By Bob Ehalt
Some four weeks from now we’ll know if there will be a 13th Triple Crown champion, this one bearing the name of Justify.
In the meantime, with last weekend’s Kentucky Derby opening the door to the fun part of the racing year, Saturday’s card at Belmont Park is a loud reminder that spring in is the air and some of the best races of the year are not too far away.
Heck, even Saratoga is just a little more than two months away.
There are five stakes on Saturday’s card at Belmont, including the first Grade 1 stakes of the meet and an important prep for the Belmont Stakes on June 9.
Starting with all things Triple Crown, the $350,000 Peter Pan drew a field of eight to travel a one-turn mile-and-an-eighth over Big Sandy. As recently as 2014, Tonalist used the Peter Pan as his springboard to win the Belmont and thwart California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid.
The 2-1 favorite is Core Belief, who in his last start was third, 9 ½ lengths behind the aforementioned Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. Trained by Peter Eurton, Core Beliefs made his stakes debut in the Santa Anita Derby after winning a maiden race at that California track by 3 ¼ lengths.
“He’s doing very well,” trainer Peter Eurton said about the 3-year-old son of Quality Road. “We’re very proud of him, no complaints. We were very pleased with his last race, as it was his first race against winners, and now we know now know the caliber of horse we were running against in Justify. I mean he was trying to win, it wasn’t like he was really far back. He was there at the three-quarters, and was running throughout. We were real pleased with him and how he ran. The ideal would be for him to win, come out of it liking the track and then go on to the Belmont, but we’re going to take it one race at a time for now.”
The main competition could come from High North (4-1 morning line), who won the Northern Spur Stakes at Oaklawn Park in his last start.
Equipped with blinkers for the first time in the Northern Spur, High North was second to eventual graded stakes winner Avery Island in a Belmont Park maiden race last September. He’s the only horse in the field with the benefit of a race over Belmont’s sandy main track.
“He’s doing real well,” trainer Brad Cox said. “I think the blinkers helped, and I think because he was a little closer to the pace than his previous two races, I think it worked out well for him.”
Blended Citizen (6-1) enters the Peter Pan after finishing fifth in the Blue Grass Stakes and failing to picking up enough points to start in the Derby. Trained by Doug O’Neill, Blended Citizen won the Jeff Ruby Stakes in his prior start over a synthetic surface at Turfway Park.
The rest of the field includes Zing Zang (10-1), Just Whistle (5-1), Diamond King (7-2), Gotta Go (15-1) and Transistor (15-1).
Hi Happy is the 5-2 favorite in the $700,000 Man o’War on the turf but will face a difficult challenge from Grade 1 winner Sadler’s Joy and a trio of starters of Chad Brown, the nation’s premier grass trainer.
The Argentinian-bred Hi Happy, trained by Todd Pletcher, enters the mile-and-three-eighths turf stakes off a victory in the Pan American, a Grade 2 mile-and-a-half turf stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Sadler’s Joy, winner of last year’s Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga, was hurt by a wide trip while finishing fourth in the Pan American as the 9-5 favorite.
Brown will send out the uncoupled entry of Wake Forest (6-1), Call Provision (9-2) and Money Multiplier (10-1).
Saturday’s 11-race card also includes the Grade 3 Beaugay, Grade 3 Vagrancy and $150,000 Runhappy.
Special Pick 4 bonus for online/mobile customers
Saturday’s Belmont card also features a Winners’ rewards bonus. Online and mobile customers who wager at least $100 on the program and then hit the Late Pick 4 will divide $1,000 worth of wagering bonuses.