Belmont Stakes weekend has arrived and with it, the halfway point of the season. For this Eclipse voter, the first half of the season matters just as much as the second half of the season.
To be clear, a Grade 1 race in March matters just as much as a Grade 1 race in September, at least for this voter.
As has been the case for the last several years, the Belmont Stakes undercard did not disappoint. There are several races with serious Eclipse Award implications.
Before we a take a brief look at what is on the line this weekend with respect to year-end honors, check out this week's updated Division Rankings:
Older dirt males
1. Mystic Guide. The Dubai World Cup winner is scheduled to make his next start in the July 3 Suburban (G2) at Belmont. He very likely will get a rematch with Happy Saver, the horse that beat him in last fall's Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). Not convinced he is the best in this division just yet, with several others inching closer.
2. Maxfield. Rebounded nicely from his first loss, a third-place finish in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), with a win the Alysheba (G2) at Churchill Downs a few weeks back. The June 26 Stephen Foster (G2) will be next, and a win there likely will vault him to No. 1 for at least a week.
3. Silver State. His Oaklawn Handicap (G2) win stamped him as a legitimate Eclipse threat, and he is now 3-for-3 on the season. This horse is flying under everyone's radar but with a win in this weekend's Met Mile (G1) he will move to the top of a very deep division in these rankings.
4. Knicks Go. Will be favored in this weekend's Met Mile, his first start since a fourth-place finish in the Saudi Cup last time out, which halted a four-race winning streak. Winner of the Pegasus World Cup (G1) earlier this season, I admire the move by his connections to bring him back to the races in this spot.
5. Country Grammer. Hollywood Gold Cup winner has run two strong races with his rival, Royal Ship. Do not be surprised to see either this guy or Royal Ship, at the top of this division by the end of the season.
Next 5: Royal Ship, Idol, By My Standards, Dr Post, Express Train.
Older dirt females
1. Letruska. Can pad her division lead in this weekend's star-studded Ogden Phipps (G1), where she faces several ranked below. Last out she was spectacular in the Apple Blossom (G1), prevailing in an epic stretch duel over a future Hall of Famer in Monomoy Girl. She is now 13-for-17 in her career and and was a champion in Mexico for her Mexican connections. She becomes the first horse who started their career in Mexico to win a Grade 1 race in this country.
2. Shedaresthedevil. The Kentucky Oaks winner from 2020 appears better than ever in 2021. She was much the best last out in the La Troienne Stakes (G1) at Churchill Downs, defeating a good field of older females. Previously this gal was gritty in her head win in the Azeri (G2) over Letruska, so why isn't she No. 1? Given how close their race was and the field Letruska defeated in the Apple Blossom, Letruska gets the slight nod. But fear not, she gets her chance to move to the top in this weekend's Ogden Phipps.
3. Monomoy Girl. Was gallant to the finish in the Apple Blossom, but came up a nose short. Clearly still on top of her game, something I wondered aloud about heading into this last race. She was sent to the sidelines with muscle strains and hamstring soreness. Should be back later this summer but might drop from this spot in the coming weeks.
4. Swiss Skydiverame up flat in the stretch and finished a well-beaten third, nearly seven lengths back, in the Apple Blossom last out. Previous to that she was stellar in her Beholder Mile (G1) win at Santa Anita. Hasn't lost two races in a row in nearly 18 months and will be favored this weekend in a very tough Ogden Phipps.
5. As Time Goes By. Game winner of the Santa Maria (G2) last out, she previously routed the Santa Margarita (G2) field. Her only loss this year was a runner-up finish to Swiss Skydiver in the Beholder Mile. Will have home-court advantage come Breeders' Cup time. Will run next in the Clement Hirsch Stakes (G1) on Aug. 1 at Del Mar.
Next 5: Envoutante, Bonny South, Valiance, Spice is Nice, Vault.
1. Medina Spirit. Didn't run poorly in his Preakness loss, a third-place finish behind the winner, Rombauer. Beaten a little over five lengths, the quick middle fractions that he was forced to set by Midnight Bourbon ended up costing them both the race as Rombauer pounced on both of them in the stretch. He stays here at No. 1 for now. No immediate race plans yet for Medina Spirit, who lost a little bit of weight after the Preakness, trainer Bob Baffert said.
