07/06/2017 11:36AM

Yoshida, Oscar Performance face off in Belmont Derby

Barbara D. Livingston
Yoshida, winner of the James W. Murphy Stakes, will stretch out to 1 1/4 miles for the first time in the Belmont Derby.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Pace and course condition, two key handicapping elements in turf racing, are very much mysteries heading into Saturday’s Grade 1, $1.2 million Belmont Derby, the centerpiece of a Stars and Stripes program at Belmont Park that includes five graded stakes worth a total of $3.7 million in purses.

On paper, Oscar Performance projects as the primary speed in the Belmont Derby, but European-based runners Called To The Bar and Whitecliffsofdover have been pace factors as well.

Secondarily, an ever-changing forecast that called for rain Friday and possibly lingering into Saturday morning could make for softer ground than Oscar Performance seems to prefer.

One horse who has yet to be hampered by pace or course condition is Yoshida. The least-experienced member of this 11-horse field with only three starts, Yoshida won his maiden in gate-to-wire fashion over firm ground at Keeneland on April 9. He then rallied from far back over “good” ground at Pimlico to win the James W. Murphy Stakes on Preakness Day.

“When he ran at Keeneland and jumped out on the lead, I was probably a little bit more surprised that day,” said Bill Mott, the trainer of Yoshida. “It added maybe to the confusion of what I thought would happen in Maryland. I thought, ‘Maybe he’s going to be a little closer,’ and then of course he dropped back and made that big run late.”

Yoshida, who made that big run late under Joel Rosario, will have a new rider in John Velazquez. Rosario is the regular rider of Good Samaritan, and Mott decided to keep Rosario on him for this race. Jose Ortiz was aboard for Yoshida’s first two starts, but he is on Oscar Performance, on whom he has won three graded stakes.

The other variable is the Belmont Derby’s 1 1/4-mile distance. Mott is optimistic that both of his runners can get the trip.

“It looks like it should be okay for both of them,” Mott said.

Arklow is 2 for 2 since being transferred to turf. Big Score was third behind Arklow in the American Turf and came back to finish second in the Penn Mile. Completing the field are Ticonderoga, Homesman, Makarios, and Senior Investment.

The Belmont Derby goes as race 10 on an 11-race card and will be shown live along with the Grade 2, $750,000 Suburban on MSG Plus, Fox Sports 2, and other regional cable networks that regularly carry “Belmont Park Live.”

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Yoshida, by Heart’s Cry

Last 3 Beyers: 89-86-70

◗ Pinched at the break, saved all the ground, then showed a strong turn of foot when he bulled his way out into the clear to win the James W. Murphy while being wrapped up by Rosario.

◗ Seems versatile enough to handle any pace scenario.

◗ He is 2 for 2 on Lasix after finishing second without it last November.

Oscar Performance, by Kitten’s Joy

Last 3 Beyers: 93-64-84

◗ Rebounded from two disappointing efforts with a front-running score in the Pennine Ridge Stakes, which gave him two Grade 3 stakes wins over this course.

◗ Trainer Brian Lynch is confident in the colt’s ability to get 1 1/4 miles, provided the turf isn’t too soft.

“After a couple of subpar races on soft turf, it’s always a concern,” Lynch said. “He’s trained on great since the Pennine Ridge. He looks like he should be able to dictate the terms. He’s always dangerous when he gets things his own way.”

Called To The Bar, by Henrythenavigator

◗ Has won his last two races, one at 1 1/4 miles and one at 1 1/2 miles, and would move up if there were some give in the ground, according to assistant trainer Carl Brandt.

“A little rain wouldn’t hurt, really, I think, because he stays a mile and a half, but he [runs] on any ground,” Brandt said.

Good Samaritan, by Harlan’s Holiday

Last 3 Beyers: 89-90-91

◗ Always seems to be coming late and may benefit from having an inside post for the first time.

◗ Mott believes the horse would prefer firm turf.

Homesman, by War Front

◗ Won a Group 3 at The Curragh for Aidan O’Brien before running fifth, beaten 4 1/2 lengths, in a Class 2 handicap at Royal Ascot going 1 1/2 miles.

◗ T. J. Comerford, who traveled here with the O’Brien runners, said both Homesman and Whitecliffsofdover would prefer firm ground and to sit behind horses.

“We want top of the ground,” Comerford said.

Big Score, by Mr. Big

Last 3 Beyers: 87-90-90

◗ Trainer Tim Yakteen noted that Big Score wasn’t too far off a hot pace when he won the Zuma Beach Stakes last October at Santa Anita.

“He still had a really nice kick when he was sitting closer to those types of fractions,” Yakteen said. “He doesn’t give me the impression we’re looking at any distance limitations at this point.”

◗ Flavien Prat, aboard for that Zuma Beach, rides Big Score for the first time in four starts this year.

Arklow, by Arch

Last 3 Beyers: 92-89-70

◗ Steadied early, then had a very wide trip but still stayed on to win the Grade 2 American Turf at 1 1/16 miles on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill.

“He’s a horse that’ll stay on,” said trainer Brad Cox, who has had a fabulous Belmont meet, with a record of 6-5-3 from 17 runners. “He wasn’t tired after the race at all. I think the mile and a quarter should be to his liking.”