Handicapping a Graded Stakes Bonanza at Belmont Park

Handicapping a Graded Stakes Bonanza at Belmont Park
Photo: adam mooshian, NYRA

There is simply no time for a Kentucky Derby hangover. Not with the Preakness only nine days away. Before even the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown, though, NYRA has put together a nice card of stakes racing for this Saturday at beautiful Belmont Park. The fields are a little smallish, but the quality is good, and the betting opportunities, as usual, are there. That being said let's take a run at winning some money in the Grade 1 Man o' War, Grade 2 Peter Pan, Grade 2 Ruffian Handicap, and the Grade 3 Beaugay.

In handicapping the four graded stakes, I have the pleasure of going head-to-head with my HorseCenter partner, Matt Shifman of A New York State of Racing. Without further adieu, here’s our respective rundowns of the Peter Pan, Ruffian, Beaugay, and Man O' War ...

Peter Pan:

Brian Zipse

Matt Shifman

1 - Wolf Man Rocket [ML 2-1] - I loved what I saw from him last time when breaking his maiden while wide all the way around in the Northern Spur Stakes at Oaklawn Park. It was a nice progression after two solid maiden efforts in fast sprints at Santa Anita. Good looking colt is bred to get better going longer, and has been working great at Churchill Downs. Top Pick

Wolf Man Rocket [Baffert/I. Ortiz] – This $550,000 two-year-old purchase broke his maiden in an impressive way in the Northern Spur Stakes at Oaklawn Park on the Arkansas Derby undercard. After breaking last he was floated out wide yet still rallied to win going away to earn a 96 BSF.

2 - Madefromlucky [ML 3-1] - After two straight wins at Gulfstream, he was thrown in the American Pharaoh fire in the last two. No need to be embarrassed by those defeats, but I do think the one above is moving in a better direction right now. He certainly rates a chance, though.

Madefromlucky [Pletcher/Castellano] – This chestnut colt earned 30 Kentucky Derby qualifying points with a second in the Rebel (G2) and a fourth in the Arkansas Derby (G1) both behind American Pharoah. Pletcher takes the blinkers off Madefromlucky, who has an experience and class edge on the rest of the field. Castellano inherits the mount from Johnny V. who chose the other Pletcher in here.

3 - Conquest Curlinate [ML 5-1] - Confirmed that he is improving with a strong late run to just miss in the Illinois Derby. With the small field, and only one turn on Saturday, I see him only competing for minor awards this time, though. Look for him to make more noise down the road.

Conquest Curlinate [Casse/Bridgmohan] – This gray son of Curlin ran a big race in the Illinois Derby (G3) back in April. Eleven lengths behind in eighth and last place after three calls, he came flying down the stretch to lose by a nose. The 95 BSF for the nine furlongs shows that this race may be a good spot for him.

4 - Two Weeks Off – [ML 9-5] Much like the top one, he comes into the Peter Pan with only three lifetime starts, and a very progressive form cycle. While he has had only one race in 2015, and never been farther than the seven furlongs plus of Keeneland’s Beard Course, he must be respected off that huge effort last month, he looms the controlling speed, and the main threat to Wolf Man Rocket.

Two Weeks Off - [Pletcher/Velazquez] – Velazquez chose this one over Madefromlucky making “the other Pletcher” angle even more meaningful here. His most recent race was an eye-popping 106 BSF in a Keeneland seven furlong allowance win. The one turn stretch out seems like an ideal spot for this one to win gate to wire. Top Pick

5 – Tiz Shea D - After a solid race in the Gotham, the son of  Tiznow was no match for Frosted in the Wood, when a non-factor fifth. This one is a little easier, but not much. Another with only three lifetime efforts, he still has room to improve, but he will need to do just that to win this.

Tiz Shea D - [Mott/Lezcano] – A very promising second place finish behind El Kabeir in the Gotham (G3) was followed by a disappointing fifth in the Wood Memorial (G1). Since the Wood, he flashed a :47 bullet work at Belmont, the best out of 58. Lezcano will be his fourth rider in his four-race career.

