06/10/2008 2:37PM

Undercard Heroics


The Belmont Stakes aside, there was some very competitive and high-quality racing at Belmont Saturday on what was the best overall day of racing of this year's three Triple Crown cards:

Race 1: Desert Key, 3-year-old Centennial/J. Jerkens colt by E Dubai, got a soft opening half of 45.12 and made the most of it, rocketing away from a sold N1x field with a final quarter of 23.68 for a five-length victory in 1:08.80, good for a 104 Beyer even though the track was judged faster in races 1-4 than later in the day. Desert Key, now 2 for 4, had been second to Ready's Image in the overnight Adjudicating Stakes May 14, a race where I had been unimpressed by the winner's time and how hard he seemed to work to get up, a position that I now unfortunately rethunk, causing me to waste money adding Ready's Image to my tickets later on.

Race 4: Forefathers, dropped back to the N2x level after making seven of his eight previous starts in graded stakes, including a second to Daaher in the Jerome, shot through at the rail and won this N2x allowance by 6 1/2 lengths. The 4-year-old Zayat/Mott Gone West colt ran the mile in 1:34.48, good for a 107 Beyer.

Race 6: Benny the Bull was 1-2 in the G2 True North Handicap but didn't look like a winner until the final strides, when he belatedly kicked in and made up four lengths in the final furlong to nail loose-on-the-lead Man of Danger by a neck. The race got a Beyer 106, not comparable to BTB's best efforts, but this was not one of them, more a case of a superior horse doing an inch more than he had to in order to get the win. It was a pretty solid return for Thor's Echo, the 2006 sprint champion making his first start in almost 15 months, who broke well, chased Man of Dangerto the eighth pole, and settled for fourth, beaten 1 3/4 lengths.

Race 7: Ventura probably busted out any pick-six tickets that would have been alive to Da 'Tara here in the newly G1 Just a Game for filly turf-milers after getting through at the rail under Gomez and holding off the more troubled Lady of Venice by three-quarters of a length in 1:32.75. The Juddmonte/Frankel 4-year-old Chester House filly is now 3-for-4 in North America and was coming off a loss in the Distaff Turf Mile on Derby Day behind Bayou's Lassie, who got loose that day over a softer course (1:37.70) but faded to fourth here. Vacare chased the pace early and flattened out late in her first start since October. Nice late move from 44-1 Augustin/Sheppard Forever Together, who flew home from last to be third in her second grass start and may have a future in this division.

Race 8: There may be more strength at the top of the 3-year-old filly than colt division this year. In addition to the late Eight Belles and Proud Spell, add Zaftig to the leaderboard after a 4 1/2-length drubbing of 7-10 champ Indian Blessing in the Acorn, run in a sparkling 1:34.50 -- just two-hundredths off Forefather's allowance time and provisionally awarded a gaudy Beyer of 113. Even if you didn't split the variant and gave it "only" a 107, that would tie Sky Beauty's 1993 victory as the highest Acorn fig since the Beyers were first published in 1991. The only other triple-digit Acorns during that span have been Sharp Cat's 103 in 1997 and the 101's earned by Island Sand and Round Pond in 2004-05. Zaftig, a gray Gone West filly owned by Susan Moore and partners and trained by Jimmy Jerkens, is now 3 for 5 and was coming off a 5 1/4-length victory in the G3 Nassau County May 3. Jerkens said he thinks she'll go farther, though it's unclear if she'll take on Proud Spell in the Mother Goose June 28.

Race 9: Maybe Harlem Rocker's flop in the Queen's Plate Trial made people question J Be K's second-place finish behind him in the Withers, and maybe Desert Run's first-race victory made dodos other than me overrate Ready's Image, but it's pretty amazing that J Be K went off at 2.60-1 instead of half that price here in the G2 Woody Stephens. J Be K was probably the leader of the nation's 3-year-old sprinters (at least until Bob Black Jack returns at more reasonable distances) going in, and he certainly was after a smashing 5 1/2-length victory here in 1:21.85. (By the way, why do Big Brown's connections keep talking about a "loose," "slow" and "deep" track when the day's winning times included six furlongs in 1:08.80, seven furlongs in 1:21.85 and two miles in 1:34.48 and 1:34.50?) J Be K, a Zayat/Mott Silver Deputy colt, is 3-for-3 under a mile, 0-for-2 at a mile or more, and earned a 108 Beyer here.

Race 10: Only 2 1/4 lengths separated the first five finishers in the G1 Manhattan Handicap, where trips made the difference in a very closely-matched field. Dancing Forever, the late-blooming Phipps/McGaughey 5-year-old by Rahy, got the clearest run under a perfect ride by Rene Douglas and outgamed 3-1 fave Out of Control to score by a nose. Pays to Dream finished well for third but came out of the race with a career-ending sesamoid fracture, and 9-year-old Better Talk Now was a good fifth despite being taken up near the wire while checking inside fourth-place Strike a Deal. Dancing Forever and Out of Control have both run second in G1 races this year to Einstein, the division leader who would have been favored here but was not allowed to run because of licensing issues surrounding his ownership group.

Dancing Forever's victory came two Belmost Stakes Days too late for me. I needed him to win his second career start at 12-1 to complete a pick-four score two races after Jazil's Belmont. Instead he was beaten an agonizing half-length that day by a completely impossible 28-1 Contessa trainee named Taken Not Given, whose past performances you can find in the second leg of Belmont's $1.18 million carryover tomorrow. Since that day, Dancing Forever has become a G1 winner while Taken Not Given is 0-for-16 and is in for $35k N2L tomorrow.

--Speaking of which, here's the lineup for the largest one-day carryover in New York pick-six annals:

Race 4: 3+F NY AlwN2x/OC25k -- 1 mile (10 entered)
Race 5: 3+ Clm35k N2L -- 1 1/8m-IT (14)
Race 6: 3+ StAlw C50+N1x -- 1 1/16m-WT (12)
Race 7: 3+F NY AlwN1x -- 6f-IT (13)
Race 8: 3+ AlwN1x -- 7f-WT (10)
Race 9: 3+ Clm25k N2L -- 6f (14)

It ain't easy.

[Update 10:35 pm:] It just started raining here 5 miles northeast of Belmont, and there's a "Severe Thunderstorm Warning" in effect for the next six hours. It's all supposed to blow out by dawn and be clear and sunny in the 80's thereafter. Since Belmont Day, when the grass course was already fast enough to produce a 1:32.75 mile in the Just a Game. there have been three straight hot and sunny days here. But on the off chance the meteorologists are wrong and tonight's storms prove severe, it might pay to check track conditions in the morning.