February 20, 2024

Sistercharlie versus Holy Helena in New York; The Queen’s Call to Mind seeks Belmont Gold Cup

Sistercharlie and Fourstar Crook finished one-two in the Jenny Wiley (Photo courtesy Coady Photography)

Two of the nation’s most captivating turf distaffers, Sistercharlie and Holy Helena, will clash in Friday’s $600,000 New York S. (G2) on day two of the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.

Sistercharlie, from the well-stocked barn of Chad Brown, returns to this 1 1/4-mile trip on the inner turf for the first time since her neck loss to stablemate New Money Honey in last summer’s Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1). Left with too much ground to make up in that U.S. debut, the Myboycharlie filly wasn’t exactly unlucky but may have prevailed with better early position. In her previous start in the French Oaks (G1), Sistercharlie was unlucky to have her rally delayed by a traffic snarl, and she had to settle for second to Senga.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see Sistercharlie again as she was sidelined for the duration of her sophomore campaign. The Peter Brant import wasted no time in getting back to top form in her comeback in the April 14 Jenny Wiley (G1) at Keeneland, quickening beautifully to score by 2 1/4 lengths over stablemate Fourstar Crook.

The stretch-out should favor Sistercharlie again in their rematch, although Fourstar Crook does sport a 5-for-6 mark at Belmont. After lording it over New York-breds, the Freud mare proved herself at the top level with a third in the E.P. Taylor (G1), her only try at this distance. Fourstar Crook resumed with a first graded score in the March 10 Hillsborough (G2) at Tampa, beating future Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2) winner Proctor’s Ledge, and followed up with a closing second to Sistercharlie in the Jenny Wiley. Note that Irad Ortiz Jr., who rode Fourstar Crook in the Hillsborough, regains the mount.

Holy Helena stayed perfect on turf in the Sheepshead Bay (NYRA/Coglianese Photo)

But Team Brown must overcome Holy Helena, who made it a perfect three-for-three on turf in the Sheepshead Bay (G2) last out over the course. Trained by Jimmy Jerkens, the daughter of Ghostzapper earned a Sovereign Award as Canada’s champion three-year-old filly by turning the Queen’s Plate/Woodbine Oaks double. Her proficiency on the Woodbine Tapeta hinted that she could act on turf, but she’s arguably even better on the grass. Holy Helena made the surface switch at Gulfstream Park, capturing an allowance on the way to a convincing display in the March 3 The Very One (G3). Empressof the Nile, fourth in The Very One, came back to finish second in the Soaring Softly.

The Ken McPeek-trained Daddys Lil Darling, outstayed by Mom’s on Strike in the 1 1/2-mile Bewitch (G3) at Keeneland April 28, is eligible to gain revenge on the cutback. The co-highweight with Sistercharlie at 123 pounds, Daddys Lil Darling earned her signature win in Santa Anita’s American Oaks (G1) at this trip. And her most resounding stakes victory came in the 1 5/16-mile Dueling Grounds Oaks in course-record time at Kentucky Downs. That said, Mom’s on Strike is no plodder either, having taken a pair of Fair Grounds stakes at about 1 1/16 miles over the winter, and she’s won five of her past six for Joe Sharp.

Graham Motion sends out a dark horse in Esquisse. A listed stakes winner in France last season, the Wertheimer et Frere homebred has placed in her two U.S. outings in mile allowances. But being by Dansili and out of Legerete, a Group 2 heroine at 1 1/2 miles, Esquisse likely wants to go further especially in American conditions. Flavien Prat’s picking up the mount adds to her intrigue.

Southern California shipper Fahan Mura will try to capitalize on her position as the controlling speed, indeed the obvious pacesetter on paper. Only a claimer/starter allowance type on the East Coast, she started out at that level for Vladimir Cerin but rapidly climbed out of it while compiling a four-race winning spree. Perhaps she’s just blossoming now as English Channel progeny can do as older horses. But Fahan Mura will have to carry her speed, so far exhibited at a mile, a lot farther against some high-class opponents.