2. Essential Quality. Fourth in the Kentucky Derby, last year's 2-year-old champion broke poorly out of the gate, lost ground around the turns, but he did have every chance down the lane to pass the leaders. I am still not convinced that the 10 furlongs had something to do with his inability to get there at the end. His connections feel the 12 furlong distance of the Belmont Stakes will suit him fine, but this guy does not strike me as a horse who will relish the distance of the third jewel of the Triple Crown.
3. Rombauer. The Preakness winner had things fall his way with the two favorites dueling on the front end, so he lands here at No. 3, even though this might be too high. The Preakness was his first win on the dirt, and he will have show me he isn't a one-hit wonder to move up from here. He is a Belmont win away from a likely Eclipse Award.
4. Hot Rod Charlie. Ran his race in Louisville and was in that four-way battle in the stretch for the win. He gamely held off Essential Quality for the show but could not get by Mandaloun and Medina Spirit. He too runs in this weekend's Belmont, where he is a major contender for his first Grade 1 win.
5. Mandaloun. Tremendous race from this guy with his Kentucky Derby runner-up finish. It demonstrated that his Louisiana Derby (G2) off-the-board finish was an aberration, a likely bounce from his strong Risen Star Stakes (G2) score one race prior. Will skip the Belmont and point for the Haskell (G1) at Monmouth later this summer.
Next 5: Jackie's Warrior, Rock Your World, Life Is Good, Midnight Bourbon, Highly Motivated.
1. Malathaat. Was sent off as the favorite in a strong edition of the Kentucky Oaks and she came through, narrowly edging Search Results by a neck at the wire. Will skip the Acorn (G1) and point to the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) in late July and then the Alabama (G1) at Saratoga in August.
2. Search Results. Suffered her first loss to Malathaat in the Kentucky Oaks, but she was ultra game in defeat. She should get another crack at the top one later this year, but first a scheduled start in the Acorn on Belmont undercard.
3. Clairiere. Came with her run in the Oaks and missed the show spot by just a nose. She too will have her chances to move up later this season.
4. Travel Column. Was traveling well on the lead in the Kentucky Oaks but the nine furlongs might have been her undoing and she faded in the stretch to be beaten a little over five lengths. The one-mile Acorn Stakes at Belmont this weekend will suit her much better.
5. Will's Secret. Back-to-back third-place finishes in Grade 1 events bump her up to this spot. She narrowly held off Clairiere for the show spot in the Kentucky Oaks in a nice effort.
Next 5: Crazy Beautiful, Wholebodemeister, Soothsay, Pauline's Pearl, Army Wife.
1. Colonel Liam. Finally faced a tough field of turf horses, and he passed the test as he dead-heated with the very good Domestic Spending for the win in the Turf Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs. Now 3-for-3 on the season, he appears to be a serious player for the Eclipse as this race starts to heat up. Will face Domestic Spending and a host of other serious players in this weekend's Manhattan (G1) at Belmont.
2. Domestic Spending. The Turf Classic was his second Grade 1 win in a row, previously taking the Hollywood Derby last fall. Now 5-for-6 on his career, trainer Chad Brown has himself another turf star. Will get a rematch with "Liam" in the Manhattan.
3. Smooth Like Strait. After several close calls in Grade 1 races, he finally came through with his first win at the top level in last weekend's Shoemaker Mile (G1) at Santa Anita, where he went wire-to-wire. Previous to this win, he set the pace in Colonel Liam's Turf Classic and was edged by a neck nearing the wire to finish third. Looks like a serious Breeders' Cup Mile contender down the road.
4. Channel Maker. He simply didn't run his best race in Dubai, where he finished eighth, beaten six lengths in the Sheema Classic (G1). Previously, he ran a gallant race to finish second in the Neom Turf Cup In Saudi Arabia. Will be back racing in New York this summer and will drop spots until then as others continue to run.
5. Raging Bull. Certainly an impressive win in the Maker's Mark Mile (G1), his first start of 2021. Remains in the Top Five for now, but I cannot help but remember last season when he was impressive in first start of 2020 in Santa Anita's Shoemaker Mile, also a Grade 1 win. He then went winless for the remainder of the season. In other words, I am skeptical he can string together wins.
Next 5: Hit the Road, Somelikeithotbrown, Say the Word, Channel Cat, Gufo.
