04/28/2011 4:15PM

Belmont Park: Christmas for Liam steps up in Westchester Stakes


ELMONT, N.Y. – Having toyed with allowance foes twice since returning to the races off a lengthy layoff, Christmas for Liam gets the acid test Saturday when he takes on graded stakes winners Haynesfield and Soaring Empire in the Grade 3, $100,000 Westchester Stakes at Belmont Park.

The Westchester, run at a mile around one turn, is the local prep for the Grade 1, $500,000 Metropolitan Handicap here May 30. Last year, owner Edward P. Evans and trainer Todd Pletcher won the Met Mile with Quality Road. Christmas for Liam runs for the estate of Evans, who died last December, and Pletcher. While it might be a leap of faith to suggest Christmas for Liam is in the same category as Quality Road, the lightly raced son of Saint Liam has always impressed his connections.

He won a maiden race impressively at Belmont last April 30, but after finishing third in a first-level allowance race in May, a nuclear scan on the colt showed “some beginnings of wear and tear in both hind cannon bones,” according to Chris Baker, the farm and racing manager for the Evans estate. Baker added that with the appropriate rest, Christmas for Liam could return to his full potential, which he appeared to show in his two races at Gulfstream, winning them by a combined 10 1/2 lengths.

“He’s confirmed or exceeded our belief in him,” Baker said. “We’ll really find out more on Saturday.”

With John Velazquez committed to ride Travelin Man in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs on Saturday night, Javier Castellano has picked up the mount on Christmas for Liam who breaks from the outside post in the six-horse field.

Though he hasn’t run since finishing second in last November’s Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, Haynesfield will likely be favored in the Westchester based on his 5-for-6 record at Belmont that includes an upset of Blame in last year’s Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Haynesfield has a history of firing fresh, but even assistant trainer Toby Sheets admits this is a tougher spot than what the 5-year-old New York-bred has returned in previously.

“We might need a little tightner,” Sheets said. “We’re starting off in a tougher race than we did last year. We’d like to get this behind us and see where we’re at. Hopefully, all goes well and we have a little luck on our side.”

Haynesfield, who breaks from post 5 under Ramon Dominguez, could play out as the primary speed in the field.

That concerns Cam Gambolati, the trainer of Soaring Empire, who would prefer someone other than his horse prompt Haynesfield early on.

“Probably Haynesfield will be on the lead and he’ll get his own way,” Gambolati said. “He’ll be pretty tough, I don’t care if he’s been laid off or not.”

Soaring Empire had a solid winter at Gulfstream, winning the Grade 3 Hal’s Hope in January before finishing second to Tackleberry in both the Gulfstream Sprint Championship and Gulfstream Park Handicap, both Grade 2 events.

Convocation finished second in this race a year ago. Convocation, trained by Jimmy Jerkens, finished third in a third-level allowance race at Gulfstream on March 27, a race in which he was buried along the rail and had to check inside the sixteenth pole. Alan Garcia rides Convocation from the rail.

Caixa Eletronica, who makes his first start off the claim for Mike Repole and Pletcher, and Schoolyard Dreams complete the field.