Since taking its present form in 2014, the Belmont Derby Invitational (G1) has attracted international participation while remaining largely in the grasp of the home team. It’s not surprising that Aidan O’Brien sent out the only foreign shipper to prevail in five runnings (Deauville in 2016), given the depth of his Ballydoyle bench and the frequency of his attempts. He’s back again with two more hopefuls, Cape of Good Hope and Blenheim Palace, both Galileo colts trying to make their way in the world as full siblings to stars. After scouting out the O’Brien duo, we’ll also look at Rockemperor, the recent French recruit who adds to the Chad Brown arsenal, and conclude with a note on the well-known Master Fencer representing Japan. CAPE OF GOOD HOPE As a full brother to Highland Reel and Idaho, Cape of Good Hope presumably has ample scope to improve. And his record might look even better but for a couple of unfortunate circumstances, making him a stronger contender than the 10-1 morning line implies. At two, Cape of Good Hope broke his maiden in his third try, leading throughout at Tipperary. His jockey, Aidan’s son Donnacha O’Brien, offered the following comments to

He was a horse who always worked really nice and we always thought he was a smart horse. His first two runs were a bit disappointing really and it just took him a while to get it together mentally and he’s doing it now. He did it nicely and is a gorgeous horse and when he matures and fills out physically he’ll be better again.
Wheeling back for the Superlative (G2) during Newmarket’s July Festival, Cape of Good Hope again raced prominently, but was no match once Godolphin’s unbeaten Quorto made his move. Still he showed good resolve to battle back and reclaim second from Neverland Rock. The Superlative took on added significance when Quorto went on to capture the Vincent O’Brien National (G1), beating O’Brien’s future Epsom Derby (G1) winner Anthony Van Dyck. Cape of Good Hope would have been expected to build on that effort, but he wasn’t seen again until the Royal Lodge (G2) in late September. Although he overraced a bit early, and wandered around in the Dip, he kept on well up the rising ground to finish third. It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened  if not for the 2 1/2-month break right in the heart of the campaign. Shelved for the rest of the season, Cape of Good Hope resurfaced in Epsom’s Blue Riband Trial on April 24 and put it all together. This time he was held up far off the pace, then stayed on strongly at the end of 1 1/4-mile trip. The result was mainly an indicator of his well-being because he didn’t need to step up much on his bare form to beat that group. Cape of Good Hope remained under Derby consideration for a while, but the French Derby (G1) proved a more attractive target. While Ballydoyle was already overstocked with Epsom candidates, the shorter distance of about 1 5/16 miles at Chantilly also figured to suit him better at this stage of his career, like brother Highland Reel. He didn’t do quite as well as Highland Reel (who was second in the 2015 French Derby), but Cape of Good Hope’s closing fourth to Sottsass and Persian King – in a course-record 2:02.90 – was very much a step in the right direction. The Hampton Court (G3) at Royal Ascot appeared the place for another move forward, only to see Cape of Good Hope regress in 10th. He was in the right spot with eventual winner Sangarius on his flank, and still in the thick of it in upper stretch, but weakened through the final furlong. Soft ground was likely to blame, especially knowing Highland Reel’s distaste for it. Cape of Good Hope has shaped like a horse going places, and he’s capable of finally arriving if the ground stays reasonably good. The caveat is that it’s tough not to be influenced by his pedigree, and this could be a case of grading him on a curve because of his brothers. BLENHEIM PALACE You wouldn’t guess that Blenheim Palace is a full brother to Churchill and Clemmie, for he hasn’t shown their level of ability or their precocity. Yet this very different type is beginning to get his act together. Well beaten in his first four starts, Blenheim Palace went the handicap route to earn his first win at Navan in April over 1 1/4 miles. The fact he needed that trip again differentiates him from his famous siblings who had much more zip, and he wasn’t even the favorite (5-1 third choice). Aidan told that Blenheim Palace was “a big, immature baby even before and after the race today.” The baby came of age next time when runner-up in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial (G3) as the 33-1 longest shot on the board. After doing his pacemaking job for odds-on