NJ-bred Irish War Cry gets nod as Belmont favorite

by | Jun 8, 2017 | Breaking, National news, Racing, Triple Crown Trail

Irish War Cry

Irish War Cry was much the best in winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Photo by Chelsea Durand/NYRA.

From a NYRA release

Maybe it’s only fitting that a wide-open, unpredictable Triple Crown season would end with a wide-open, unpredictable Belmont Stakes. Saturday’s Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets at Belmont Park caps off a week in which likely post time favorite Classic Empire scratched because of injury and Japanese invader Epicharis was treated for lameness and may yet miss the big race.

Still, a wide-open field of 12 3-year-olds, ranging from a half-dozen veterans of the Kentucky Derby to a world-class Japanese horse ridden by a French jockey and a handful of new shooters, is set for the contest. And New Jersey-bred, Maryland-based Irish War Cry has been installed as the morning line favorite.

The 149th running of the “Test of the Champion,” at 1 ½ miles the last and longest leg of racing’s Triple Crown, puts an exclamation point on the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, a spectacular three-day celebration featuring 18 stakes worth more than $9 million and six Grade 1 events. Post time for the Belmont, which will be broadcast by NBC, is 6:37 p.m. ET.

Irish War Cry, winner of the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack and 10th in the Derby, inherited the role as the Belmont’s morning-line favorite at 7-2 after Classic Empire was forced to miss the race due to a foot abscess.

Up close to the pace in the Derby, the Curlin colt raced three and four wide and wound up beaten 16 ½ lengths. Trainer Graham Motion brought him back to his barn at the Fair Hill Training Center with no thought of running in the Belmont, but the horse has done so well he was convinced to bring him to New York.

“He’s had a good couple of weeks,” said Motion. “I can honestly say this was not my original plan. After the Derby, when he ran so disappointingly, I wanted to go home and just forget about the Triple Crown, which is what the Derby does to you when you don’t run well.

“He breezed well last weekend, [six furlongs in 1:14 on June 3] and I felt he needed to be here.”

He will be ridden by NYRA regular Rajiv Maragh from post position 7.

Lending an international flair to the Belmont is the Japanese horse Epicharis, who was pointed toward the race immediately following his narrow defeat in the Grade 2 UAE Derby. The leggy dark bay colt, who won his first four starts in Japan, including three stakes, was caught late over a muddy track at Meydan, losing to Thunder Snow by a nose.

He arrived at Belmont Park last week, and on Tuesday had his final prep for Saturday’s race, covering five furlongs in 1:06 over the training track while picking up the pace throughout. On Wednesday, however, he was treated with two grams of phenylbutazone after his connections noticed he was off in the right front. He is expected to resume training Friday morning.

“He looked a little different favoring his right front yesterday afternoon, so we treated his hoof and gave him bute,” said Hagiwara via Japan Racing Association interpreter. “It looks like it is getting better and I think there is no problem with him running in the race. We still have time so we will give him the best care we can.”

As the second choice at 4-1 on the morning line, Epicharis drew post position 11 and will be ridden by regular rider Christophe Lemaire.

Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee, who with the withdrawal of Classic Empire will become the only Belmont horse to have run in all three Triple Crown races, was made the third choice at 5-1 on the morning line.

Fourth in the Preakness, the son of Lookin At Lucky has been competing at the highest level since his stakes score in the Ellis Park Juvenile last summer, including runner-up finishes in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and the Grade 3 Iroquois, thirds in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby and Grade 3 Southwest, and a fourth in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

He will be ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr., who won last year’s Belmont aboard Creator, from post position 6.

Celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who bought an interest in Creator just prior to his victory in last year’s Belmont, is hoping to follow the same route after purchasing 25 percent of J Boys Echo Wednesday morning before the draw at Rock Center Café in Manhattan.

Trained by Dale Romans, J Boys Echo was 15th in the Derby after getting knocked around at the start but has been training forwardly since, including a five-furlong breeze in 1:00 on June 3 at Churchill Downs.

“If you watch the [Derby] replay and the head-on, everybody got pushed but he actually got slammed into,” said Romans. “But he came back and he’s trained well. And it’s a bad answer, but last Saturday was the best work he’s ever put in in his life. It was the most energy he’s showed and, today, he was bouncing and playing. The mile and a half should help him and hopefully we’re going to see the best of him. He’s got a good rhythm to the way he runs and I think that’s important going that far.”

Romans has finished third in the Belmont four times from eight starters, most recently with Keen Ice in 2015, and said he was eager to win the race.

“It’s why we play the game,” he said. “This is a Classic. Whether it has the Derby winner or the Preakness winner, it’s still one of the three greatest races that we have in this country. It’s such a prestigious race. I’ve been here several times and I have a record of four thirds, and it’s one of those things that, outside of the Kentucky Derby, we’ve won the Preakness, and the Belmont is the other box to check off. It’s a great race with the greatest racing fans, the smartest racing fans. It’s a race that I really, really want to get the trophy.”

J Boys Echo, a son of Mineshaft, drew post position 4 at 15-1 and will be ridden by Robby Albarado.

J Boys Echo is one of five Belmont entrants whose connections chose to skip the Preakness after running the Derby, a route taken last year by Creator and recently by Palace Malice in 2013, Union Rags – the sire of the one-eyed horse Patch – in 2012 and Summer Bird in 2009.

Other horses who will be making their first start since the Derby include Tapwrit, who was sixth; Gormley (ninth); and Patch (14th).

Tapwrit will be one of two horses representing trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the Belmont in 2007 with the filly Rags to Riches and with Palace Malice. Pletcher also will be saddling Patch, who entered the Derby off a solid second-place finish in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.

“The Derby was a tough assignment for [Patch], a lightly raced horse and draws the far outside post,” said Pletcher. “He got a decent trip out of it, I don’t think he relished the sloppy track. [He’s by] Union Rags, a Belmont winner, out of an A.P. Indy mare, there’s a lot of pedigree there to suggest that he’s bred to get the mile and a half, and I think his style should fit the race well. As for Tapwrit, I think he ran a sneaky good race in the Derby. I don’t think it would be a surprise if either of them ran well.”

Tapwrit, to be ridden by Jose Ortiz, was tabbed at 6-1 on the morning line and will leave from post position 2, while Patch, under Hall of Famer John Velazquez, was listed at 12-1. The pair will leave from post position 12.

New shooters include the Dallas Stewart-trained Hollywood Handsome (30-1), entering off an allowance win over older horses at Churchill Downs; Meantime, (15-1) second in the Grade 3 Peter Pan in May 13 at Belmont; and Twisted Tom (20-1), who enters off a three-race win streak including the Federico Tesio on April 22 at Laurel Park last time out.

“Obviously, it will be a big class test for him but I’ve been anxious to try him at 1 ½ miles,” said trainer Chad Brown.

Brown will give a leg up on Twisted Tom to Javier Castellano for the Belmont, with the duo having paired to win the Preakness with Cloud Computing.

Entering from the Preakness are Grade 3 Illinois Derby winner Multiplier (15-1), who was sixth in Baltimore, and Senior Investment (12-1), who closed to finish third.

“This thing is wide open, completely wide open,” said Senior Investment’s trainer, Ken McPeek, who upset the 2002 Belmont with 70-1 Sarava. “It will be interesting to see it unfold.”