05/26/2010 11:00PM

Belmont roundup




It's true no stopwatches were busted in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, and scribes are still in mourning over Eskendereya and what might have been, but let's look at the bright sides, which are twofold:

The Belmont Stakes is shaping up as a terrific betting race, with a field of about nine or so, and whoever emerges victorious will share equal footing with Super Saver and Lookin At Lucky atop a wide-open division heading into the second half of the season.

The second half promises to be a barn burner, because one eye-popping performance after another was seen last week, providing multiple indications this may simply be a late-blooming crop of 3-year-olds.

Consider this chronological time line:

Thursday, May 20: The best performance I've seen by a 3-year-old turf horse thus far is delivered by Kindergarden Kid ($16.40), a Lael Stable-owned colt by Dynaformer who is caught four wide around the turn and gains ground into a final three-eighths in 34.62 seconds to dispatch a tough field of well-connected first-level allowance runners in sharp current form. All this was on view in just the third start of his life for trainer Barclay Tagg.

The Colonial Turf Cup and Virginia Derby loom as short-term objectives, but he exudes the potential to be a formidable player on turf from here on out.

Friday, May 21: What if Super Saver isn't the best 3-year-old in the barn? Hunters Bay, a 3-year-old colt by Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, comes off a slow-breaking sprint debut at Gulfstream, breaks alertly to set a strong pace, and widens through the stretch to win a 1 1/16-mile maiden special by a pole.

"He comes from a pedigree that makes it look like he'll improve going longer," said Todd Pletcher, who trained the dam, Smok'n Frolic, to six graded stakes wins and earnings exceeding $1.5 million.

Saturday, May 22: Everything about the name, Afleet Express, says f-a-s-t, and that's about the best word to describe his first-level

allowance win in 1:21.72 for seven furlongs, which equated to a Beyer Figure of 107 - eclipsed among 3-year-olds by only Eskendereya's 109 in the Wood Memorial.

It's not as if the figure is questionable, either − the field was strung out 31 lengths behind him.

Afleet Express is eyeing the Pegasus at Monmouth Park on June 19, as Jimmy Jerkens looks to get his colt some two-turn experience before Saratoga.

Sunday, May 23: Okay, who was more impressive in divisions of a seven-furlong maiden special, the filly Flawless or the colt Safety Check?

Flawless was making her career debut for Bill Mott, whose 2009-10 Trainer Form stats with first-time starters going in slightly exceeded 2 percent milk, at 3 for 117.

The tote board spoke volumes, however, as Flawless ($4.20) was bet long and strong throughout and won by a baker's dozen after making all the fractions of 22.80, 46.57, 1:11.01, and 1:23.71.

Two races later, second-time starter Safety Check ($6.20), from the white-hot barn of Alan Goldberg, laid down fractions of 22.73, 45.61, and 1:09.90 en route to a seven-length score in 1:22.99, good for a 97 Beyer.

Safety Check has an intriguing mix of stamina and speed in his pedigree: His sire is Empire Maker, winner of the Belmont Stakes, and his dam is sprint champion Safely Kept.

Monday, May 24: "Wait," you say. "Last Monday was a dark day in New York!"

Ah, but not at Finger Lakes, where Lisa's Booby Trap ($4.70), a 3-year-old filly by Drewman, began her career with a front-end triumph by better than 17 lengths. She ran six furlongs in 1:10.40 for trainer John Tebbutt, good for a Beyer of 89.


Heading into this week: Javier Castellano doubled last Friday and Saturday and held a 19-17 lead over Ramon Dominguez, who has his hands full trying to win a ninth consecutive NYRA meet title. Jose Lezcano continued to top all jocks with a 26 percent win rate, with identical 6-for-23 stats on dirt and turf. Victor Santiago continues to do a lot with a little, bringing in Sand and Song ($32), Lubash ($35.40), and Muy Guapo ($10) to maintain a $22.70 average mutuel with eight wins at the meet.

Trainers operating under the radar include Jimmy Toner, who has saddled layoff winners Zifzaf ($37.60) and Mesa Fresca ($27.60) on turf; Mike Miceli, who is 2-1-0 with his first four runners; and Phil Serpe, who is 5-2-2 with a dozen New York starters since coming back from Florida.


There was nothing major to report from the week of May 19-23, other than the fact six-furlong races on the inner turf continue to play exceptionally fast. I mean, American Cruiser is a useful sort, but the 6-year-old gelding was under wraps wiring a $20,000 sprint for nonwinners this year through fractions of 21.50, 43.88, and 1:07.86 last Friday, on a course that had taken on some rain early in the week and been labeled "yielding" just 48 hours earlier.

It seems like even marginally talented horses are recording times in 1:08 and change going six furlongs on the inner. Well, just take these supersonic numbers with a grain of salt, because if a race time seems too fast to be true, that may

indeed be the case: If you missed it, the time of the April 24 Withers at Aqueduct, originally listed as 1:34.05, was officially, and quietly, amended last week to 1:35.80.


There are five stakes slated for Memorial Day weekend, headed by Monday's 118th running of the Metropolitan Handicap, better known as the Met Mile.

Quality Road, who has had the Met in his cross-hairs for months, put the finishing touches on his preparations with a sharp in-company workout with stakes-bound stablemate Christmas for Liam on Tuesday. He is expected to face

Convocation, Honest Man, Ironman Jon, Kensei, Le Grand Cru, Tizway, Warrior's Reward, and You And I Forever.


Okay, whoever had the late pick four or the pick six last Friday, say a big "thank you" to the aforementioned Hunters Bay ($11.80) and Mesa Fresca ($27.60), who triggered some mind-boggling value payoffs.

Those two kicked off a pick four finished off by American Cruiser ($2.80) and Stormy Dixie ($4.80) that paid $2,487 for $2, just over 4 1/2 times a $2 win parlay of $547.

If you began the two-day, $105,000 pick-six carryover by including Morningsideheights ($10.40) and Remittance ($4), the payoff of $56,397 beat the parlay ($5,690) nearly 10 times over.

Horse racing indeed remains the greatest game played outdoors, no matter what they try to do to it.


Afleet Express

Trainer: Jimmy Jerkens

Last race: May 22, 3rd

Finish: 1st by 7 3/4

After flashing promise while breaking tardily in his first three starts, this 3-year-old colt by Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex went back to the drawing board for nearly three months and put it all together to win a first-level allowance in 1:21.72, which came back a 107 Beyer Speed Figure.


Trainer: Bill Mott

Last race: May 23, 2nd

Finish: 1st by 13 1/4

Homebred 3-year-old filly by Mr. Greeley was a poorly kept secret for her unveiling, when pounded to 11-10 for a front-running romp at seven furlongs. "She wasn't cranked - she was only half-ready," Mott said. "It looked like another furlong wouldn't hurt her."

Hunters Bay

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Last race: May 21, 6th

Finish: 1st by 8 1/2

Following a slow start and fifth-place finish in his sprint debut, this Ghostzapper colt stretched out to 1 1/16 miles and broke alertly from the rail to wire maidens by a widening margin. "He comes from a pedigree that makes it look like he'll improve going longer," Pletcher said.

Kindergarden Kid

Trainer: Barclay Tagg

Last race: May 20, 6th

Finish: 1st by 3/4

Coming off a maiden win as a second-time starter at Gulfstream Park seven weeks earlier, this $500,000 colt by Dynaformer rallied four wide leaving the far turn and gained ground into a last three-eighths in 34.62 seconds to beat a strong first-level allowance group at 1 1/8 miles on the inner turf. Next up could be the Colonial Turf Cup and Virginia Derby.