stablemate Broome, Blenheim Palace exceeded expectations to hold second. Sovereign, the future Irish Derby (G1) shocker, was third. Blenheim Palace traveled with Cape of Good Hope to Chantilly for the French Derby. He again did his part to attend front-running Motamarris, but unlike that rival who stuck on for third, he retreated to 14th of 15. In last Saturday’s International (G3) at the Curragh, Blenheim Palace turned in a more representative effort, prompting the pace before being outkicked by the Joseph O’Brien-trained Buckhurst. He salvaged second by a neck from Georgeville in a sophomore sweep of the superfecta over their elders. Blenheim Palace adds blinkers here, an equipment change that figures to sharpen him up from post 11. If his presence could be read as pace support for Cape of Good Hope, his progressive profile and proven stamina suggest he’s more than just a sidekick. He’d need a massive step up to win, but can’t be discounted as an exotics player at 30-1. ROCKEMPEROR Brown, who has yet to win the Belmont Derby, already had a three-pronged attack with Demarchelier, Digital Age, and Standard Deviation, and now makes it four as Rockemperor launches his American career. Like Cape of Good Hope and Blenheim Palace, he is a French Derby alum, and could be better than his sixth-place effort at Chantilly. Hitherto trained by Simone Brogi (a Jean-Claude Rouget protégé), Rockemperor was a bargain buy for just €12,000 at the 2018 Arqana May Breeze-Up. That price doesn’t reflect his pedigree, as a son of Holy Roman Emperor and the stakes-placed Muhtathir mare Motivation, descended from the blue hen Best in Show, via a full sister to multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Yagli. Indeed, Rockemperor had previously brought more (€50,000) as an Arqana August yearling. Brogi told Paris-Turf that he was able to scoop him up cheaply as a juvenile because he ignored a detail. His intuitive horsemanship was right, for Rockemperor himself ignored the detail too and developed into an admirably consistent performer. Starting off in the French provinces last fall, Rockemperor romped in his debut at Hyeres and placed in his next two. He closed through the pack for second at Angers, and at Bordeaux-le-Bouscat, he lost ground in third, his action suggesting he wasn’t able to lift on the heavy going. Rockemperor switched to the all-weather for his sophomore bow at Deauville, where he rallied up the inside for second in a blanket finish. Rockemperor next scored in an about 1 1/4-mile conditions event over the Cagnes-sur-Mer Polytrack, quickening well from just behind the longtime leader. That earned him a crack at a classic trial. A 13-1 chance in the Prix la Force (G3), Rockemperor extricated himself from the pack and missed by a neck to front-running favorite Shaman. The form stood up when Shaman came back to finish second to Persian King in the French 2000 Guineas (G1), and third-placer Roman Candle went on to land the Prix Greffulhe (G2). Fifth was none other than Sottsass, who clearly did not put his best foot forward in his comeback. Indeed, in his rematch with Rockemperor in the French Derby, Sottsass turned the tables emphatically, as Rockemperor wound up sixth, one spot behind Roman Candle and about three lengths adrift of Cape of Good Hope. It’s possible that Rockemperor raced too handy that day, and hold-up tactics might have seen him produce a better finish. It’s also possible that his la Force effort was a little opportunistic, maximizing his race fitness while the more obvious classic prospects were warming up. On the other hand, Rockemperor was made eligible for the Grand Prix de Paris (G1), so he wasn’t lacking in fancy entries himself. Purchased privately by an ownership group including Madaket Stables, Rockemperor could be just the type to reach a new level in U.S. conditions. MASTER FENCER The first Japanese-based sophomore to try the Belmont Derby, Master Fencer is a familiar face to U.S. fans now after his fine, if belated, rallies in the Kentucky Derby (G1) (placed sixth) and Belmont (G1) (fifth). Hence the main questions revolve around whether he’s as effective on turf – and how much stock you want to put in any veteran of this Triple Crown trail. As mentioned in his scouting report for the Kentucky Derby, Master Fencer turned the corner when switching from turf to dirt over the winter. But his first two career outings on turf as a juvenile were useful enough, and it’s possible that the physically maturing three-year-old is capable of better. Note that the jockey who’s two-for-two aboard Master Fencer, Suguru Hamanaka, comes in to renew the partnership. Belmont turf scenic (c) NYRA/Coglianese Photography