1. Mean Mary Was very good at a distance (8.5 furlongs) that is not her best in the Gallorette Stakes (G3) at Pimlico. She was No. 1 for a few weeks in 2020 and she takes over that spot in a division that has no Rushing Falls in it this year. The New York Stakes (G2) this Friday is her next scheduled start, and several others ranked below are also slated to run. But there is rain in the forecast, so expect a scratch or two.
5. Charmaine's Mia. Very disappointing effort last weekend when off the board, beaten three lengths in the Gamely (G1) at Santa Anita. Previously, she won the Royal Heroine (G2) at Santa Anita. Her three graded stakes wins keep her here for this week, but she will fall from this spot with the bevy of races in store for the division this weekend.
Next 5: Viadera, Mucho Unusual, Magic Attitude, Lemista, Maxim Rate.
1. Mischevious Alex. Won his first Grade 1 race a few weeks ago in the Carter at Aqueduct in impressive fashion. Previously he scored in the Gulfstream Park Sprint (G3), also impressively. He appears to be a real Eclipse contender this year, and his speed figures are on par with or better than anyone else in this division. Will now get his chance against some of the best in this weekend's very tough Met Mile.
2. C Z Rocket. His connections tried to stretch him out to a mile in the Steve Sexton (G3) at Lone Star but it wasn't to be. Finishing second, he didn't run poorly, but he is clearly more effective sprinting. Falls from the top spot for now, but could move right back to the top next week pending the results from his rivals here who are running this weekend.
3. Flagstaff. Tough old veteran is at the top of his game now as he scored his first Grade 1 win from 19 career starts in his last, the Churchill Downs Stakes. With two straight wins, these top three are tough to separate right now. He can move up with another win in Friday's True North (G2) at Belmont Park.
4. Whitmore. Another tough loss for this guy as he briefly had the lead late in the Churchill Downs Stakes but was edged at the wire, where he finished a close third in a blanket finish with four others. Previously he was twice runner-up to C Z Rocket at Oaklawn. As honest as they come, he still is at the top of his game.
5. Cezanne. Certainly a visually impressive win in the Kona Gold (G3) at Santa Anita, where he won by more than nine lengths, but pump the brakes before you hand him the Eclipse. He beat only three other horses and was able to lay far off a blazing early pace set by the race favorite, Brickyard Ride. In other words, I need to see a lot more before he moves up.
Next 5: Firenze Fire, Wildman Jack, Brickyard Ride, Special Reserve, Lexitonian.
1. Gamine. Had to work for her win in the Derby City Distaff (G1) over Sconsin, but she got the job done with the win. With fans used to the dominant Gamine we saw in 2020, the 2021 version hasn't been quite the same. Perhaps it is because this season she has been forced to run without Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication, after running with it in all of her previous starts. Her next start is undecided.
2. Kimari. In her first graded stakes race on the dirt she did not disappoint, edging away in the stretch for a 3/4-length win over Bell's the One in the Madison (G1) at Keeneland. Have to believe she would have been tough in the recent Derby City Distaff, but her connections opted not to enter. That may cost them come Eclipse voting time. She needs to run soon or will drop from this spot.
3. Sconsin. Showed in the Winning Colors (G3) that her close runner-up to Gamine in the Derby City Distaff was no fluke as she romped by three widening lengths in defeating Frank's Rockette, among others. She is in top form now and will be a major player moving forward in this division.
4. Bell's the One. Another somewhat disappointing effort when she was off the board in the Derby City, finishing fourth and beaten by more than five lengths. I will keep her here for now because I still believe she is among the best in this division. But one more subpar effort and she will drop.
5. Merneith. Won the Santa Monica (G2) last out and previously was third in the La Brea (G1) in December. Looks like she is finally realizing her potential for trainer Bob Baffert. Hasn't had a work for awhile and not expected back until the summer, so she will drop in the coming weeks.
Next 5: Edgeway, Estilo Talentoso, Frank's Rockette, Pacific Gale, Venetian Harbor.
While the Belmont Stakes will surely grab most major headlines in a weekend full of major stakes races at Belmont Park, it is hardly the only one with Eclipse Award implications. Look no further than Friday’s card as two races stand out with obvious year-end championship ramifications.
