By Bob Ehalt
Years ago, the current meet at Belmont Park was known as the Fall Championship Meet.
Saturday’s card will explain why.
Belmont will be the site of four important stakes that will not crown a champion but should point out several horses who can emerge as top contenders at the Breeders’ Cup in Del Mar.
The foursome is topped by the $500,000 Joe Hirsch at a mile and a half on the turf.
The early favorite is Oscar Performance, who could enhance his credentials as a candidate for the 3-year-old championship. He has reeled off consecutive wins in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge, Grade 1 Belmont Derby and Grade 1 Secretariat. But all of them were stakes restricted to 3-year-olds, and Saturday’s race marks an important step forward in his career as he faces older rivals for the first time.
“This will be his first kick at the can against older horses, but we’re confident that he can hold his own,” trainer Brian Lynch said. “You hit a much more seasoned group of high-level, competitive horses, whereas in the 3-year-old division, you can catch a lightly raced group who might not have the miles on them or have fought in the heavyweight bouts. It’s great to have this type of test.”
The Joe Hirsch, a race named in honor of the legendary Daily Racing Form columnist, marks the first try at a mile-and-a-half for Oscar Performance, but the son of Kitten’s Joy is coming off a pair of wins at a mile-and-a-quarter in his last two starts.
“If they’re bred to get the mile and a half, they’ll get it. It’s all about the pace scenario,” Lynch said. “If he’s able to sit on comfortable fractions, he’ll give you that good quarter-mile kick. Fortunately enough, we know he has a good kick and tactically, he’s a nice forwardly placed horse. If there’s no pace in the race, he’s going to have a nice kick when they start sprinting. He seems to appreciate firm turf, so that can be in his favor, too.”
The main contenders figure to be Grade 1 Sword Dancer winner Sadler’s Joy and one of three starters trained by 2016 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown.
Brown, no stranger to sending out multiple starters in a turf stakes, will be represented by Arlington Million winner Beach Patrol, Sword Dancer runner-up Money Multiplier and Arlington Million second-place finisher Fanciful Angel.
The rest of the field includes Grade 1 Manhattan winner Ascend (12-1), Breeders’ Stakes winner Channel Maker (20-1), Mekhtaal (15-1), European chipper The Grey Gatsby (8-1) and 50-1 longshots Converge and Tricked Up.
Also on the card, which starts at 12:30 p.m., is the $400,000 Beldame Invitational.
Elate, a powerful 5 1/2-length winner of the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes, is a 3-5 favorite in a field of seven.
Like Oscar Performance, Elate faces older foes for the first time in the Beldame.
“She’s doing good, we’re real happy with her,” Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said. “If she puts in a great performance, we’ll go to the Breeders’ Cup, but we have to wait and see. We’re optimistic, but we’ll wait to see what happens.”
Also on the card are the $400,000 Vosburgh, a Grade 1 sprint stakes, and the $200,000 Pilgrim, a Grade 3 turf stakes for 2-year-old males.
‘Double’ your fun at Belmont Park
The Beldame and the Joe Hirsch are the final two races on the card, which is noteworthy for Winners account holders. Once again, the Winners Saturday bonus will be $15 for hitting either the early double and the late double of the Beldame and Joe Hirsch at Belmont and $30 for hitting both of them.
If you’re in the mood for advice, follow the Winners Twitter account (@MyWinnersCT) where I’ll be offering selections on Saturday’s Belmont card.
See you then.