Fall Championship at Belmont 2012: Preview and picks

Nick Laham - Getty Images

Royal Delta, It's Tricky, Ron the Greek, Shackleford lead a parade of stars on Super Saturday at the Belmont Fall Championship meet.

The Belmont Fall Championship meet typically features some of the best stakes races anywhere in North America, as well as the place where most East Coast-based horses will make their final starts before the Breeders' Cup. This year's Super Saturday card at Belmont is comprised of six graded stakes events, five of which carry the Grade 1 designation signifying the highest level of racing in the country. Additionally, all six graded stakes race on Saturday are part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" program which guarantees the winner a spot in the starting gate for the corresponding Breeders' Cup race (provided the horse is Breeders' Cup eligible).

Let's take a quick preview of the graded stakes action scheduled for Saturday at Belmont Park.

Race 5 - Grade 1 Beldame Invitational
Distance/Surface: 1 1/8 Miles, Dirt
Conditions: Three-year-olds and up, Fillies and Mares
Purse: $400,000
Breeders' Cup Challenge Division: Ladies' Classic

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

2011 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic winner 3-Royal Delta (EVEN) is the heavy morning line favorite against a field of six rivals but she's not without questions heading into the Beldame. In her last start, Royal Delta finished 2nd, beaten by a half-length, in the G1-Personal Ensign at Saratoga. On paper, that race doesn't look so bad; both the final finishing position and speed figure were solid. Visually, however, it wasn't one of Royal Delta's best races. She broke well from the gate but essentially passed tiring fillies in the final quarter mile to pick up second place and jockey Mike Smith had to do a lot of encouraging to get her to finish out the race.

It's possible that Royal Delta just wasn't at her best in the Personal Ensign after running two very good races in her previous two starts, including a long, tough stretch duel with Tiz Me Sue in the G2-Delaware Handicap in late July. However, if she puts in another "even" effort in this race it's going to be hard to back her to repeat in the Ladies' Classic at Santa Anita.

The Pick

The play in this race appears to be 6-It's Tricky (7/5), a filly that finished just behind Royal Delta in the Personal Ensign after a simply awful start. In the Personal Ensign, It's Tricky stumbled badly out of the starting gate, nearly planting her nose into the Saratoga dirt. But despite a horrible start and racing further back in the field that she normally finds herself in the early stages, It's Tricky finished up fairly strong and held for third. Should she avoid face-planting at the start of the Beldame, she should have a big chance to pick up the win.

Race 6 - Grade 2 Kelso Handicap
Distance/Surface: 1 Mile, Dirt
Conditions: Three-year-olds and up
Purse: $400,000
Breeders' Cup Challenge Division: Dirt Mile

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

6-Shackleford (2/1) is one of the top dirt mile horses in the country and is looking for a bounce back race after finishing dead last in the G1-Vanderbilt last time out at Saratoga. There are a couple of reasons that a handicapper might completely toss the Vanderbilt from the Kelso equation: first, the track was listed as "Muddy" and Shackleford has not run well over wet tracks in his career. In his three career races over tracks rated "Good" or worse, Shack has finished 8th (beaten nine lengths), 7th (beaten almost eight lengths) and 5th (beaten over seven lengths). Second, the Vanderbilt is a six furlong sprint (as opposed to the one mile Kelso) and Shackleford (given his need to run up front but lack of blazing early speed) if clearly better suited to a race with a bit more ground to cover.

Morning line favorite 5-To Honor and Serve (8/5) cuts back in distance after winning the G1-Woodward Stakes over nine furlongs in his last start. In his career, To Honor and Serve is 4-3-0-1 in races at a mile in distance.

The Pick

The field for the Kelso is packed with horses that want/need to run on or near the lead in the early stages. The pace should be quick, providing the perfect opportunity for a horse to come from the rear of the field to pick up the pieces in deep stretch. However, while the Kelso has a ton of speed in the field, there is a clear absence of traditional closers, with the exception of To Honor and Serve. And while To Honor and Serve isn't really a classic "closer" (he is versatile enough to stalk the pace in the early stages), jockey John Velazquez should be able to settle him behind the early speed in order to position him for a strong late charge inside the final furlongs.

Race7 - Grade 1 Vosburgh Invitational
Distance/Surface: 6 Furlongs, Dirt
Conditions: Three-year-olds and up
Purse: $400,000
Breeders' Cup Challenge Division: Sprint

WHAT TO LOOK FOR:

One of the tougher races to handicap on Belmont's Saturday card, the Vosburgh features an evenly matched field of nine sprinters led by morning line favorite 9-Justin Phillip (3/1). In his most recent race, Justin Phillip lost to 2-Poseidon's Warrior (4/1) by a nose in the G1-Vanderbilt.

The winner of this race will likely head to Santa Anita as one of the favorites for the Breeders' Cup Sprint as, historically, the Vosburgh is one of the best sprint races of the year. However, it's been a long time since a horse that won the Vosburgh has returned to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint that same fall. In fact, the last horse to pull of that feat was Artax in 1999.

The Pick

Calling the Vosburgh a "wide open race" is an extreme understatement - there are only a couple of horses in this field that appear to have no shot to win. 1-Sean Avery (7/2) is making just his second start of 2012 after winning the G1-Vanderbilt in August of 2011, and while it may be too much to ask of this gelding to win a race as tough as the Vosburgh in just his second start of the year, there's no denying that Sean Avery (when fit and healthy) can run at a very high level. While he likes to be up near the lead in the early stages, Sean Avery doesn't need the lead and should be able to secure a perfect stalking trip from stall #4 in the starting gate.

Sean Avery is part of a coupled entry with 1a-The Lumber Guy; so... two for the price of one!

