Remember when Belmont Park used to host Super Saturday? Man, is that ever in the past.
What is left of it comes this New York weekend with the running of four qualifiers for the Breeders’ Cup, which is coming fast in just four weeks.
That is part of the problem that has led to skimpy fields for the four $250,000 Grade 1 races that in and of themselves should carry a lot more prestige and respect than they do this year.
Only five horses are entered for the 101st running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, from which the winner is entitled to a place in the $7 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Just seven are trying to get to the Filly & Mare Turf through the 43rd Flower Bowl, seven are in the 73rd Frizette to try and qualify for the Juvenile Fillies, and six would-be Juvenile starters are in the 150th Champagne, the country’s oldest stakes for 2-year-olds.
Since not every horse can bounce back anymore after only four weeks – see Tiz The Law and Authentic – this Saturday should have come last Saturday to be a more meaningful bridge to the Nov. 6 and 7 championships at Keeneland in Kentucky. Of the 25 horses drawn into these four races, 23 have had more a month since their last race.
But wait. The 43rd and the 73rd and the 101st and the 150th? For crying out loud, one of these things began before the first presidential campaign following the the Civil War. Never mind being “win and you’re ins” for the Breeders’ Cup, which in human terms is not even middle-aged. Don’t these iconic New York races deserve respect on their own merit without being cast off as late qualifiers? The New York Racing Association abandoned the name last year, but even if it is not Super Saturday, it should still be a super Saturday.
Some of what is happening this weekend – or not happening – is because NYRA was boxed in by the coronavirus. By the time the first wave of the pandemic receded in the northeast, the Preakness had taken the old Super Saturday slot Oct. 3. Keeneland had its own important Breeders’ Cup qualifiers at the same time last Saturday, but they were overshadowed by what was going on at Pimlico.
So NYRA tried to carve out a place for itself with what was left on the calendar. Grouse as traditionalists and I shall at fields that are paper thin, there is some quality that will be on display.
Tacitus has finished in the money for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott in all five of his Grade 1 starts, but he has yet to win any of them. He will be favored Saturday at 4:48 p.m. EDT in the Jockey Club Gold Cup to overcome pacesetting 3-year-old Happy Saver. That is trainer Todd Pletcher’s summertime debutant that has won all three of his races. The expectation here is that Tacitus will flex his experience at 1¼ miles to win with Jim Dandy winner Mystic Guide closing to finish second.
It is only appropriate that the guru of grass, reigning four-time training champion Chad Brown, has three of the seven females racing 1¼ miles on Belmont’s inner turf in the Flower Bowl at 4:14 p.m. The 4-year-old Cambier Parc won two Grade 1 races last year, but she was a distant second as an odds-on favorite in her nine-furlong comeback last month in the Grade 2 Canadian Stakes at Woodbine. If Beau Belle, one of two Tom Albertrani-trained entries, is allowed to dawdle on the lead, she could steal this race in which she finished fifth last year. This represents a cutback in distance that could work for her. My ticket will include Beau Belle, Cambier Parc and Civil Union, an off-the-pace Grade 2 winner for trainer Shug McGaughey last month at Saratoga.
A very early 30-1 futures favorite for the 2021 Kentucky Derby, Jackie’s Warrior brings a 3-for-3 record into the Champagne, a one-turn mile that was a springboard last year for would-be 3-year-old champion Tiz The Law. Racing for trainer Steve Asmussen, he won last month’s Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga, leading from gate to wire to beat even-money favorite Reinvestment Risk and earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 95, the best for any 2-year-old in 2020. The two will be matched again Saturday at 1:58 p.m., and they appear to be the class of the field. A cold exacta with Jackie’s Warrior over Reinvestment Risk is the bet, although the return will not be big.
There are plenty of eye-popping Saratoga performances to gauge for the Frizette at 2:30 p.m. In spite of an awkward start, Vequist won the Grade 1 Spinaway by 9½ lengths for trainer Butch Reid, earning an 83 Beyer. Dayoutoftheoffice was a six-length winner for Tim Hamm in the Grade 3 Schuylerville, the traditional opening-day feature at Saratoga. Asmussen’s $950,000 mid-pack filly Cantata won her debut nearly two months ago by 10 lengths. She is the pick for this one-turn mile with room left on the ticket for Pletcher’s would-be pacesetter Fifth Risk, a debut winner nearly two months ago.
It is admittedly hard to map a road to a fat payoff from Saturday’s card, in which the Grade 1s are separated from being in a Pick 4. Even if all these predictions were to cash, they might cover a nice dinner with very few drinks. That is the price we pay – or don’t get paid – for small fields in big races.
The long-term blame for this trend goes to the ever-shrinking foal crop. It has dwindled each of the last five years and 14 of the last 15. Thirty years ago there were 44,143 thoroughbreds born in North America. This year the Jockey Club estimated there were 20,500, a drop of 53 percent since 1990.
It seems so much worse this year because of the pandemic, which has made it more complicated to ship horses and, more accurately, the humans who look after them. A growing number of owners and trainers targeting the Breeders’ Cup grew content to skip these late preps rather than choose between the complications of quarantining themselves and trusting their horses to local riders and handlers.
For the bettor who looks for long shots that can actually yield value, this is one tough weekend on the other side of the East River. What was it that Brooklyn Dodgers fans used to say around this time almost every fall? It was either “Wait’ll next year,” or “Which bus gets me to Belmont Park?”
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The final round of Breeders’ Cup qualifiers Saturday at Belmont Park will be discussed by Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, previewed by WFAN’s Brian Monzo and handicapped by VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo. The RFRP is available at Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.