Catholic Boy, Limousine Liberal Among Stars at Belmont Festival

Catholic Boy, inside, outfinished Analyze It to win the Grade 1, $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Dead game.

Few 3-year-olds fit that description. Catholic Boy surely does.

He locked horns with Analyze It for a second consecutive race and again re-rallied for a valiant head triumph, this time in the $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes on Saturday to highlight the Stars & Stripes Festival at Belmont Park.

“Oh my God!” exclaimed Robert LaPenta as he reached the winner’s circle following a scintillating stretch duel in what essentially was a replay of the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge on June 2 at Belmont.

Catholic Boy fought back almost as soon as Analyze It passed him in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby. He could not quite get there. But as the finish line loomed, he again dug deep and this time he put away his rival just as he had a little more than one month ago.

“What a stretch drive!” exulted winning trainer Jonathan Thomas. “My hat is off to Analyze It. He ran super. It was a heck of a horse race.”

The Belmont Derby was racing at its best, which is in keeping with the intent of the Stars & Stripes Festival when the New York Racing Association established the event in 2014. Fans are becoming increasingly appreciative of the addition to the calendar. All-sources handle was a hefty $24,612,463. The attendance of 16,763 represented a significant increase over last year.

Thomas admitted he was stunned by the heart the versatile son of More Than Ready displayed in behalf under hard-riding jockey Javier Castellano.

“I didn’t expect him to fight back this time,” he said. “I thought he was going to finish a real good second. Somehow, he got it done.”

The special ones find a way.

“He’s just always been a real generous training horse,” Thomas said. “You never know because we don’t put horses in those kinds of situations. His heart and Javier’s ride, what can you say?”

Catholic Boy, a winner of the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes on the dirt at Aqueduct last Dec. 2, banged out his first Grade 1 victory.

“It’s the pinnacle. It’s one of those dreams you don’t really think about until it happens,” said Thomas, who also earned his first win in a Grade 1. “I’m happier for him because he’s a deserving Grade 1 winner.”

It was one of those taut finishes that had fans buzzing.

“That was a real thrill, seeing him come back like that,” Phil Devlin of Haddam, Conn., was overheard telling his friend, Jerry Wisneski.

“That was something you’ll always remember,” replied Wisneski, from East Berlin, Conn.

When Thomas was asked what might he next for Catholic Boy, he artfully dodged the question. “A bath and dinner,” he responded.

Grade 2 Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes: Limousine Liberal, a dominant figure in Kentucky, showed that he could take his game on the road by gaining his first victory outside his home base. He staged a determined rally for Jose Ortiz and trainer Ben Colebrook to earn his ninth victory in 23 starts overall.

The Belmont Sprint is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race, so Limousine Liberal’s win earned him an automatic starting spot in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in November.

Grade 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational StakesA swift seven-day turnaround from a third-place finish and arduous travel proved to be an unlikely but magical combination for European invader Athena, trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by Ryan Moore. She was a comfortable 2 ½-length winner against Thewayiam. “A mile and a quarter on hard ground is probably her trip,” said T.J. Comerford, a top assistant to O’Brien. “She can probably go a bit farther as well, but it’s great to get her going at a mile and a quarter. She can go a mile and a half in time.”

Grade 2 Suburban HandicapIrad Ortiz Jr. stepped on the accelerator early with New York-bred Diversify and never looked back in rolling by 6 ½ lengths. The Lieutenant rallied for second.

“I think this is his best race ever,” said winning trainer Rick Violette. “He beat some nice horses, withstood some serious pressure, fast fractions, and he obviously loves Belmont.”

The Bellamy Road colt won for the sixth time in eight starts at the massive oval. The $1.2 million Whitney, on Aug. 4 at Saratoga Race Course, might be next.

“We would love to do the Whitney, but we’ll see how he comes back from this effort,” Violette said.

Grade 3 Dwyer StakesWith all eyes on heavily-favored Mendelssohn, Firenze Fire pulled the upset by a whopping nine lengths for Irad Ortiz Jr. in his first start since he ran a distant 11th in the slop at the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.

White-hot trainer Jason Servis said of winning the one-mile Dwyer, “That was great. I’ve been dying to cut him back [in distance], just dying.”

Seven Trumpets took second with Mendelssohn weakening to be third. Comerford viewed the race as a step forward since the dominant winner of the United Arab Emirates Derby faltered to be last of 20 in the Kentucky Derby.

“Aidan was very happy with him,” Comerford said after ending a phone conversation with O’Brien. “He thinks it was a great start since Kentucky, and he thinks we can build on it.”

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