Five Key Takeaways from Belmont’s Stars & Stripes Festival

Henley’s Joy and jockey Jose Lezcano pose in the winner’s circle after winning the Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

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

Code of Honor (Joe Labozzetta/NYRA)

IMPRESSIVE RETURN: Code of Honor, competing for the first time since he was elevated to second behind Country House when stewards disqualified Maximum Security for interference in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, asserted himself in the wide-open 3-year-old division with an easy victory in the Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes. “I’m excited for the rest for the summer,” said Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. “This was our game plan and, so far, step one worked.” The next step would use the July 27 Jim Dandy Stakes as a prep for the Aug. 24 Runhappy Travers Stakes. McGaughey is cautiously optimistic that his Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes winner can emerge as leader of the class. “I think he’s as good as any of them,” he said. “He’s going to have to keep improving as we go along, but I think he’ll do that.”

TIMELY BREAKTHROUGH: Although Henley’s Joy had been unable to break through in his first six graded-stakes starts, including a distant 13th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, owner Jeffrey Bloom and trainer Mike Maker were convinced he belonged in the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes. Their faith was rewarded when the Kitten’s Joy colt delivered at 20.80-1 in the opening leg of the Turf Trinity with Jose Lezcano aboard. “It’s such a big race to win and it’s so important,” Bloom said. “But for this particular horse, he’s had the worst racing luck and he’s been so honest, so many rough trips. It was just so gratifying to see him be able to show everybody how talented he is.”

Concrete Rose (Eclipse Sportswire)

PERFECT TIMING: Trainers always grapple with how much time off to give a horse between starts. George “Rusty” Arnold was no different when he decided to point Concrete Rose toward the Grade 1, $750,000 Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes following her emphatic victory in the Grade 3 Edgewood Stakes at Churchill Downs on May 3. He opted to forego a prep race. “She is a slight filly. There isn’t a whole lot to her,” he explained. “I don’t need to train her down to nothing.” His willingness to back off was rewarded with an emphatic win in the opening leg of the inaugural Turf Tiara. The Twirling Candy filly will not have the luxury of as much time for her next start. Arnold is focused on the middle leg of the Turf Tiara, the $750,000 Saratoga Oaks on Aug. 2 at 1 3/16 miles at Saratoga Race Course. “We’ll run in the next one, if there is not an issue,” he said. “It’s a great series. We want to support it.”

INTERNATIONAL APPEAL: Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations at the New York Racing Association, hoped to generate international interest through the establishment of the Turf Tiara for 3-year-old fillies and the Turf Trinity for 3-year-old colts. Each series got off to a good start in that regard. The Belmont Oaks included two starters from famed overseas trainer Aidan O’Brien in runner-up Just Wonderful and Coral Beach, the French-bred Olendon that was purchased ahead of the Oaks, and Jodie from Japan. Master Fencer of Japan remained at Belmont Park for the Belmont Derby after his fifth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets while O’Brien started Cape of Good Hope and Blenheim Palace. “I think the right concept is there and we’ve set the foundation for it,” Panza said.

SUBURBAN SURPRISE: Catholic Boy, a Grade 1 winner on dirt and turf as a 3-year-old, looked every bit his determined self when he returned to the races with a half-length victory in the Grade 2 Dixie Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course on May 18. He was anything but himself when, as the overwhelming 1.30-1 favorite, he was rank early and paid the price in the Grade 2 $700,000 Suburban Stakes in his second start this season. Centennial FarmsPreservationist capitalized in rolling by 4 ½ lengths in his stakes debut. “He didn’t relax in the early part of the race, and I think that’s what cost me the race,” jockey Javier Castellano said of Catholic Boy, who zipped the opening quarter of a mile in 24.48 seconds and the half mile in 48.09.

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