Brian's Play: $20 Exacta - Wolf Man Rocket - Two Weeks Off  $10 Exacta - Two Weeks Off -Wolf Man Rocket = $30

Matt's Play: $20 Exacta - Two Weeks Off over Wolf Man Rocket = $20




1 - Via Strata – [ML 8-5] - A classic acid test situation here, as the Godolphin owned and Kiaran McLaughlin trained filly has steamrolled her way through her first three assignments. The four-year-old daughter of Street Cry may certainly be this good, but the competition will be tougher in the Ruffian.

1 – Via Strata – [McLaughlin/I. Ortiz] – This four-year-old filly is a late bloomer having just begun to race in December and she has now won all three of her starts with big improvement in BSFs each time: 73, 85, 93. She is very likely to be loose on the lead in this step-up to graded stakes company. Top Pick

1A - Wedding Toast – [ML 8-5] After looking like a real up-and-comer in 2013, she missed most of last year due to physical setbacks, making only one start. She has come back with three solid performances this year, albeit, losing to both House Rules and Princess Violet in her last two. Completes a very interesting Godolphin/McLaughlin entry.  

Wedding Toast – [McLaughlin/Lezcano] – Wedding Toast rounds out a formidable entry of Godolphin homebreds. She loves Belmont Park having a career record of 3: 2-1-0 on Big Sandy. Her speed figures have dropped this season, but a return to her best form makes Weeding Toast a threat.

2. Shayjolie – [ML 8-1] - Comes into this off excellent Aqueduct form for trainer Gary Contessa, including giving House Rules a tough time in her last. She will not be one of my top picks in the Ruffian, but the daughter of Indian Charlie may appreciate the cut back to a flat mile, and rates an upset chance to get into the exotics.

Shayjolie –[Contessa/C. Velasquez] – This filly also loves Belmont Park. Shayjolie won the Cat Cay on the Aqueduct inner and was third in the Top Flight (G3), but overall her career speed figures are a notch below several others in the field.

3 - House Rules – [ML 5-2] - She demonstrated true grit in getting up late last time in the Grade 3 Top Flight, while probably not at her absolute best. Not only has she won three of her last four in stakes company, but she sports a sporty 5-4-0-0 record in one mile races, with her only defeat coming after getting away poorly in the Grade 1 Acorn. It all points to her being a major player in this one for trainer Jimmy Jerkens. Top Pick

House Rules – [Jerkens/Castellano] – This multiple graded stakes winner has the class to win this race. She won two grade threes this winter and finished second in the Royal Delta (G2) at Gulfstream. There she beat Molly Morgan who came back and won the La Troienne (G1) on Oaks Day with BSF of 94. Of concern, however, is that House Rules has a 0 for 3 record at Belmont including two losses in 2014 sandwiched between two good races at other tracks.

4 - Macha – [ML 15-1] - The New York-bred daughter of Majestic Warrior looks too cheap to handle these for trainer Rudy Rodriguez.

Macha -[Rodriguez/Franco] – This New York-bred seems outclassed and not fast enough for this grade two stakes. She seems to be in here to help fill the field.

5 - Princess Violet – [ML 9-5] - The New York-bred daughter of Officer broke through in Grade 1 competition with an excellent effort in her second start of the year in the Madison at Keeneland. As consistent as the day is long, she has finished 1st or 2nd in 9-of-10 career starts. If she can repeat her performance of last time, she should be very tough to beat while stretching out just one panel.

Princess Violet – [Rice/J. Ortiz] – The recent winner of the seven-furlong Madison (G1) at Keeneland also has a stellar record on Big Sandy. Her BSFs are consistently as good or better than the rest of the field. This New York-bred is the real deal.

