Often the predecessor to a knockout win in other big route races, the Jockey Club Gold Cup isn’t what it used to be (a 2-mile race on dirt somehow turned into a 10-furlong practice run for Breeders’ Cup Marathoners), but it’s still a million-dollar G1 test for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (I) in November. A “Win and You’re In” for the Classic, this year’s JCGC drew a full field of ten including last year’s champ, a total of 6 G1 winners, and 2 three-year-olds that will be among the first of their class to face older horses in a graded event.
The fast dirt at Old Sandy appears to favor off-the-pace winners in the recent past, with winners in the past twenty years going on to win 4 Breeders’ Cup Classics and be runner-up in another running. The weather in Long Island unfortunately looks to damper things for the second year in a row with a 40-50% chance of rain for both Friday and Saturday. Be sure to factor track conditions and remember, when the track is off, the longshots come out to play.
$1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup (I) - 3-Year-Olds & Up. 1 1/4 miles on dirt at Belmont Park. Post Time: Saturday, September 29 at 5:46pm EST
[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Impost, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]
1) Ron the Greek - Jose Lezcano, 126 lbs, Bill Mott - The Full Mandate horse has been having a great year with two G1 wins and a close second in the Whitney (I) after shipping all over the country to run. He has been looking good and should be fresh for the race. Lezcano is a good rail rider, but it’s still a troubling spot to have a favored closer. His record on an off track is surprisingly good with all hitting the board if not winning, and I think Mott was wise in skipping the Woodward to keep this horse fresh. Given a promising pace scenario, he could turn out another winning effort here.
2) Stay Thirsty - Ramon Dominguez, 126 lbs, Todd Pletcher - The Bernardini colt has been the little-engine-that-could since his humble win streak last year as a Travers-winning three-year-old, but has been missing that extra gear for some time. An empty third in last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, Thirsty has not won since his Travers turn and while he was 4 lengths back in 5th last out in the Woodward (I), he went wide for much of it and lost the whip at the 1/8 pole. To his slop credit, he has two seconds and a third out of 3 tries. Despite the whip drop, he improved from a 101 Equibase fig in the Suburban to a 112 while carrying 9 additional pounds. He’ll like the distance and the track, but can he get any closer than 2 lengths from the win this year?
3) Ruler On Ice - Alan Garcia, 126 lbs, Kelly Breen - The Belmont-winning son of Roman Ruler hasn’t had the best year running second-fiddle in allowance company, but props are needed for his last start where he ran second to Win Willy by 2 lengths, staying stubborn in his usual stalking position to register a much-improved, career best 119 Equibase figure. We already all know how he does on an off Belmont surface. If it rains, you might want to work Ruler On Ice in there as a well-known and successful stalker. He should draw good odds either way.
4) Hymn Book - John Velazquez, 126 lbs, Claude McGaughey - The Arch gelding has not won since his Donn (I) upset earlier in the year with his next best being a decent second to Mucho Macho Man in the Suburban (II). However, he has endured some rocky and some pretty wide trips as a closer, and the extra furlong should help him. He’s good in the slop, winning on an off track 5 of 9 times, 2 of those wins being at Belmont. A horse who needs a good pace to do well, Hymn Book has little actually riding on this race with no intention right now to ship to the Breeders’ Cup.
5) Fort Larned - Brian Joseph Hernandez, 126 lbs, Ian Wilkes - The speedy E Dubai winner of the Whitney (I) is back for more and another (hopefully) successful stalking trip. His Whitney was won easy and late under a hand ride, suggesting Fort Larned’s got more where that came from and has won in the slop. Some may be too wary of Fort Larned to challenge him on or near the lead, suggesting he might be able to wrap up this race all on his own.
6) Atigun - Mike Smith, 122 lbs, Ken McPeek - The Istan colt was a blocked, late-charging third in the Travers last out, the benefit of the doubt being given to him by trainer McPeek that the colt would prefer the full 10-furlong distance over the easier field he would have faced in the Pennsylvania Derby (II)— which is probably true. Atigun’s best of late has been consistent, but really has to be much better to compete with this crowd. Another horse who should like the distance and need a pace and a personal best.
7) Fast Falcon - Corey Nakatani, 122 lbs, Nick Zito - The Awesome Again colt was a fierce late third in the Travers, and arguably had the best finishing touch out of any other horse in that race. He’s right at home at Belmont with two runner-up efforts against Teeth of the Dog here before. His career best was a low figure and a second placing, and given the possible weather conditions, he is a toss out due to class hike, speed figures, AND a surface he’s shown to not like. Would not be surprised if he scratches.
8) San Pablo - Javier Castellano, 126 lbs, Todd Pletcher - The Jump Start colt hopes to add a third race to his winning streak, both recent races were at 1 1/8 miles won in easy fashion. Likely to be stalking the pace, San Pablo has the stats to get an upset here with 3 wins and 2 seconds in 6 starts this year. Class is a question as is the off-track angle, but the added bonus of Castellano looks good.
9) Flat Out - Joel Rosario, 126 lbs, Bill Mott - The defending champion son of Flatter returns with a new trainer and jockey this year while being a little rough on his old form. He improved sharply in his Whitney performance where he was third by just a head to Ron the Greek, beaten less than 2 lengths by Fort Larned while sitting mid-pace with a wide trip. Flat Out is Mott’s Drosselmeyer this year, and due to his recovered form and distance clout, he’s secretly going to be one of the top horses to beat here and likely good value.
10) Game Ball - Jose Espinoza, 126 lbs, Naipaul Chatterpaul - A recent ex-claimer by Sky Mesa owned and trained by Chatterpaul, Game Ball has been everywhere this year and doesn’t appear to have a niche unless it’s “that horse that probably shouldn’t be here.” I’m wondering even further why he’s here because he didn’t make the stakes nomination list? A career closer, is off track record is fairly good but he lacks the class to make anything happen here, finishing a well-beaten 8th last out in the Sword Dancer (I).
Picks in Order:
1) Ron the Greek
2) Flat Out
3) Fort Larned
The track is likely going to be less than fast, so that makes handicapping this race that much harder to do. Fort Larned looks to be the lone speed here with most of the horses preferring a stalker or closer position behind him. I think he will try to slow down the pace to kill the horses behind him and try to win wire-to-wire. However, Ron the Greek was way too far back in the Whitney and looked awesome for second there. With freshening and an extra furlong, even if he errs again he’s super tough. Ruler On Ice and Flat Out… possibly San Pablo… I wish I could use both. Ruler may still be a bit short though, and I think Mott will have Flat Out tuned up and ready to go here for a much better effort, and he’s got tremendous upside all around. A big psychology factor to consider: who needs this race, and who will want to not go “all out?” Fort Larned and Ron the Greek already have guaranteed berths.
Value Pick: Flat Out