The $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes drew a field of nine horses, seven of which are stakes winners with five of those entering the race off victories.
Leading the field in purse earnings is Tokyo Gold, winner of the Group 2 Derby Italiano Universita Campus Bio-Med in May, otherwise known as the Italian Derby. However, favoritism among bettors is most likely to come from Bolshoi Ballet, winner of the Group 3 Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial before a disappointing seventh-place finish as the betting favorite in the Group 1 Cazoo Derby (otherwise known as the Epsom Derby) last month. Du Jour deserves respect as he enters the Belmont Derby off a victory in the Grade 2 American Turf Stakes Presented by Derby City Gaming in May, which was his third straight win. Similarly, Sainthood won the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge Stakes at the end of May at Belmont Park, but on dirt when the race was transferred to the main track due to the condition of the turf course. Cellist is another of the recent stakes winner, having captured the Audubon Stakes at the end of May, with Palazzi beaten three-quarters of a length when second in that race. Hard Love won the Woodhaven Stakes on turf in April following five months off before a strong allowance win last month. Safe Conduct and Hidden Enemy round out the field for the Grade 1 race, the former an allowance winner at the start of May before a fourth-place finish in the Pennine Ridge at the end of the month and the latter a nonthreatening fourth in both the American Turf and Audubon.
Tokyo Gold had a fairly good 2-year-old campaign when winning the second and third starts of his career last summer, the latter of the two in a listed stakes. Finishing off his 2-year-old season, Tokyo Gold was beaten more than 20 lengths in a Group 3 race, but that was run on heavy ground which he did not care for one bit. Returning for his sophomore season in March, Tokyo Gold finished second in a listed stakes before a fourth of nine finish in the Prix Noailles Stakes. His “light-bulb” moment came in the Italian Derby on May 23 when, after racing at the back of the pack for most of the race, Tokyo Gold took to the middle of the track and accelerated strongly to win by four lengths, eased up at the finish. The acceleration shown when given his cue in the Italian Derby showed Tokyo Gold had come of age and the pattern of improving Equibase Speed Figures this year (97, 105, then 107) suggests Tokyo Gold is the one to beat in this year’s Belmont Derby Invitational, particularly as he is shortening up in distance from 1 3/8 miles to 1 ¼ miles and gets Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez to ride.
Bolshoi Ballet was sent to post as the fairly heavy favorite in the Epsom Derby last month on the strength of his six-length win one month earlier in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial, but he checked in seventh in the English classic race. The reason for the poor effort was revealed as soon as the colt returned to be unsaddled as it was discovered he had sustained a cut to his hind leg in the early portion of the race. Prior to the Derby Trial, Bolshoi Ballet won the Ballysax Stakes rather easily in his 3-year-old debut following 5 1/2 months off. Earning a 106 Equibase Speed Figure in the Ballysax before a new career-best 113 figure in the Derby Trial, it wouldn’t be a leap to assume the colt would have improved again in the Epsom Derby if not for the injury. If he returns to the form shown in those two earlier wins, both at the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Belmont Derby, Bolshoi Ballet could provide us with a thrilling battle with Tokyo Gold in this race.
Hard Love is an improving colt who has potential to post the minor upset if he continues the pattern of improvement he began in April after returning from 4 1/2 months off. After winning his career debut last fall, Hard Love improved to a 102 Equibase Speed Figure effort when second in the Central Park Stakes then, following the layoff, won the Woodhaven Stakes in April with a 99 figure. Flattered when the runner-up won his next start, Hard Love entered an allowance race on this turf course to prepare for the Belmont Derby and, although not a stakes race, it must be noted he was only one of two horses in the 12-horse field that were 3-year-olds, the rest being older horses. Improving markedly to a 105 speed figure while winning that race, if Hard Love can take a similar step forward by six points into the 111 range, he could run as well as either Bolshoi Ballet and Tokyo Gold and as such may have a legitimate shot to win this year’s Belmont Derby Invitational.
Another improving colt is Du Jour, who has won three races in a row. The pattern of improvement from 84 to 99 to 103 in terms of his Equibase Speed Figures shows a horse who is getting physically and mentally stronger as the season goes on. Du Jour earned his most recent win in the American Turf Stakes on Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve day and prevailed nicely in a field of 14. Now in the hands of Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and retaining the services of jockey Flavien Prat, who has been in the saddle for all three of the colt’s wins, Du Jour has to be a horse we consider when wagering on this race.
The rest of the field (with best Equibase Speed Figure): Cellist (99), Hidden Enemy (93), Palazzi (98), Safe Conduct (99) and Sainthood (101).
John C. Oxley
HnR Nothhaft Horseracing LLC & Pioneerof the Nile Syndicate