06/06/2013 1:02PM

The Four Graded Stakes On Saturday's Belmont Undercard


There are four very nice graded stakes on Saturday’s Belmont Stakes undercard worth taking a quick look at. Unfortunately, everything at Belmont Park on Saturday is under the threat of significant weather. At this writing, the National Weather Service is calling for as much as three to five inches of rain for the Belmont Park area Friday into early Saturday morning.

Obviously, it looks as though the two Grade 1 undercard events scheduled for the turf – the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap and the Longines Just A Game Stakes – will be seriously impacted by the weather. But beyond turning the surface sloppy, what impact that much rain will have on the two Grade 2 main track sprints – the True North Handicap and Woody Stephens Stakes – not to mention the Belmont Stakes itself, is anyone’s guess.

On May 11, a day of heavy rain at Belmont and also the day Freedom Child won the Peter Pan, there was a distinct speed bias, especially as the afternoon progressed and the main track took on more water. But on May 25, when rain at Belmont rendered the track sloppy and later muddy, front-runners couldn’t win anything. Everything was won by off-the-pace horses racing away from the inside.

So, it is important to be flexible Saturday, and to be ready to adapt if any specific track bias presents itself. But it’s also important to remember that a lot of rain doesn’t automatically mean there will be a track bias. It doesn’t.

Anyway, a quick look at those four graded undercard stakes:

True North (race 7) – The remarkable Caixa Eletronica (Portuguese for “cash machine,” and with 20 career wins and earnings of nearly $1.7 million, the name fits) and Justin Phillip, who ran one-two in a weird running of this race last year, are back for a rematch. Last year’s True North totally fell apart late, which is how Caixa Eletronica got up from 14 lengths back. But these two love the game, love wet tracks, and love Belmont, so you can’t discount them. Sage Valley was out in the best part of the track when he won the Maryland Sprint on the Preakness undercard, but he is still dangerous second start back off the long layoff. I’m very interested to see Fast Bullet. Fast Bullet is a 5-year-old who has managed but four career starts, and I doubt shipping from Santa Anita to catch a sea of slop is what his connections had in mind for a return from a six month layoff. But I believe Fast Bullet has enough pure talent to be one of the best sprinters in the country.

Just A Game (race 8) – On paper, this might be the best of the undercard events, with five of the seven being Grade 1 winners, and the other two being Grade or Group 2 winners. If this race was run on a firm turf course, Centre Court, winner of three straight and much improved, and Mizdirection, winner of eight of her last nine, including the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, would be the two to beat. They still might be, but they are also unknown commodities on the sort of footing they are likely to get. Stephanie’s Kitten and Hungry Island, one-two in the Distaff Turf Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard, love off turf. I think Hungry Island can turn the tables on Stephanie’s Kitten this time.

Woody Stephens (race 9) – I can’t wait to see Let Em Shine here. He has shown such crazy early speed in his four career starts (the last three of which were romping victories) that he just might be the fastest horse in America right now in terms of pure early zip. But Let Em Shine does have to handle the ship from California, an unfamiliar racing surface, and a different set of opponents. I’m intrigued by Clearly Now. I thought Clearly Now ran a dynamite race last time out when beaten a head in the Bay Shore after being right with a scorching early pace. Moreover, I believe Clearly Now is actually better when he’s allowed to settle farther off the pace, which was the approach he used when he won the Swale two starts back. Clearly Now is an unknown on wet tracks, but being by the Mr. Greeley sire Horse Greeley, out of an Arch mare, he’s bred for it.

Manhattan (race 10) – Point of Entry has won four Grade 1 races in his last five starts. He should own five straight Grade 1 wins because he was much the best when a narrowly beaten second in the Breeders’ Cup Turf two starts back. And if Point of Entry won that race, what a domino effect that might have had on last year’s Eclipse Award voting because he, and not Wise Dan, probably would have been last year’s champion turf male. In any case, Point of Entry towers over this field on paper, but off turf is not his favorite surface. He is running in this race anyway, and he might win on class, just as he did last fall in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic over yielding footing. But I’m interested a little in a couple of horses who were disappointments in the Fort Marcy in their last starts, Real Solution and Speaking of Which. The 10 furlongs of the Manhattan is a far better distance for these two than the 8.5 furlongs of the Fort Marcy was, and they also have some good back Euro lines, which suggest they won’t be out of their element on deep turf.