Before all those Saratoga trunks are packed and shipped north, there is one final weekend of racing at Belmont Park. And it’s a doozy, topped by the start of the Turf Triple on Saturday — the main event of Belmont’s Stars and Stripes Racing Festival.
In a nod to the growing dominance of grass racing at North American tracks, the New York Racing Association created a three-race series for 3-year-old turfers, each worth $1 million. It launches this weekend with the Belmont Derby Invitational (G1) and continues with the Saratoga Derby (G1) on Aug. 4 and concludes back at Belmont for the Jockey Club Derby (G1) on Sept. 7.
And the fillies are not neglected. They have their own series, starting Saturday with the $750,000 Belmont Oaks (G1).
The series is off to a blazing start as the Belmont Derby at 1 ¼ miles attracted a full field of 14 sprinkled with international stars topped by Master Fencer.
The first horse bred in Japan to contest the Kentucky Derby (G1), Master Fencer acquitted himself very well. He ran seventh in the slop at Churchill Downs, outrunning his 58-1 odds. Rallying from last to finish only four lengths behind first-place finisher Maximum Security, Master Fencer was elevated one position when that rival was disqualified and placed 17th.
The chestnut colt skipped the Preakness and once again uncorked a big rally in the Belmont Stakes (G1) to get fifth, only a head shy of finishing fourth.
Master Fencer remained at Belmont to prep for this race. He should now be fully acclimated and ready for a top effort.
“The horse is getting bigger and stronger,” trainer Koichi Tsunoda said. “It’s the third time he’s run in the U.S. and we’ve been able to make certain adjustments to help him.”
One of those changes was the return of jockey Suguru Hamanaka. Julien Leparoux was aboard for the two Triple Crown starts.
This will be Master Fencer’s first grass race since his first two starts in Japan.
In keeping with the international theme, Ireland’s Aidan O’Brien will have a pair of entrants in Cape of Good Hope and Blenheim Palace.
Trainer Chad Brown improved his odds by entering four, led by the intriguing and undefeated duo of Demarchelier and Digital Age. Both are a perfect 3-for-3, show steadily improving speed figures and now face their stiffest class tests.
Demarchelier takes a leap from the Pennine Ridge (G3) at Belmont while Digital Age most recently captured the American Turf Stakes (G2) on the Kentucky Derby undercard. Brown will also saddle Standard Deviation and Rockemperor.
Other notables in the field include UAE Derby (G1) winner Plus Que Parfait and Spinoff, 18th in the Derby and sixth in the Belmont.
On the distaff side, Brown keeps firing in the Belmont Oaks with Cafe Americano, Cambier Parc and Newspaperofrecord.
Of the Brown brigade, Cambier Parc is the most accomplished with a pair of Grade 3 stakes wins: the Wonder Again at Belmont and the Herecomesthebride at Gulfstream Park.
The outstanding card also includes the return of Code of Honor, the third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby who was elevated to second. The Fountain of Youth (G2) winner holds a substantial class edge over five rivals in the $250,000 Dwyer Stakes (G3) for 3-year-olds.
Promises Fulfilled escapes the commanding shadow of Mitole by taking a class drop into the $300,000 John A. Nerud Stakes (G2) for sprinters.
The major attraction on the main track Saturday is the $700,000 Suburban (G2) featuring the versatile Catholic Boy, whose extraordinary 2018 campaign included victories in the Belmont Derby on turf before returning to dirt for a dominant win in the Travers.