Top Selections in a World-Class Edition of the Belmont Derby

The field for the 2018 Belmont Derby Invitational turns for home, with eventual winner Catholic Boy (rouge jockey cap, #7) in front. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The 14-horse field for Saturday’s $1 million, Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes at Belmont Park includes nine horses with first- or second-place finishes in one or both of their most recent races. Eight of those nine efforts came in stakes. Add to the mix a trio of horses shipping in from Europe, two from the powerhouse barn of Aiden O’Brien, and it appears the stage is set for a superb race to watch and to wager. Among the North American contingent, Moon Colony won the Grade 2 Penn Mile Stakes five weeks ago and may be the closest in class to Grade 1 level. Digital Age, one of four in the Belmont Derby trained by Chad Brown, won the Grade 2 American Turf Stakes Presented by Ram Trucks in May and brings similar credentials into this race.

Grade 3 Pennine Ridge Stakes winner Demarchelier, who is another Brown trainee, may be similarly situated, while Pennine Ridge runner-up Seismic Wave and third-place finisher Social Paranoia are two more in top form. Another Brown trainee, Standard Deviation, won the non-graded Tale of the Cat Stakes last month and may fit with these, as might James W. Murphy Stakes winner English Bee. Plus Que Parfait won the Group 2 U.A.E. Derby in March and was last seen finishing ninth of 20 in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (elevated to eighth). He moves back to grass, where he finished third in his career debut last summer. Master Fencer closed fast from last to finish seventh in the Kentucky Derby (moved up to sixth) and then posted a fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. The Japan-based horse raced twice last year on turf to begin his career, finishing second and fourth.

The three European shippers all add Lasix for the first time, and each has run well enough in top races overseas to warrant a contender’s chance in the Belmont Derby. All three ran in the Group 1 QIPCO Prix du Jockey Club Stakes in June, with Aiden O’Brien trainees Cape of Good Hope and Blenheim Palace finishing fourth and 14th, respectively, while Rockemperor finished sixth. Another horse some may consider with a chance is Spinoff, who is trying turf for the first time but is bred to adore it. Spinoff, one of two horses trained by Todd Pletcher (the other is Social Paranoia), finished second in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby prior to an 18th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and a sixth-place effort in the Belmont Stakes. Stakes winner Henley’s Joy rounds out the field, and He’s No Lemon is an also-eligible who will draw in if one of the 14 other horses scratches.

Main contenders:

Cape of Good Hope can give trainer Aiden O’Brien his second win in the Belmont Derby. O’Brien shipped Deauville to win the 2016 edition, and saddled runner-up Adelaide in 2014. O’Brien also shipped Athena over to win the 2018 Belmont Oaks Invitational, so when he brings a horse from across the pond we can expect good things. Cape of Good Hope is one of only two horses in the field to have won at this mile and one-quarter turf trip, that win coming in the Blue Riband Trial Stakes in April. Sent to post at odds of 16-1 in the Prix du Jockey Club in June following the Trial, the colt capitalized on stablemate Blenheim Palace setting the early pace and did rally from nearly last, but could only manage fourth in the 15-horse field. However, that effort earned him a 116 Equibase Speed Figure, which is the top figure earned by any horse in this field. Dropped in class a bit for the Hampton Court Stakes at Royal Ascot last month, Cape of Good Hope apparently didn’t like the soft turf and finished 10th. In addition to having a win at the Belmont Derby’s distance and having a trainer who’s had prior success in this race, Cape of Good Hope is a full brother (same sire [father] and dam [mother]) to champion Highland Reel (who earned over $10 million and won the 2016 Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf) and also a full brother to Idaho (who’s earned over $1.6 million). As such, Cape of Good Hope is my top choice to win this year’s Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes.

Rockemperor, one of four starters trained by Chad Brown, showed he fit at the top level when he finished second, beaten a neck, in the Prix la Force Stakes in April. That effort earned him a 108 Equibase Speed Figure. Prior to that, Rockemperor won an allowance race at the mile and a quarter distance of the Belmont Derby – but not on turf, rather on an all-weather surface in France. Although sixth in the Prix du Jockey Club in his most recent race, Rockemperor improved to a career-best 111 figure. Trainer Brown currently ranks second in the trainer division on the North American Racing Leaders list with $12.8 million earned this year, but $9.8 million of that total has been earned by his starters on turf, where Brown excels, particularly with horses importing to the U.S. According to a STATS Race Lens query, Brown has won 25% of the time with foreign shippers in their first U.S. starts over the last five years, with 53% of those finishing in the top three. With Rockemperor having shown he belongs in top company and can handle the 10-furlong trip, I think he could be quite competitive in this race.

Seismic Wave (Bob Coglianese/Gulfstream Park)

Seismic Wave and Demarchelier finished second and first, respectively, in last month’s Pennine Ridge Stakes, and could be close at hand in the Belmont Derby with similar efforts. Seismic Wave has done little wrong in six races, winning two and finishing second or third in three of the other four. In the American Turf Stakes on the Kentucky Derby undercard, Seismic Wave was eight paths wide turning for home and flew from 10th to finish fourth, but was too late to catch winner Digital Age. That effort earned him a career-best 100 figure and although he regressed to a 94 figure effort in the Pennine Ridge, the fact that race came over the inner turf course at Belmont Park – where Saturday’s Belmont Derby will be held – may help him to run even better. Demarchelier is a perfect three-for-three in his career to date. Jockey Javier Castellano has been in the saddle for all three and the colt continues to improve with each effort, earning a career best 95 figure in the Pennine Ridge. As such, I expect a good showing in the Belmont Derby, but it is likely he will have to have another career-best effort to be competitive in this very deep and talented field.

I can’t completely ignore Blenheim Palace, although I suspect the reason he was entered was to insure a good early pace for his stablemate Cape of Good Hope, as was the case in the Prix du Jockey Club. Blenheim Palace is the only other horse, besides his stablemate, to have won at this mile and a quarter trip on turf. He earned that win in April in a field of 16. Although he faded to 14th after setting the pace in the Prix du Jockey Club, Blenheim Palace showed he can run well on his own when he finished second in the Intern Stakes, held just one week ago. Blenheim Palace adds blinkers for the Belmont Derby, strongly suggesting the tactic for him will be to go to the front and hold it for as long as he can. Note that this was the same tactic used by trainer O’Brien’s Hunting Horn in the Man o' War Stakes at Belmont last month, and that Hunting Horn nearly pulled off the upset before fading to fourth very late in the race. There is reason to think Blenheim Palace could get brave on the lead and be in the hunt all the way to the wire in Saturday’s Belmont Derby. 

The rest of the Belmont Derby field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures in a representative race is: Digital Age (102), English Bee (96), Henley’s Joy (97), He’s No Lemon (102), Master Fencer (106), Moon Colony (99), Plus Que Parfait (112), Social Paranoia (101), Spinoff (101) and Standard Deviation (96).

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