Race 8 - Grade 1 Flower Bowl Invitational
Distance/Surface: 1 1/4 Miles, Inner Turf Course
Conditions: Three-year-olds and up, Fillies and Mares
Purse: $600,000
Breeders' Cup Challenge Division: Filly & Mare Turf

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Three European runners have made the trip across the Atlantic to run in the Flower Bowl, including the morning line favorite 1-Dream Peace (IRE) (5/2). The European runners are, typically, a bit stronger than the American turf horses and this race appears to be no exception. Dream Peace, 4-I'm A Dreamer (IRE) (3/1) and 8-Nahrain (GB) (5/1) are all group stakes winners in Europe and have each run well in prior starts in North America.

7-Zagora (FR) (7/2) ran huge in winning the G2-Balston Spa at Saratoga in late August but she faces a decidedly tougher field in this spot and will have to travel 3/16ths of a mile farther. How Zagora performs over more ground and against a trio of classy shippers from across the pond will likely tell us a lot about what to expect at Santa Anita in early November. If the Euros dominate this race (and, on paper, that's a very distinct possibility), it could be a tough year for the home team in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

The last horse to win the Yellow Ribbon and then go on to win the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf was Lahudood in 2007.

The Pick

While Dream Peace and I'm A Dreamer are legit favorites to win this race, Nahrain is likely going to be the best wagering value of the three. A winner of the prestigious G1-Prix de l'Opera last year in France, Nahrain only lost by three-quarters of a length in the 2011Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf after sitting just off of an abysmally slow pace. She should get a lot more to run at in this spot and she comes in to the race off a good 3rd place finish in the Group 2 Blandford Stakes at the Curragh in Ireland on Sept. 9th.

At 5/1 on the morning line, there are a lot of reasons to like Nahrain in the Flower Bowl.

Race 9 - Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational
Distance/Surface: 1 1/2 Miles, Widener (Outer) Turf Course
Conditions: Three-year-olds and up
Purse: $600,000
Breeders' Cup Challenge Division: Turf

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

While the Flower Bowl looks like a race ripe for domination by the European shippers, the Hirsch Turf features, arguably, the top American hope for success in this year's Breeders' Cup Turf: 2-Point of Entry (4/5). Point of Entry has won four straight races and five of his last six, including the G2-Elkhorn, G1-Man o'War and G1-Sword Dancer. He didn't make his first career start until May of his three-year-old year and he struggled to find his form during most of 2011. However, once the calendar turned to 2012 this son of Dynaformer became a turf monster.

3-Treasure Beach (GB) (6/1) ships back over from Ireland to run in North America for the fifth time in his career (4-1-0-1). If you're looking for Breeders' Cup implication from this race, this is what to look for: Treasure Beach has been an inconsistent runner for much of the last year and he's in no way, shape or form considered a top European turf horse right now. If he were to win or (heaven forbid) dominate the Hirsch, that would no doubt signal a severe weakness in the American contenders for the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Since the start of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, four horses have won the Hirsch Turf Classic and then gone on to win the Breeders' Cup Turf: 2007 - English Channel, 1998 - Buck's Boy, 1994 - Tikkanen, 1987 - Theatrical (IRE)

The Pick

There likely won't be any value in the win pool, but Point of Entry is the logical pick to win the Hirsch Turf.

Arlington Million winner 4-Little Mike (2/1) will once again be lone speed but he'll have to run farther than he ever has before if he wants to come out on top in this race.

Race 10 - Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup
Distance/Surface: 1 1/4 Miles, Dirt
Conditions: Three-year-olds and up
Purse: $1,000,000
Breeders' Cup Challenge Division: Classic

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

The $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup features a field of ten led by 1-Ron the Greek (5/2), winner of the G1-Santa Anita Handicap and G1-Stephen Foster Handicap. After struggling to stay injury-free and consistent for much of the last two seasons, Ron the Greek has emerged in 2012 as one of the top older horses in the country. The Gold Cup, however, will be a tough race for him given what looks to be a fairly soft pace scenario. Ron the Greek typically runs his best race by making a big, late move down the middle of the track, something that will be more difficult without quick fractions in the early stages.

9-Flat Out (3/1) won this race a year ago but hasn't visited the Winner's Circle in any of his six races since that day. He was 3rd to 5-Fort Larned (7/2) and Ron the Greek in the G1-Whitney in his last start, and finished 2nd by a length and a half to Rule in the G2-Monmouth Cup two starts back. At a minimum, it's good to see his form round back into shape.

Three horses have won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup Classic in the same year: 2007 - Curlin, 1997 - Skip Away, and 1995 - Cigar.

The Pick

Fort Larned's current form is simply exceptional, with a rough-trip 8th in the G1-Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill in mid-June the only truly bad race this year. He's won a Grade 1 (Whitney), two Grade 3s (Cornhusker Handicap and Skip Away) and finished 2nd in the G2-Alysheba on Derby weekend. Not a bad run of results at all for this four-year-old son of E Dubai. There's not a lot of speed in this year's Gold Cup which should allow Fort Larned to get a perfect trip around Big Sandy on Saturday afternoon.

A horse that might be an interesting price play in the Gold Cup is 8-San Pablo (12/1), winner of the G3-Iselin Stakes at Monmouth Park back on August 18th. San Pablo hasn't run against a field as good or as deep as the Gold Cup all year long, but he's an exceptionally consistent colt and the pace scenario should allow him to sit in the garden spot during the early stages. He's 12/1 on the morning line, which might be a little short given his race history, but if he were to drift up to 15/1 or better, he might be worth a small win bet or inclusion in an exacta or tri with Fort Larned.

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