While the sophomores competing in Saturday’s 150th running of the Belmont Stakes (G1) will take center stage, another group earlier on the Belmont Park card should also attract some interest.
A dozen three-year-olds have been entered to sprint seven furlongs in the $400,000 Woody Stephens Stakes (G2), including Kentucky Derby (G1) runner PROMISES FULFILLED.
However, two races before the Woody Stephens, multiple Grade 1 winner and $4 million earner HOPPERTUNITY lines up against eight rivals in the $400,000 Brooklyn Invitational (G2) going 1 1/2 miles on Belmont Park’s main track.
The hard-knocking seven-year-old is no stranger to winning at Belmont Park, capturing the 2016 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) in his only start over Big Sandy. The Any Given Saturday bay shows two starts this season, a 6 1/2-length win in the 1 1/2-mile Tokyo City Cup (G3) and a fourth-placing in the Alysheba Stakes (G2) going 1 1/16 miles.
“He likes a mile and a half. He feels more comfortable, gets in his own little groove,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “Those shorter races, he has trouble closing. He needs a certain kind of pace.”
Hopportunity keeps Flavien Prat in the irons on Saturday as he tries to run his Belmont line to a perfect two-for-two.
Also entered in the Brooklyn is defending champion WAR STORY, who followed last year’s win with fourths in the Whitney Stakes (G1), Woodward Stakes (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) for trainer Jorge Navarro. The Northern Afleet gelding enters this year’s edition of the Brooklyn off a neck second in the Charles Town Classic (G2) on April 21.
HARD STUDY has captured six of his last eight, including a 5 1/2-length score in the 1 3/8-mile Flat Out Stakes at Belmont on May 4, and is also in with a chance on Saturday. The Todd Pletcher-trained five-year-old is 3-1-0 from four starts at Belmont.
The Woody Stephens has attracted a contentious field, and Promises Fulfilled is looking to rebound off a pair of unplaced efforts. The chestnut son of Shackleford was sent off at 49-1 in the Kentucky Derby following a disappointing ninth-place finish in the Florida Derby (G1). The Dale Romans pupil could do no better than 15th in the Kentucky Derby next out, but went 3-0-1 from four starts prior to those two.
Included amongst Promises Fulfilled’s wins is a 2 1/4-length wire job in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park on March 3 to kick off his sophomore season. Luis Saez has the call for the first time on Saturday.
A number of other runners in the Woody Stephens pointed for the Kentucky Derby, but either opted to skip the first jewel of the Triple Crown or didn’t have enough points to make the race.
Amongst those are the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained KANTHAKA, who captured Santa Anita Park’s Lazaro Barrera Stakes (G3) most recently after a sixth-placing, and last-ditch effort to make the Derby field, in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland on April 7. GIVEMEAMINIT was unable to hit the board in either the Risen Star Stakes (G2) or Louisiana Derby (G2), and found himself finishing third at 21-1 in the Pat Day Mile (G3) on Kentucky Derby Day instead of the main event.
“He’s three-for-three at the seven-eighths,” assistant trainer Dan Ward said of Kanthaka. “You have to see if you can go long. Sometimes, sprinters will do well the first time they go long and can fool you. The second time he really didn’t want to go that far. If you have a three-year-old who wins a stakes at seven-eighths from off the pace, you have to see if you can go long because everybody wants a Derby horse.”
BEAUTIFUL SHOT was another who failed to acquire enough points to make the Run for the Roses after finishing eighth in both the Gotham Stakes (G3) and Arkansas Derby (G1). The Trappe Shot colt proved much better last out when lining up for a three-quarter length second in the Laz Barrera. Swale Stakes (G3) winner STRIKE POWER stopped in the Florida Derby (G1) last out, finishing eighth after dueling through swift early fractions with Promises Fulfilled. That came one race after a nice second in the Fountain of Youth, and the chestnut colt gets a rider switch to John Velazquez for this return to action.
“I thought a mile and an eighth (in the Florida Derby) might be stretching it to the extreme for him, but no horse would want any part of the way that race unfolded,” trainer Mark Hennig said of Strike Power and his effort in the Florida Derby. “He’s doing great now and we’re looking forward to getting him back around one turn.”
WORLD OF TROUBLE romped by 13 lengths in the Pasco Stakes while making his first start, and sophomore bow, for new trainer Jason Servis on January 20, then finished third in Tampa Bay Derby (G2). The Triple Crown-nominated colt hasn’t been seen in competition since that March 10 affair but lines up here under returning jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. Fellow Triple Crown nominee STILL HAVING FUN faces graded rivals for the first time here. The Old Fashioned colt captured a pair of stakes at Laurel Park to kick off 2017 and was second last out at Pimlico on Preakness Day in the Chick Lang Stakes.
The remaining five horses in the Woody Stephens are once-beaten Grade 3 scorer THE TABULATOR, a 6 1/4-length winner of his only start this season in the Golden Circle Stakes; Grade 3 victor ENGAGE, a nose winner of the Gold Fever Stakes over a muddy, sealed track at Belmont Park on May 13; Hutcheson Stakes (G3) romper MADISON’S LUNA, unplaced in the Pat Day Mile after brushing the gate and bobbling; Chick Lang fourth-placer PURE SHOT; and New York-bred stakes winner AQUA BEL SAR.
The Easy Goer features some familiar names, including MASK and HIGH NORTH. The former suffered his first loss when eighth in the Pat Day Mile last out following earlier easy wins. The latter finished fourth in the Peter Pan Stakes (G3) after a nice 2 1/2-length win in the Northern Spur Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Also entered in the race are Grade 3-placers DARK VADER and SOUTACHE; stakes winner PRINCE LUCKY, third in the Sir Barton Stakes most recently; and unbeaten stakes debuter BREAKING THE RULES.