Brian's Play:   $10 Trifecta Key - House Rules over Princess Violet/Godolphin entry = $20

Matt's Play: $10 Exacta Box - Via Strata (McLaughlin entry) with Princess Violet. = $20



Matt Shifman

1 - J Wonder - [ML 4-1] - Twice a Group 3 winner in England last year, the now Shug McGaughey trained filly brings plenty of class into a contentious field for the Beaugay. Only third in her American debut, she was beaten only a half-length in the Keeneland allowance on soft turf. I’m expecting solid improvement in her second U.S. start, and she might have some odds too. Top Pick

J Wonder –[McGaughey/Castellano] – She competed at the best tracks in Europe at Longchamps, Ascot, and York. In her first American start she ran a good third over a soft Keeneland turf. She won four times in Europe. Top Pick

2 - Radiator - [ML 5-1] - Much like the filly above her, this one will also be making her second career start in the States, after running against classy horses in Europe. She too, made her debut on soft turf at Keeneland, but actually won that one. Thinking J Wonder may be more of a winner, and might have a little higher odds, but for the same reasons as that one, Radiator, now in the hands of Bill Mott, must be considered a serious threat.

Radiator – [Mott/Rosario] – Radiator, like J Wonder, ran in the Coronation Stakes (G1) at Ascot, but she made her debut at Keeneland a winning one. Both Radiator and J Wonder should improve off of their American debuts. J Wonder has a bit more quality to her.  It will be interesting to see if which has the better odds.

3 - Recepta - [ML 6-1] - A nice enough turf filly last year at three, she came back to win her four-year-old debut at Keeneland in nice fashion for trainer Jimmy Toner. She is a stakes winner over the Belmont lawn, but this field is better than she has ever beaten before. A possibility.

Recepta – [Toner/Alvarado] – Her 2015 debut was a winning allowance at Keeneland but she still seems to be up against a tough bunch here.

4 - Photo Call - [ML 6-1] - She really has done nothing wrong in three American starts for trainer Graham Motion since being imported from Ireland. She likely fits with these fillies class-wise, but I tend to steer clear of horses cutting back so sharply in distance.

Photo Calls – [Motion/Maragh] – Photo Call has three good starts since coming to the US from Ireland. She won at a mile at Keeneland in the fall and she could be dangerous on the cut back from 12 furlong graded stakes races.

5 - Caroline Thomas – [ML 12-1] - She’s a graded stakes winner at Belmont, and has proven to be a solid stakes mare on the turf the last few seasons. However, much like the one above her, I will take a stand against her exiting a 12-furlong affair into this 1 1/16 mile race.

Caroline Thomas – [Tagg/J. Ortiz] – She has been running in longer turf races throughout her career. Her recent best races were when she dropped out of graded stakes company.

6 - Testa Rossi – [ML 6-1] - I honestly would have thought that she would have accomplished more by now, considering the talent the stretch runner has. Don’t get me wrong, the Chad Brown charge certainly could win this, but she has not won in more than a year, and has burned too much money in the meantime, for me to play her.

Testa Rossi - [C. Brown/I. Ortiz] – It is hard to dismiss any Chad Brown runner on the turf and this one has lots of back class. She was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in 2013 and won the Miss Grillo at Belmont that same year, but I will need to see her do something in 2015.

7 - Discreet Marq – [ML 2-1] - She’s a major threat in every race she runs in, and will likely be in with a shot at the eighth pole on Saturday. As far as the top spot, I am going to wait for the gray beauty to get in a race under her girth this year before liking her to defeat a solid field like this.

Discreet Marq – [Clement/Velazquez] – The PPs of this NY-bred are filled with grade one races. She loves the Belmont turf with four wins in seven tries. This millionaire will be very hard to beat if she is ready to roll in her 2015 debut, but as a big favorite she will not be my choice.

Brian's Play:   $10 Win J Wonder  $5 Exacta Box J Wonder - Radiator = $20

Matt's Play: $1 Pick 3 - J Wonder with ALL with Imagining, Twilight Eclipse, Hardest Core. = $42

Man o' War:



1 - Imagining – [ML 9-5] - I’m going to say this a lot in this year’s wide open edition of the Man O’ War, but … this is a horse I could easily see winning. The defending champ is a consistent performer at the distance, has good tactical speed, and is coming off a strong effort in his last. Deserves to be one of the favorites.

