06/06/2013 11:54AM

Just a Game: Stephanie's Kitten, Hungry Island may benefit from soft ground

Tom Keyser
Stephanie's Kitten won the Grade 2 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard May 4.

ELMONT, N.Y. – The race Mother Nature may have the greatest impact on at Belmont Park on Saturday is the Grade 1, $500,000 Just a Game, which drew a stellar field of seven fillies and mares for the one-mile turf race.

Horses like Stephanie’s Kitten and Hungry Island – as well as the European import Laugh Out Loud – would seem to move up if the race is run over soft ground, while contenders such as Dayatthespa and Mizdirection would tend to be at a disadvantage if Friday’s anticipated rains come with the forecasted ferociousness.

Chad Brown, the trainer of Dayatthespa, said he could go as far as scratching his Grade 1-winning filly if the turf is too soft. He would monitor course conditions and speak with his ownership group Saturday morning.

“Running at the Grade 1 level, you want the turf conditions to be to your liking,” Brown said. “There’s just not much to give up running against these caliber of horses.”

From California, Mike Puype shipped Mizdirection, who beat males in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint last fall, and the trainer is hoping to catch firm turf in the Just a Game.

“She’s definitely not as good on [soft ground],” Puype said. “I like the way the race drew on paper, I like the post. I’m happy to be here, but I know full well my best edge has been taken away. You think about it, she bounces and does nothing but win [on firm]. Bad conditions make any horse probably not be as good.”

Stephanie’s Kitten and Hungry Island are good on almost any surface but are proven over soft ground. They ran first and second, respectively, in the May 4 Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile over good turf while finishing 3 1/2 lengths clear of the rest of the field.

For Stephanie’s Kitten, that was her first race since October. Trainer Wayne Catalano is hoping she can just repeat the effort she put in last time.

“I’ll be happy if she just pairs up, the way it looks to me,” Catalano said. “She’s run some big races for us; that was a very big race. We were very impressed the way she ran.”

Stephanie’s Kitten won her maiden over yielding ground at Arlington and has two stakes wins over good ground at Churchill.

Hungry Island won the Grade 2 Lake Placid over yielding turf at Saratoga in 2011 and the Grade 2 Distaff Turf Mile in 2012 over good ground at Churchill. She is 3 for 6 at Belmont.

In last month’s Distaff Turf Mile, Hungry Island got caught out wide, then had to dive back to the inside of Daisy Divine in the stretch and was outfinished by Stephanie’s Kitten.

“I thought she ran a good race,” trainer Shug McGaughey said. “I think [jockey Javier Castellano’s] hand was forced a little bit early with Daisy Divine. Maybe she hung a little bit down on the money, but that’s a pretty decent filly that beat her.”

Hungry Island breaks from the rail under Garrett Gomez, while Stephanie’s Kitten will break from post 2 under John Velazquez.

Centre Court has not finished worse than second in 10 career starts on turf and brings a three-race winning streak into the Just a Game. However, she has never run on soft ground or at Belmont.

“She hasn’t run on soft ground – she might love it; she might hate it,” trainer Rusty Arnold said. “If it’s on the grass, she’ll run. If it comes off, she won’t.”

Better Lucky won the Grade 1 Matriarch in November at Betfair Hollywood Park and is another who has never run on soft turf. Better Lucky, trained by Tom Albertrani, figures to move forward off her fourth-place finish in the Jenny Wiley at Keeneland in April, her 2013 debut.

Laugh Out Loud, an English-bred filly, won a Group 2 stakes in France last year over soft ground.

The Just a Game goes as race 8 and is the first leg of an all-graded-stakes pick four wager that has a guaranteed pool of $1 million.