By Ed McNamara
The late Dick Enberg was such a fine announcer that he could have made play-by-play of an ant race entertaining. In 1984, he hosted the first Breeders’ Cup, and his likeable personality and easy style enhanced the four-hour telecast of a milestone event.
Although horse racing was only Enberg’s side job, you got the impression he really enjoyed the sport. He worked the first seven Breeders’ Cups, and one of his off-the-cuff comments has stuck with me for more than 30 years. As the field was being loaded for the 1 1/2-mile Turf, Enberg set the scene with “There’s something about a long race on the grass.”
Oh my, yes there is. Turf marathons unfold slowly like great stories, with measured paces often leading to thrilling sprint finishes. Since the mid-Eighties, when it was a distant second to dirt racing in America, grass racing has become wildly popular.
There’s nothing better than seeing top-class runners from both sides of the Atlantic competing for megabucks. That’s what will happen Saturday at Belmont Park, which features two grass stakes, the Belmont Derby and the Belmont Oaks, along with the 6-furlong Victory Ride.
Let’s see if we can hit a pick 3 on those races, and cash a few tickets on two stakes from Delaware Park.
Irishman Aidan O’Brien, who’s been the world’s best trainer for a long time, ships in Santa Barbara (5), a half-sister to Breeders’ Cup winners Iridessa (2019 Filly & Mare Turf) and Order of Australia (2020 Mile). She’ll be favored because of her company lines even though she’s only 1-for-4. She missed by a neck last time in a 1 1/4-mile Group 1 at the Curragh and ran a solid fourth in the Group 1 English 2,000 Guineas. You can forgive her 21-length loss in the Epsom Oaks because of the swampy ground.
Santa Barbara should win but I don’t think she’s a lock, so I’ll throw in France-based Cirona (2), second by a neck in a Group 1 at 1 1/4 miles on soft turf at Longchamp. Also on the pick 3 ticket is Chad Brown’s Higher Truth (3), making her stakes debut after winning twice over 1 1/4 miles at Belmont.
(Tropical Storm Elsa’s progress up the East Coast should soften the turf at Belmont. Santa Barbara and Cirona have performed well over courses rated less than firm, and Higher Truth is a daughter of the great Galileo, whose offspring tend to favor wet ground.)
Australasia (7), trained by the outstanding Brad Cox, is 6-for-6, including a length decision last time in the ungraded Jersey Girl over speedy Bella Sofia (1), who bobbled at the break. Bella Sofia could easily reverse that result against the undefeated Louisiana-bred. Miss Brazil (3) also is a serious contender after finishing only a head behind Bella Sofia in that race. I’m also using Red Ghost (6), who’s 3-for-3 on fast tracks after taking the Grade 3 Miss Preakness by a nose.
Bolshoi Ballet (2), like stablemate Santa Barbara, ran the worst race of his life on Epsom Derby day. He also couldn’t handle the marshy ground and plodded home seventh, beaten 17 lengths, as the 6-5 favorite in the 1 1/2-mile Derby. He was bet heavily because of the O’Brien factor and because he’d won easily twice over 10 furlongs on ground rated “good.”
T.J. Comerford, O’Brien’s longtime assistant, accompanied the horses on the flight from Ireland.
“Bolshoi Ballet has been training well since the Derby,” Comerford said. “I’m sure he’s still on the right path to picking it up from there. He won well (twice at Leopardstown, and he’s trying to pick up the pieces where he left off there.”
If Bolshoi Ballet is himself, he outclasses this field and should win at a short price. I’m expecting a major bounce-back from that Epsom dud and will single him.
Blame Debbie (3) went wire to wire twice at 1 1/2 miles after setting a crawling pace, and she’ll be overbet off those races. I doubt whether she can get away with those tactics again. Dalika (8) opened a 16-length lead last time at 1 1/2 miles but couldn’t hold off Temple City Terror (5) in the final yards. Longshots Candy Flower (2) and La Dragontea (8) also could be pace factors, so I’m looking for a classy filly who can come from behind.
I’m going with Micheline (4) even though she ran sixth in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley and 10th (bad trip) in her last two. She’s at her best going 9 furlongs or farther, and she won last fall at 1 5/16 miles over Kentucky Downs’ demanding course, where she edged the talented Harvey’s Lil Goil. Micheline’s pedigree (by Bernardini out of an Include mare) says 1 3/8 miles won’t be too far, and her company lines are by far the best in the field.
Brad Cox ships in Bonny South (5), a deserving favorite with the best class lines. She ran a solid second last time to the brilliant mare Letruska, who’s ranked No. 1 in the latest NTRA poll, ahead of male stars Maxfield and Mystic Guide.
Bonny South also has been second to female stars Envoutante and Swiss Skydiver while losing four of her last five. One of those four runner-up finishes was against a filly she faces here, Miss Marissa (6), in the Black-Eyed Susan last October at Pimlico. Bonny South, the 4-5 favorite, had no racing luck that day. She was pinched back at the start, fell 10 lengths behind, came six wide into the stretch and fell short of Miss Marissa by only a neck. That won’t happen again.
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.