09/26/2013 2:10PM

Belmont: Jockey Club Gold Cup cast all have good credentials

Tom Keyser
The connections of Palace Malice, shown working last week at Belmont, believe he ran a deceptively good race when fourth last time out in the Travers.

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ELMONT, N.Y. – The stakes are too high and the field too deep to call Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park merely a prep race.

In addition to a $600,000 first-place prize and the name of one of North America’s most prestigious races on one’s r é sum é , the winner of the Gold Cup gets a entry-fees paid berth – that’s worth $100,000 – into the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita. Last year, three of the top four finishers in the Classic – including winner Fort Larned – emerged from the Gold Cup.

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The eight-horse field assembled for Saturday’s 95th renewal of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, run at 1 1/4 miles, has seven Group 1 or Grade 1 winners, including Flat Out, who seeks to join the Hall of Famer Kelso as the only horse to win this race three consecutive years (Kelso actually won it five straight).

Also entered are Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, either of whom would vault to the head of a disheveled 3-year-old class with a win against their elders. Whitney winner Cross Traffic is one of the most exciting horses in training, one who arguably has impressed more in defeat than in victory. Alpha comes off an upset score in the Grade 1 Woodward. Ron the Greek is a two-time Grade 1 winner. Vitoria Olimpica, not Breeders’ Cup nominated, is a Group 1 winner in Brazil with a winning effort in his North America dirt debut. Last Gunfighter is 4 for 5 – including three Grade 3 stakes – this year, his lone loss coming to Flat Out in the Grade 2 Suburban here in June.

Though Palace Malice finished fourth in the Travers, his connections believe their horse ran the best race that day. He broke poorly, was last and wide early and was still beaten just three-quarters of a length by Will Take Charge, who came back to win last Saturday’s $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx.

“Considering the stumble at the start and the slow fractions on top of that, you can certainly argue he ran the best race in the Travers,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains Palace Malice for Cot Campbell’s Dogwood Stable.

Pletcher, who also sends out morning-line favorite Cross Traffic, is winless with 11 starters in eight runnings of the Gold Cup. His horses have finished second four times in this race, including Stay Thirsty last year.

At Belmont Park, Palace Malice returns to the site of his greatest triumph, a 3 1/4-length victory in the Belmont Stakes. He is a son of Curlin, who as a 3-year-old in 2007 won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic en route to Horse of the Year honors. Summer Bird, the 2009 Belmont Stakes winner, also won that year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Though this will be the ninth race of his 3-year-old campaign, Palace Malice has shown no signs of fatigue. His most recent workout last Saturday was a half-mile in 49.43 seconds but included a terrific three-furlong gallop out.

“To me, it looks like he’s put on weight since the Travers,” said Pletcher. “He’s trained very well, seems to love the action, and is getting better and better.”

With a better break from the gate than in the Travers, Palace Malice, breaking from post 7 under Mike Smith, figures to be forwardly placed. He could find himself stalking his 4-year-old stablemate, Cross Traffic, who was listed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite by New York Racing Association linemaker Eric Donovan.

Cross Traffic breaks from post 8 and is likely to go to the lead under John Velazquez. Cross Traffic suffered a pair of brutal beats in the Grade 3 Westchester and Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap here in the spring. He rebounded with a front-running victory in the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga. His connections skipped the Woodward to await this, deducing it was a better way to get to the Breeders’ Cup.

“I feel totally comfortable with it,” Pletcher said. “The Woodward was run on a sloppy racetrack. You never know how they would have handled it or how they come out of those types of races.”

Flat Out is totally comfortable with racing at Belmont Park, where he has five graded stakes victories from six starts. While acknowledging his prowess at Belmont, trainer Bill Mott said he thought Flat Out ran one of his best races last time out when second to Alpha in the Woodward.

“I wouldn’t say he could run much better than he ran at Saratoga last time,” Mott said. “That was an awfully good race.”

Flat Out has become less reliant on pace than in years past and he figures to work out a stalking type trip under Junior Alvarado. His stablemate, Ron the Greek, sixth in this race last year, is more reliant on pace. His chances would benefit if Cross Traffic, Palace Malice, and Alpha go at it early.

Orb will seek to become the first horse since Ponder (1949) to win the Derby and Gold Cup in the same year. He ran a creditable third in the Travers off an 11-week layoff, a race from which his trainer, three-time Gold Cup winner Shug McGaughey, believes he can improve.

“I thought he ran a really big race in the Travers,” McGaughey said. “I think he has moved forward since then. He’s better now than he was in the Travers and he’ll have to be.”

Last Gunfighter has won seven of his last eight races and has run four consecutive triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, a feat matched in this field by only Flat Out, to whom he finished second in the Suburban here in June.

“For my horse the distance will be fine, it’s going to the class test that determines how he does in this race,” said trainer Chad Brown.

The Gold Cup is race 10 on an 11-race card and the final leg of an all-graded stakes pick four wager with a guaranteed pool of $500,000.