It's a strange time of year in the world of high-level horse racing. Everything is focused on the Breeders' Cup, but that festival of racing is still almost two months away. As we head into the big fall meets, then, we are looking for two things - we want clarity in the biggest races, and we want all the top horses to make it to race day healthy and ready. That means that it is both a nervous and an exciting time for fans.
At the forefront of the race world, at least for a few weeks, is the Belmont fall meet. Now that Del Mar and Saratoga have wrapped up, and because Santa Anita is still a couple of weeks away, Belmont is the biggest game around. It's a heck of a meet, too - one well worth paying close attention to for bettors. The best horses on the East Coast will be training and racing to secure their spot in the starting gate at the first Breeders' Cup to be held at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, over Halloween weekend.
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There are 40 graded stakes races on the schedule for the Belmont fall meet, which runs from Sept. 11 until Nov. 1 and features a total of 38 race days. The biggest days of action will be two Saturdays - Sept. 26 and Oct. 3. The latter is the traditional Super Saturday that will play a major role in the fields of several Breeders' Cup races.
Sept. 26 is headlined by three grade one races - the Vosburgh for sprinters, the Beldame for fillies and mares, and the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. Each will draw major Breeders' Cup contenders making their final start before the big day along with fringe contenders looking to earn their way into the field.
The main event really is Oct. 3, though. The undercard includes a grade two and a grade three, and three big grade one stakes. The Flower Bowl is run on turf for fillies and mares. The Champagne is the biggest two year old race for colts on the East Coast prior to the Breeders' Cup, and the Frizette is the same for two-year-old fillies. The emergence of top two year olds in this meet is always a highlight, and that should be the case again here. All three races will be very important preps for the big day.
The race that matters most on that day, and in this meet, is the Jockey Cup Gold Cup. One of the major preps for the Breeders' Cup Classic, the race gives the winner not only an automatic entry into the race but also an all-expenses paid trip to that race. All-time greats Cigar, Skip Away and Curlin all won this race en route to Breeders' Cup Classic triumphs. It is a huge race. At this point it looks to be shaping up as a gem. Two horses in particular are already at Belmont and appear to be training up to the race. Tonalist, who also won the Belmont Stakes, won the race last year as a three year old and is back for more. His chief rival appears to be Honor Code, who has won three big races this year and has already beaten Tonalist twice. With Shared Belief unlikely to be back from injury in time for this race, these two rank right at the top of the older horse class this year, so any chance to see them together isn't to be missed. The Jockey Club Gold Cup is also a race in which top three year olds often make their debut against older horses. There are no shortage of good three year olds this year, so that is worth watching as well.
The sad part of this meet is the opening weekend. It is the lamest collection of races to start the meet that we have seen in years. It is short on graded stakes, and what is there is not particularly interesting. This year just one race all weekend truly captures the imagination - and even it is far from a gem. It's like the meet is having an NFL-style preseason before the actual season starts.
The lone true highlight for me of the opening weekend is the Temperence Hill Invitational on Saturday. Even it is a bit of a stretch - it is at the non-traditional distance of 1 5/8 miles, and it features just four horses. I have wanted V.E. Day to achieve his potential ever since he won the Travers last year, though, and perhaps the extra distance will be what finally breaks him out of the rut he has been in. He certainly isn't short of talent. He is a ridiculous 4/5 on the morning line, so this isn't a betting race, but if he can have a big day here he could conceivably work his way back into the Breeders' Cup picture. Last year he was a dismal 11th in the Classic - perhaps the biggest letdown on the whole card in my eyes. I'm hoping for the best, but in his five races since the Travers win he has had four lousy outings and a near miss, so I may be kidding myself.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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