The Truth North (G2) features the male sprinters, and in it we have our current No. 3, Flagstaff, facing off against the No. 6-ranked Firenze Fire. Fresh off of his Churchill Down Stakes (G1) win, Flagstaff will try to win his third graded stakes in a row. Firenze Fire won this race last year and is coming off of a win in the Runhappy Stakes (G3). With a win here, Flagstaff could move up to No. 1 next week. Both Flagstaff and Firenze Fire should be in this Eclipse race for the remainder of the season. With rain in the forecast, there is a possibility that Firenze Fire could be scratched – he hasn’t run well in the slop previously.
Two races later is a matchup I have been looking forward to for a while. The current No. 1, Mean Mary, is set to take on the No. 3 ranked Harvey's Lil Goil in the New York Stakes (G2). Both of these gals were Eclipse favorites in this Turf Female division, and both started their season with winning efforts last time out. This race doesn’t boil down to just these two as the No. 8, Magic Attitude, is also entered. Toss in another preseason Eclipse candidate, Civil Union, and you get the point. With nothing guaranteed in the future, a win here for either Mean Mary or Harvey’s Lil Goil will go a long way toward a potential Eclipse Award.
Saturday’s Acorn Stakes (G1) for the 3-year-old fillies is highlighted with the presence of the No. 2 ranked Search Results. Last time out she suffered her first career loss, a neck loss to Malathaat in the Kentucky Oaks. I bring up this race for one reason – nothing is guaranteed in this sport. Malathaat’s connections chose to sit this out and wait for the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), another seven weeks away. Search Results may very well add a couple more wins to her resume before Malathaat even runs again. This matters. Horses don’t get Eclipse votes from this voter by sitting on the bench.
On paper, the race of the weekend is clearly the Ogden Phipps (G1) for the Older Dirt Female division. In it, we have half of the top 10-ranked horses from this division running. The No. 1 ranked Letruska is the morning-line favorite, fresh off of her win over Monomoy Girl and Swiss Skydiver in the Apple Blossom (G1). Can Letruska run two brilliant races in a row?
Last year’s Preakness winner, Swiss Skydiver, hasn’t lost two races in a row in nearly 18 months. She may be 5-2 on the morning line, but I expect her to go postward as the favorite here. Last year’s Kentucky Oaks heroine, Shedaresthedevil is also entered, and she handed Letruska her only loss this season. Shedaresthedevil has clearly taken it to a new level this year, but is she good enough to beat this bunch and take over divisional leadership? Also entered is Valiance, the Spinster (G1) winner from last fall and runner-up to Monomoy Girl in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. But this is her first start of 2021, a tall order.
The Met Mile (G1) came up big again this year with four of the top 10 older dirt male horses entered. A win by the No. 3 Silver State or the No. 4 Knicks Go will move them up to No. 1, past the idle Mystic Guide. Silver State is a winner of his last five, while the Pegasus winner from earlier this year, Knicks Go, is coming off of a loss in the 9 furlong Saudi Cup. Also entered is the No. 1 ranked sprinter, Mischevious Alex. Stretching out to one mile after winning his last three sprinting this season, a win here will most certainly pad his lead in that division.
The top two Turf Males are set for an encore in the Manhattan (G1). Colonel Liam and Domestic Spending dead heated last out in the Turf Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs, and headline this race. Also entered is the No. 10 ranked Gufo – never off the board in 9 career starts, he could spoilt the party. This race could weigh heavily in year-end Eclipse voting.
Lastly, we have the Belmont Stakes. As far as the Eclipse award goes, it boils down to this:
If Rombauer adds the Belmont to a resume that already includes the Preakness, the Eclipse race in this division is all but over. Rombauer would win the 3-year-old male Eclipse. Before you call me crazy, consider these facts.
In the Eclipse Award era there have been 24 horses to win two-thirds of the Triple Crown. All but two went on to win the Eclipse – several without having won another race after the Triple Crown series. The two that didn’t win the Eclipse after winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown? Tabasco Cat in 1994 and Riva Ridge in 1972. In 1994 Tabasco Cat lost the Eclipse to Holy Bull. Holy Bull rattled off five graded stakes wins in a row (Four Grade 1) that summer and fall. There is no Holy Bull in this crop of 3-year-olds.
So, of all the horses entered in the Belmont, it is Rombauer who has the most control over his Eclipse fate.
Next week I will hand out my Eclipse winners for 2021's first half of the season.