07/07/2016 12:56PM

Hovdey: Big bucks make cross-country trip to Belmont worth it


Got to hand it to the New York Racing Association: It’s spending it while it’s still got it. Half a million bucks for a Grade 3 race. A million for fillies on the grass. An extra $200,000 in couch change just to get a certain someone in the gate.

Oh, to be tapped into casino cash.

How long it lasts is anybody’s guess. The state has turned its greedy eyes to the casino bounty, thereby threatening the recent purse boom that makes possible a day like Saturday’s Stars and Stripes extravaganza, with its $1.25 million Belmont Derby and $1 million Belmont Oaks, along with four main-track stakes worth $1.55 million in total.

How flush is New York racing? Flush enough to promise the connections of reigning filly queen Songbird a purse of $500,000 if she runs in the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga on July 24. Without her, the race goes for $300,000. This is old-fashioned pay to play made possible by the cutthroat competition for marquee horses among casino tracks who answer only to themselves.

Songbird had been leaning heavily toward the CCA Oaks anyway, which means the 13 fillies lining up for the Belmont Oaks were always safe from one of her casual drubbings. Catch a Glimpse, on a run of seven straight, will be the deserving favorite. But in the end, their toughest opponent will be the 1 1/4 miles.

Many of the pedigrees scream for the distance. Noble Beauty is by Kitten’s Joy out of a Minecraft mare. Last Waltz mixes Danehill Dancer with the blood of Arc winner Trempolino. Time and Motion brings Pulpit and Kris S. to the party. And what do you do with the Coolmore fillies trained at Ballydoyle by Aidan O’Brien? One is called Coolmore, the other Ballydoyle, which is kind of like naming your daughters Beyonce and Adele.

Into this tall grass wades Keith Desormeaux with Decked Out, the winner of the Providencia Stakes at Santa Anita in April and a close fourth last time out in the Grade 2 Honeymoon. She most recently was seen in New York tackling the likes of Off the Tracks and Just Wicked in the Schuylerville and Adirondack stakes last summer at Saratoga.

“To ship across the country for a race like this, you have to be ultra-confident,” Desormeaux said. “I guess on the surface of her last couple of races, finishing fourth in both, you might want to say, ‘What is he doing?’ But those races were exceptional. They were all closing so strong. She’s been training with such vigor, and she is so sound, that you’ve got to take the opportunity to run for a million dollars at the distance.”

Until this year, a filly like Decked Out probably would have stayed home in California to run in the American Oaks, a quality race that was double-teamed out of existence by the closure of Hollywood Park and the creation of the Belmont Oaks. The idea of a late-December running of the American Oaks has been floated by Santa Anita officials, but really, what would be the point for fillies about to turn 4?

Decked Out is a chestnut by Street Boss, which gets her about seven furlongs, out of a mare by Met Mile winner You and I. It does not necessarily follow that in a career of 12 starts, Decked Out’s two best races have come at 1 1/8 miles, the difference apparently supplied by a Desormeaux training style that puts a premium on a big finish. (See: Texas Red, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; or Exaggerator, Santa Anita Derby and Preakness.)

“Pedigree is not the end all,” Desormeaux said. “I believe there’s more mile-and-a-quarter horses out there than you’d think, if they have the conformation and can adapt to the training. But with, what, 60 to 70 percent of our races being sprints, why would you apply yourself as a trainer to getting a mile and a quarter?”

Decked Out comes from last, which is where Kent Desormeaux, the trainer’s brother, will have the filly early in the Belmont Oaks. Her backers have learned not to panic but still be prepared to take the worst of any traffic that might come her way. She was beaten just a half-length in the Honeymoon with a brief check on the far turn and an altered course in midstretch.

“Kent’s had a lot of input on the decision of how she runs,” Keith Desormeaux said, “and he does not think a mile and a quarter will be a problem. So, here we go.”

Compared to their monopoly of the pre-Belmont media scene, the Desormeaux brothers will be just part of the crowd on Saturday. They’ll warm up earlier on the card in the $500,000 Dwyer Stakes with Swipe, the Birdstone colt best known for finishing second in four straight stakes to Nyquist before handing the baton to stablemate Exaggerator. Swipe’s 3-year-old season has gone in fits and starts, but with a solid six-furlong sprint under his girth at Belmont, the one mile of the Dwyer seems right up his alley.

As for Exaggerator, whose flop in the Belmont still resonates, Keith Desormeaux has lost no faith.

“Trainers are not one to dwell on the past, I don’t think,” Desormeaux said. “Exaggerator’s doing great. He’s recovered, and he’s wanting to do more. He’ll have his first breeze back on Saturday morning in preparation for the Jim Dandy at Saratoga.”