Imagining – [McGaughey/I. Oritz] – Not only do I always mess up the name of this Phipps runner by calling him Imaging, but I always seem to go the wrong way with him, too. I wanted no part of him at 2.70-1 in the Pan American and he won impressively. Today I will go with him! Top Pick 

2 - Hyper – [ML 10-1] - His last race of 2014 was a disappointment, but before that, he was on a string of nice races. This is a tough ask first time out this year, but if the pace is strong, Hyper could be one of the big beneficiaries for trainer Chad Brown.

Hyper –[C. Brown/Velazquez] – This now eight-year-old has been a hard knocker, but with this being his 2015 debut and in a grade one, I’ll wait to see if he still can run against the younger crowd.

3 - War Dancer – [ML 12-1] - After a nice win in the Louisville Handicap last summer, he could not find the winner’s circle in four more tries against stakes company in turf routes last year. He has a prep in, which should have him ready for this assignment, but I’m just not sure if he is quite classy enough to win this Grade 1.

War Dancer – [Mott/Lezcano] – War Dancer has not won a race in a year. In 2015 he changed to the Mott barn from McPeek, so improvement should be expected in his second start of this year.

4 - Twilight Eclipse – [ML 3-1] - He has not found the winner’s circle of late, but not for a lack of strong performances. Without the presence of Main Sequence, his stature and bankroll would look a whole lot different. He has solid tactical speed to take advantage of any kind of pace, and ran big in his last try at Belmont. Positioned outside of Imagining on Saturday, I like his chances to turn the tables. Top Pick

Twilight Eclipse – [Albertrani/Castellano]. He finally got to run in a race without Main Sequence, got bet down to 1.10-1 favorite, but the result was the same fading finish. Now without a win since Feb. 2014, he seems likely to notch another second or third.

5 - Comes The Dream – [ML 30-1] - Looks like the rank outsider in the field. No thank you.

Comes the Dream - [Weaver/Alvarado] – Low on class and low on speed figures, I’ll pass on this one.

6 - Hardest Core – [ML 4-1] - The surprise winner of the 2014 Arlington Million has found a pretty tough spot for his 2015 debut. He is proven at the distance, and should get a bit of pace to run down. My guess is that he will fire as usual, but just come up a little short first time off the bench. Still, he is a major player that you should discount at your own risk.

Hardest Core - [Graham/Saez] – Hardest Core was a terrific story in the summer of 2014 for trainer Edward Graham. Graham has only 31 career wins since 2001 and one of them was last year’s Arlington Million (G1) with Hardest Core. The Man o’ War is his 2015 debut and he has been very successful at Belmont, but will he be ready?

7 - Dynamic Sky – [ML 5-1] - The consistent Canadian-bred has found plenty of tough spots since winning the Red Smith in New York last fall. While he has yet to win, he has run nothing but good performances on the grass. It seems like he has really found his home in this type of race, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t run well again on Saturday.

Dynamic Sky - [Casse/Velasquez] – A record of only one win form nine career turf starts has to raise a question about whether Dynamic Sky is strong enough on the grass to win a grade one? Keep in mind that he is a millionaire and that he has been running in grade ones and twos of late. Still he is not my top choice.

Brian's Play:  $5 Trifecta Key - Twilight Eclipse over Imagining over Hyper/Hardest Core/Dynamic Sky  $5 Trifecta Key - Twilight Eclipse over Hyper/Hardest Core/Dynamic Sky over Imagining = $30

Matt's Play: $10 Exacta - Imagining over Hardest Core and Twilight Eclipse = $20

Meet Brian Zipse

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat, Forego, and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, American Pharoah and Justify. Before coming to the Nation, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. His new racing partnership venture, Derby Day Racing, invites more fans to experience the thrill of racehorse ownership.

The Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, Brian authored a daily column as Zipse at the Track, created the popular racing show, HorseCenter and added his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Now a Senior Writer for HRN, Brian continues to contribute his thoughts on racing, as well as hosting HorseCenter. A big supporter of thoroughbred aftercare, he serves on the Board of The Exceller Fund.

Brian's work has also been published on several leading industry sites. He has consulted for leading contest site Derby Wars, is both a Hall of Fame and NTRA poll voter, and is a Vox Populi committee member. 

A horse owner and graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives just outside of Louisville with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra.

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