrell
Irad Ortiz, Jr. celebrated the resumption of racing at Belmont Park on Wednesday by booting home five winners.
Saturday is the first “big money day” of the abbreviated meet with four stakes on the card, topped by the $250,000 Runhappy Carter Handicap (G1). Ortiz is well positioned to keep merrily rolling along.
Ortiz has mounts in all four stakes, combining with trainer Chad Brown for three.
The most challenging spot for the Ortiz-Brown combo is also the richest. They will try to deny Performer a fifth straight victory in the Carter with 8-1 shot Network Effect.
On the plus side, Network Effect is 2-for-2 at this 7-furlong distance, included the victory most recently in the Big Drama Stakes for Florida breds at Gulfstream Park.
“I hope he gets the same trip as last time,” Brown said. “It’s a big step up for him but he seems to be an improving horse so we’re giving it a shot.”
Performer, the 3-1 favorite, makes his season debut for Hall of Fame conditioner Shug McGaughey after wintering at Payson Park. He closed out last season with a game victory in the Discovery Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct in late November.
“He’s gotten bigger and stronger,” McGaughey said. “If we can get a good solid effort out of him and move ahead, we’ll be happy.”
Joel Rosario, aboard for the four victories, has the return call.
Mind Control, a two-time Grade 1 winner, puts a three-race winning streak on the line for trainer Greg Sacco as the 4-1 third choice. He captured the Tom Fool Handicap (G3) at Aqueduct in early March before the coronavirus shutdown, putting a halt to a streak started with the H. Allen Jerkens (G1) at Saratoga last summer. He didn’t sit idly during the shutdown.
“He’s had about nine works since the Tom Fool and the last was super (five furlongs in 1:01 1/5),” Sacco said. “He has two races under his belt this year and he’s a very fit animal.”
Firenze Fire (7-2) also stretched his winning streak to three in the General George Stakes (G3) at Laurel in mid-February. As usual, Ortiz was aboard that day.
Trainer Kelly Breen, needing a replacement in this spot, will give Manny Franco a leg up.
Things look more promising for Ortiz and Brown in the $150,000 Fort Marcy (G2) and the $100,000 Intercontinental (G3), both on the turf.
Brown sends out four in the 1 1/8 miles Fort Marcy including Instilled Regard, the 7-2 favorite with Ortiz in the saddle.
Instilled Regard, winner of the 2018 Lecomte Stakes (G3) at the Fair Grounds, has blossomed since Brown switched him to the grass. He won the Fort Lauderdale Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park in December before stepping up to run an excellent third in the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (G1).
The 5-year-old needs a bounce-back effort here after a disappointing sixth in the Muniz Memorial (G2) at the Fair Grounds as the 2-1 favorite.
“He didn’t act like he handled the course very well, so we’re drawing a line through that race,” Brown said.
If Instilled Regard fails to fire, Brown has hedged his bets with the trio of Flop Shot, Devamani and Tribhuvan.
Brown also takes four shots in the Intercontinental for filly and mare sprinters, including Newspaperofrecord, the 3-1 favorite, with Ortiz in the irons.
There will be considerable interest in the $100,000 Westchester Stakes where Code of Honor makes his season debut, the first start since the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) for McGaughey and jockey Johnny Velazquez.
It’s a modest comeback spot for the Travers (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) winner, but then this is not your normal season with all the coronavirus shutdowns.
“He’s always been very athletic and he’s had some time to grow up,” McGaughey said.
Ortiz and Brown part company in the Westchester. Ortiz rides Mihos, a 10-1 outsider stepping up from an allowance win for trainer Jimmy Jerkens. Brown saddles the duo of Monongahela and Payne.
All of the Belmont graded stakes action can be seen on “America’s Day at the Races” on Fox Sports.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.