By Bob Ehalt
There’s no better sign of the impending arrival of the Kentucky Derby than the opening day – or evening – at Churchill Downs.
As for New York racing, the same feeling arises with opening day – yes, day – at Belmont Park.
Beautiful Belmont opens its doors for live racing Friday, which means the Kentucky Derby awaits next Saturday and that five weeks later the Belmont Stakes will bring the Triple Crown chase to a conclusion.
In the meantime, New Yorkers can sharp their handicapping skills on Saturday’s featured race at Belmont Park, the $125,000 Elusive Quality Stakes, a seven-furlong turf sprint.
As is customary with a turf race, a competitive field of 10 turned out, though, in a surprising development, none of them are trained by Chad Brown.
The 5-2 morning-line favorite is Commute, a 6-year-old gelding trained by Mark Casse.
Commute was sidelined for nine months before he returned in the Grade 2 Shakertown Stakes at Keeneland on April 7. Eighth in the opening stages, Commute dusted off the cobwebs and rallied mildly to grab fourth in the 5 1/2-furlong turf sprint.
With that race under his belt and a more favorable distance, the graded stakes-placed gelding figures to take a step forward in the Elusive Quality.
Casse, stealing a page from Brown’s playbook, also trains the 4-1 second choice, Conquest Panthera.
Also a 6-year-old gelding, Conquest Panthera was fifth in the mile-long Danger’s Hour in his 2018 debut. Back in August, Conquest Panthera captured the Grade 2 Play the King at Woodbine.
The Elusive Quality also marks the 9-year-old debut of longtime New York favorite Kharafa (9-2).
Best known for his numerous battles with Lubash and King Kreesa in New York State-bred stakes, Kharafa has not raced since September but is no stranger to the turf courses at Belmont Park. Saturday’s race will mark the 24th start in a Belmont turf race for the $1.1 million earner, with a mark of eight wins and eight seconds in those races.
Two of the other main threats in the race are Undrafted (6-1), a graded/group stakes winner in the United States and England, and Ready for Rye (6-1).
The rest of the field includes Blind Ambition (12-1), Great Stuff (20-1), Great Wide Open (12-1), Field of Courage (12-1) and Commend (12-1).
Winners outlets open at 10 a.m. on Derby Day
Speaking of the Kentucky Derby, keep in mind all Winners outlets will open at 10 a.m. next Saturday.
Advance wagering on the Derby will be available on Friday.