09/09/2010 3:50PM

Belmont's fall stakes figure key for Breeders' Cup

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Barbara D. Livingston
Al Khali will try to build on his third-place finish in last month’s Sword Dancer Invitational in Saturday’s Grade 2 Bowling Green Handicap.

ELMONT, N.Y. – With the Breeders’ Cup World Championships returning to dirt for the first time in three years – albeit at Churchill Downs – the significance of the Belmont fall meet is once again heightened.

Even with the elimination of six stakes and the purse reduction of 10 others at the meet, Belmont, which opens its 37-day fall season Saturday, will offer the majority of the most important dirt races in the country on the road to the Breeders’ Cup, to be held Nov. 5-6 in Louisville.

Topped by the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Belmont will offer five Grade 1 races on Oct. 2 designed to be stepping-stones to the Breeders’ Cup five weeks later. The Jockey Club, Beldame, and Vosburgh will give connections ideas whether their horses belong in the Classic, Ladies’ Classic, and Sprint in November. The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and Flower Bowl Invitational – both scheduled for the turf on that day – also are bridges to Breeders’ Cup races.

Horsemen wanting to get their 2-year-olds to the Breeders’ Cup will only have one graded option to do so this fall, that coming Oct. 9. New York Racing Association officials eliminated the Matron, for fillies, and the Futurity, for colts, leaving the Frizette and Champagne – both Grade 1 races – as preps for the Juvenile Fillies and Juvenile, respectively.

Given the fact that dirt horses went winless for two straight years in Breeders’ Cup races run over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface, New York horsemen, especially, are glad not to have to prepare for a synthetic Breeders’ Cup.

“Before, if you ran here on the dirt you went blindly into a synthetic situation where you hoped it might work out, but it was basically a guess,” said Todd Pletcher, trainer of many top dirt horses in New York. “Just because you run well at Belmont doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to run well on the dirt at Churchill, but I’d say that you could be a lot more confident than you can doing the synthetic thing if you never been on it before. I’m certainly looking forward to [the Breeders’ Cup] being back on the dirt.”

Unfortunately, all of the above stakes races – with the exception of the Jockey Club Gold Cup – have had their purses reduced. The Beldame took the biggest hit, dropping to $350,000 from $600,000. The Joe Hirsch and Flower Bowl both dropped $100,000 to $500,000, while the Vosburgh took a $50,000 cut to $350,000. The Champagne and Frizette had their purses dropped by $100,000 to $300,000.

All told, NYRA cut $850,000 in stakes purses while trimming an additional $1 million by putting the Matron, Futurity, Jerome, Joseph Gimma, Bertram Bongard, and Lonesome Glory Steeplechase on hiatus. NYRA will offer 29 stakes – nine Grade 1 events – worth $6.1 million in purses at Belmont.

Some Kentucky-based horsemen – both jockeys and trainers – who were based at Saratoga, will be at Belmont, at least until Keeneland opens Oct. 8. Trainers Dale Romans, Eddie Kenneally, and Tom Proctor have stables at Belmont, while Ken McPeek left a plethora of runners in Saratoga.

Julien Leparoux, Garrett Gomez, and Alex Solis, who all rode at Saratoga, will be based at Belmont until at least Keeneland opens.

Saturday’s 10-race opening-day card is highlighted by the Grade 2, $150,000 Bowling Green Handicap for males going 1 3/8 miles over the inner turf course.

Grand Couturier and Winchester, who finished one-two in this race last year, were both entered again, but Grand Couturier will scratch in favor of the Northern Dancer at Woodbine on Sept. 19, trainer Robert Ribaudo said Friday. The best value may be Al Khali, a Bill Mott-trained runner who comes out of a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Invitational going 1 1/2 miles.

Al Khali inherited the lead at the three-eighths pole, when pacesetter Marlang began to tire. Though Al Khali fought on in the stretch, he gave way to Telling and Bearpath, finishing third, beaten 2 3/4 lengths.

“He inherited the lead early because the pace horse stopped,” Mott said. “That horse, you thought he would have carried you into the stretch anyway, but he didn’t.”

With Kent Desormeaux injured, Leparoux picks up the mount.

Winchester beat stablemate Gio Ponti in the Grade 1 Manhattan run here in June and then finished third in the Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth in July. Winchester was a bit knocked out from those two races, but his two most recent works in Saratoga indicate to trainer Christophe Clement that the horse is ready to go.

“They were two tough races on him,” Clement said. “His last two breezes were very good. He seems to be back in form.”

The forecast for opening day calls for dry conditions and temperatures in the mid to upper 70s.

Grandstand admission on Saturday and Sunday is free.