ELMONT, N.Y. – Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Oscar Performance showed how well he is maturing as a 3-year-old when he scored a front-running two-length victory over Called To The Bar on Saturday in the $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes.
The Grade 1 race culminated a superb afternoon of racing at Belmont Park, which hosted five graded stakes worth a combined $3.7 million in the third edition of the Stars and Stripes Racing Festival.
The event enjoyed an impressive attendance boost. The New York Racing Association announced an attendance of 12,667 compared with 7,753 last year.
Oscar Performance, a son of Kitten’s Joy, emphatically answered questions about his durability.
“He proved he can get a mile and a quarter and he beat a field of quality horses,” said trainer Brian Lynch.
Oscar Performance was competing at the distance for the first time. He put behind him a disappointing spring in which he finished fifth in the Transylvania Stakes Presented by Keeneland Select in his 3-year-old debut at Keeneland and struggled home a distant 10th in the American Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs on May 6.
His turnaround started with a wire-to-wire decision in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge Stakes at Belmont Park on June 3. He repeated that effort against far stiffer competition in the Belmont Derby.
“If he gets to dictate the terms,” Lynch said, “he’s tough to catch.”
Oscar Performance benefitted from a masterful ride by Jose Ortiz, who took him through a half-mile in 49.48 seconds and nursed him through three quarters in 1:14.37.
“When the 49 and change came up, I started to grin a little bit,” Lynch said. “When I saw the 1:14 and change come up, I broke into a big smile.”
Lynch said Oscar Performance’s next start has yet to be determined.
“He’s obviously turned his spring form around and he’s on the right track,” the trainer said. “At this stage, we’ll just enjoy that.”
In other major stakes results:
$1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes (G1): Trainer Chad Brown again reminded everyone of his skill with elite turf horses when he swept the top three positions with New Money Honey, Sistercharlie and Uni. The last two were making their North American debuts after being transferred to Brown. Both endured slow starts, ultimately leaving them too much to do.
“They all ran terrific,” Brown said after New Money Honey held off Sistercharlie by a diminishing neck in the 1 1/4-mile contest. “I have to watch it again to watch all three trips.”
New Money Honey broke well from the eighth post position as part of a field of 11 and bided her time in fourth for jockey Javier Castellano.
“It was a beautiful spot in the beginning of the race,” Castellano said. “When it was time to go, she responded and finished really well.”
Brown earned his third Oaks win in the last four years.
He said he had not planned beyond the Oaks but anticipated the three horses would be sent in different directions for their next starts.
$750,000 Suburban Stakes (G2): Keen Ice, with Ortiz aboard, rallied to upset heavily-favored Shaman Ghost by three lengths to gain only his third victory in 22 career starts in the 1 1/4-mile Suburban.
Keen Ice was making his third start this year. He ran fourth, beaten by 11 lengths, in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational, then languished in seventh in the Dubai World Cup in late March.
“We were hoping he’d be able to run fresh coming from Dubai and we gave him a little freshening at Calumet following that race,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “He was coming into this race training well.
Castellano blamed Shaman Ghost’s defeat on a lack of pace.
“He’s a horse that likes to have a target in the race and something to focus on,” he said. “But the pace was so slow.”
$350,000 Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes (G2): Trainer Chad Summers was so concerned about how Mind Your Biscuits might run in his first start since he won the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen on March 25 that he slept outside the horse’s stall -- and admitted he barely slept at all.
“It’s just one of those things where you cross your fingers and do everything you possibly can and hope they come back OK,” Summers said. “It showed today that he did.”
Mind Your Biscuits could not have made a more impressive return, storming home a commanding winner by 3 ½ lengths against Awesome Slew in this “Win and You’re In” contest that carried an automatic berth in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
Triumphant jockey Joel Rosario kept Mind Your Biscuits closer to the pace than usual.
“He does everything on his own, easy,” Rosario said. “Everything he does is just right. He’s great.”
There is much work still to be done, but Summers believes his 4-year-old Posse colt is already building a strong case for the Eclipse Award as the leading sprinter in North America. That honor went to Drefong last year. Summers acknowledged that Drefong will take some catching this season as well.
“He beat us twice. It’s his title,” he said. “But we’re coming after him.”
$400,000 Dwyer Stakes (G3): Brown offered the highest praise for Practical Joke after the colt staged a determined rally to defeat longshot Tale of Silence by two lengths, calling the performance “the best race he’s ever won.” Practical Joke, ridden by Rosario, started for the first time since his fifth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Pace-setting Battalion Runner faded to third.
Brown noted that Practical Joke came on despite a pedestrian pace and added, “The horse was giving six to eight pounds to every horse in the race.”