Five Key Takeaways from Belmont’s Stars & Stripes Festival

Firenze Fire’s nine-length romp in the Dwyer Stakes was one of the highlights of the July 7 Stars & Stripes Festival at Belmont Park. (Susie Raisher/NYRA Photo)

Tom Pedulla presents five takeaways from the Stars & Stripes Festival on Saturday at Belmont Park:

READY TO GROW: Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations for the New York Racing Association, believes the Stars & Stripes Festival has firmly established itself on the racing calendar since its inception in 2014 and may be ripe for expansion. “It might become a multi-day festival and we might look at adding other races,” Panza said. He emphasized that nothing has been decided, saying, “We’re sort of just in the preliminary stages of working on that, but it’s certainly on the table.” At the least, Stars & Stripes gives Belmont Park a major event that bridges the gap between the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and its stakes-packed undercard and the start of the highly-anticipated summer meet at Saratoga Race Course.

STEP FORWARD: Trainer Aidan O’Brien and his assistant, T.J. Comerford, were encouraged by Mendelssohn’s third-place finish in the $300,000 Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes. “He traveled lovely there and he jumped well from the gate,” Comerford said. “There were a lot of positives to take out of it.”

A poor start contributed heavily to the colt’s dismal last-place finish in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve as he took an extreme amount of discouraging kickback on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs. Comerford said the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing on Sept. 22 is “in the pipeline” as a potential next start for Mendelssohn leading to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

ON FIRE: Trainer Jason Servis looks forward to the rest of Firenze Fire’s 3-year-old campaign, now that a distant 11th-place Kentucky Derby finish is behind them. After Firenze Fire roared off to a nine-length romp in the Dwyer, Servis conceded that the mile-and-a-quarter Derby was less than ideal. “We got on the Derby trail like you’re supposed to. Do we think he’s a mile-and-a-quarter horse? Probably not.” Servis said the seven-furlong $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes, on Aug. 25 at Saratoga Race Course, is “something we’ll keep an eye on.”

WORTH WATCHING: One of the aims in staging the $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes and the $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes is to attract exceptional 3-year-old grass runners to the New York circuit. Chipolata, who ran third in the Oaks while making her North America debut for West Point Thoroughbreds, Hubert Honore and Robert Masiello, is a prime example of that. Panza said of the Stars & Stripes concept, “It gives local owners and trainers reason to buy foreign horses and bring them to the states. They strengthen our program not only for that race, but for the rest of the races that we run.” Chipolata is now trained by Christophe Clement.

INCREASING APPEAL: Handicappers appear to be warming to the attractive Stars & Stripes racing menu. The New York Racing Association reported an all-sources handle of $24,612,463 for Saturday’s card. That is an all-time high since the Festival was introduced in 2014 and produced an initial all-sources handle of $18,829,264. The previous high was $22,980,094, set in 2016.

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