The New York’s lone European shipper, Snowy Winter, appears class-challenged on paper as a handicapper who placed in a weak Rothesay at Ayr. But Archie Watson is emerging as a horseman capable of transforming these types into money-spinners, and the combination of Javier Castellano, likely firm ground, and first-time Lasix could see her punch above her weight.

The Europeans are more compelling in the ensuing $400,000 Belmont Gold Cup Invitational (G2) on the Widener course, with a three-strong international deputation led by The Queen’s Call to Mind.

Call to Mind brings the best form (Photo by Champions Series via Twitter)

The homebred son of Galileo and Group 2 winner Memory found his niche once stepping up to longer distances. After a breakthrough in the 1 3/4-mile March S. at Goodwood last August, Call to Mind missed narrowly in the Prix Chaudenay (G2) over an extra furlong on Arc weekend. The William Haggas pupil likely needed his seasonal reappearance in the April 21 John Porter (G3) at Newbury, where he was fourth behind the progressive Defoe. But that 1 1/2-mile trip isn’t his bailiwick in better company anyway. Call to Mind improved to a better-than-appears third in the 1 3/4-mile Yorkshire Cup (G2) on May 18, won by serious Ascot Gold Cup (G1) contender Stradivarius. That’s the best form on offer in the two-mile Belmont Gold Cup. Javier Castellano gets to wear the royal silks as the tactical performer breaks from the rail.

France is represented by Funny Kid, who’s been a revelation this season for Christophe Ferland. The Wertheimer et Frere homebred rose from a middling conditions/handicap runner into a stayer of note when invading the British all-weather scene. After prevailing in a tight finish in the lucrative Marathon on the March 30 All-Weather Championships Day card at Lingfield, Funny Kid backed that up with a first Group success in the April 29 Prix de Barbeville (G3). Retained rider Maxime Guyon makes the trip to guide the son of Lemon Drop Kid.

Rounding out the raiding party is Prince of Arran from the Charlie Fellowes yard. Although his only stakes credit is a runner-up effort in the 2017 Sagaro (G3) at Ascot, he garnered a handicap over two metric miles at this year’s Dubai Carnival. Irad Ortiz Jr. gets the call aboard Prince of Arran, who adds Lasix.

Americans have won three of four runnings of the marathon, however, and the home team offers a mix of proven competitors and emerging talent.

Mike Maker, whose Da Big Hoss set the course record in 2016, has Run Time. Just edging ill-fated Bullards Alley in the two-mile H. Allen Jerkens at Gulfstream, Run Time was last seen winding up 13th in the Dubai Gold Cup (G2), five spots behind Prince of Arran.

The ubiquitous Brown took the 2015 edition with Innovation Economy, sadly to suffer a fatal injury in his next start. Focus Group is owned by the same Klaravich/Lawrence partnership, and like Innovation Economy, exits a Keeneland allowance tally. The difference is that Focus Group cleared his first-level condition, while Innovation Economy romped in a second-level event. Yet as an upwardly mobile Kitten’s Joy colt out of a full sister to Film Maker, Focus Group must be respected. A similar point can be made for Rocketry, a last-to-first conqueror of a second-level allowance here. Trained by Jerkens for Centennial Farms, the Hard Spun colt likely inherits his stamina from broodmare sire Smart Strike and second damsire Pleasant Colony.

French import Canessar is entitled to move forward second off the bench for Arnaud Delacour. Winner of the Laurel Turf Cup in his U.S. bow last fall, the Aga Khan-bred stayed about 1 7/8 miles to capture the Prix la Moskowa at Chantilly. Nessy, full brother to Bullards Alley, shed his bridesmaid status with a victory in the San Juan Capistrano (G3) last time out for Ian Wilkes. Postulation, hero of last year’s American St Leger (G3), tuned up with a creditable sixth in the Man o’ War (G1). Well-traveled Cooptado, an Argentinian champion later based in Dubai and Singapore, was tailed-off in the 2015 Dubai Gold Cup in his only previous attempt in this vicinity.

According to the race conditions, Call to Mind is among those getting in with a feathery 115 pounds, a potentially decisive six-pound concession from co-highweights Nessy, Postulation, and Funny Kid.