Is it really a Breeders' Cup Preview Day?
It's always a showcase for classy thoroughbreds, as it was again Saturday at Belmont Park, but rarely do the winners of the Frizette, Champagne and Beldame Stakes and the Kelso Handicap also finish first on the big day three weeks later.
ELMONT, N.Y. -- It's billed as Breeders' Cup Preview Day, which is a misnomer. It's always a showcase for classy thoroughbreds, as it was again Saturday at Belmont Park, but rarely do the winners of the Frizette, Champagne and Beldame Stakes and the Kelso Handicap also finish first on the big day three weeks later.
No Beldame winner has taken the Distaff since Beautiful Pleasure in 1999. It's been 10 years since a Champagne winner (Timber Country) took the Juvenile. In the past 20 runnings of the mile Kelso on turf, only the superstar Lure, in 1993, won it and the Mile. Only the Frizette's form has been respectable on championship day, with three of its last 10 winners completing a double in the Juvenile Fillies.
Most likely, that's because excellence in one-turn races usually doesn't hold up around two turns. Because Belmont is the biggest track in North America, main-track races of 1 1/16 miles (Champagne, Frizette) and 1 1/8 miles (Beldame) are run around one turn. So is the Kelso, on Belmont's sweeping Widener turf course. Except when Belmont hosts the Cup, the Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, Distaff and Mile are run around two turns.
Since the configurations of the dirt and grass courses at Lone Star Park, this year's site on Oct. 30, bear little resemblance to Belmont's, don't assume New York form will hold up there, especially at short odds.
There won't be any need to weigh the merits of Kelso winner Mr O'Brien and Beldame repeater Sightseek, because neither is going to Texas. Mr O'Brien, an Irish-bred, isn't Breeders' Cup-eligible and is unlikely to be supplemented. Sightseek is being retired after dominating the Beldame again.
Mr O'Brien returned to his best distance, a mile, in the Kelso and worked out a ground-saving trip under jockey Eibar Coa before drawing off to a 11/2-length victory over Millennium Dragon. The 5-year-old gelding by Storm Bird paid $11.80 and completed an $87 Pick 3 with Balletto ($4.70, Frizette) and Proud Accolade ($6.80, Champagne). Eddie Mac selected all three on top in my weekly betting column. (This has been a paid egotistical announcement.)
The Kelso winner's share was $150,000, raising Mr O'Brien's 2004 earnings to more than $500,000. His Maryland-based trainer, Robin Graham, said she wouldn't recommend that Skeedattle Stable ante up the $300,000 supplemental fee for the Mile.
"That's a lot of money to gamble," Graham said, "and it's not as if there's nowhere else for him to run. There are a lot of good grass races around."
Sightseek won't be at Lone Star, either, after completing her career with her sixth win in six tries at Belmont. The 3-10 favorite cruised to a 23/4-length win over Society Selection and will leave the racetrack with a brilliant record of 12 wins and 5 seconds in 20 starts and earnings of almost $2.5 million for owner/breeder Juddmonte Farms. Unfortunately, one of her few duds came last year at Santa Anita in the Distaff, where she ran a distant fourth as the 3-5 chalk.
"I worried about her," said trainer Bobby Frankel, failing to hold back tears. "She's going home safely. I wanted her to win and go out on top. I said months ago that this was going to be her last race. The Juddmonte people questioned me about it, but I told them I wanted this to be it."
Unlike Sightseek, Balletto and Proud Accolade are just getting started, and handicappers will have to respect their chances at Lone Star. Both are well bred, lightly raced and getting better rapidly.
Balletto, bred in the United Arab Emirates by Darley Stable, came from seventh after a half-mile to run down pacesetter Sis City in the Frizette. Ready's Gal rallied for second, three-quarters of a length back of the winner. Corey Nakatani came east from California to ride Balletto, who ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.52.
"She's probably the first UAE-bred to win a Grade I in the States," trainer Tom Albertrani said. "Whatever happens after this, we'll make a decision later on. We have no definite plans at the moment."
As long as Balletto is healthy, expect Darley to send her to Texas for the Juvenile Fillies. The Dubai sheikhs love to go for the big prizes.
Proud Accolade not only remained unbeaten (3-for-3) in his stakes debut, but he also upset Afleet Alex, who entered the Champagne 4-for-4 and the top-rated 2-year-old male in the East. Afleet Alex had traffic trouble and closed strongly for second, a half-length behind. But when Proud Accolade and rider John Velazquez took the lead inside the eighth pole, it was clear that nobody was going to catch them.
The son of Yes It's True ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.30, and he did it pretty easily. "He let me do whatever I wanted with him out there," Velazquez said.
Trainer Todd Pletcher said, "I was fairly optimistic about the distance. He's one of those colts that is very cooperative and gives it to you when you ask for it. Assuming he comes out well, we'll go to the Breeders' Cup."
Tim Ritchey, who trains Afleet Alex, wasn't too disappointed by the 6-5 favorite. "I think he wins if he gets a clean trip," Ritchey said. "He was catching [Proud Accolade] at the end, so distance wasn't a problem. We found that out for an absolute certainty and we go forward from here."
Them and everybody else. We'll all reconnect on the last Saturday of October for the eight-race showdown near Dallas. Keep an open mind about the chances of Balletto, Ready's Gal, Proud Accolade and Afleet Alex. Don't overrate them or toss them out yet. Many hours of handicapping remain before decisions can be made on Breeders' Cup plays.
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