Racing Roundtable: Stephen Foster Preview Day recap and Belmont preview

June 5th, 2024

This week, the Racing Roundtable analyzes the results of Stephen Foster Preview Day at Churchill Downs, Epsom Derby (G1) winner City of Troy's future on dirt, and they look ahead to Belmont Stakes weekend.

What were your takeaways from Stephen Foster Preview Day?

James Scully: In her fourth start back this season, Scylla added blinkers for Saturday’s Shawnee (G3) and earned her first stakes triumph. Her Brisnet Speed ratings have increased nicely in the last two outings and the four-year-old filly appears to have upward mobility in the older dirt filly & mare division.

Multiple graded stakes winner Xigera had everything her own way on the front end of the Shawnee, establishing slow early splits in :24.06 and :48.33, and performed well to be a clear second. But she was no match for Scylla, a regally bred daughter of Tapit who appears to be coming to hand for Bill Mott following her sharp 3 1/4-length decision.

I’ll also mention Highland Falls, who broke through with his first graded win scoring by a length in the Blame (G3). After placing in his first two stakes attempts, finishing third in the Santa Anita H. (G1) and second in the Oaklawn H. (G2), Highland Falls registered a career-best 101 Brisnet Speed rating, and the four-year-old Curlin colt is discovering his best form for Brad Cox.

Vance Hanson: I thought Ottoman Fleet bounced back really well from a shock title defense loss in the Fort Marcy (G2) to claim the Arlington (G3) at a 1 1/16-mile trip that some might have thought would be a little sharp for him. More of a Group 3 type in England, he's fit well at higher grades in this country, winning the Fort Marcy at Belmont last season before running a solid third behind Up to the Mark in the Manhattan (G1). Although Godolphin and trainer Charlie Appleby are pretty loaded for the major summer and fall turf races coming up, I wouldn't sleep on Ottoman Fleet being competitive in better spots, like the Arlington Million (G1) perhaps.

Scylla appears to be a rising star in the older female division following her win in the Shawnee. She's by Tapit and out of champion mare Close Hatches and is a close relation to current division champion Idiomatic. Although seemingly not quite up to that standard yet, she might get closer as the season progresses. Finally, Blame winner Highland Falls appears as if he really needs 1 1/4 miles as it took him a while to to kick clear going nine furlongs on Saturday. Races like the Pacific Classic (G1) or the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) at the end of the summer should be on his radar.

Ashley Anderson: Favorites or short-priced runners dominated much of the stakes action on Saturday, but the biggest surprise occurred when 1-4 favorite Skelly failed to reach the winner's circle in the Aristides. In the largest upset in the race's 36-year history, 18-1 Closethegame Sugar rallied late to beat top dirt sprinter Skelly by a length under Irad Ortiz Jr. The four-year-old gelding earned his first win on dirt and had raced primarily on turf or all-weather to start his career. Skelly had previously won at Churchill, where he broke his maiden in his second career start, and finished second in an allowance at the track in November of 2022. He then shipped to Oaklawn and eventually built a seven-win streak, with a stakes win at Lone Star sprinkled in between. That streak was snapped when Skelly finished second in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint (G3) in February, then he returned to his comfort zone at Oaklawn and won two straight before again falling short in the Aristides this past weekend.

With the Steve Asmussen trainee pointed toward the Alfred G. Vanderbilt (G1) at Saratoga and the Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) at Del Mar, there is some concern with his lack of consistency outside of Oaklawn. One of the top sprinters in the country, Skelly did break poorly at Churchill and a better start would have benefited him. He will likely bounce back, but there's reason to doubt him going forward in bigger races, particularly at the Breeders' Cup, where he'll face California runner The Chosen Vron, who's already familiar with Del Mar.

How do you rate City of Troy's chances trying dirt in the Travers (G1) or Breeders' Cup Classic (G1)?

JS:  The top side of his pedigree provides encouragement and City of Troy will merit serious respect if he targets the Travers (G1) in late August. The Travers would provide a good litmus test for the Breeders’ Cup this fall, and I won’t be surprised to see the Justify colt make a seamless transition to dirt.

Aidan O’Brien isn’t afraid to try dirt in America with his top-class turf horses. The leading Irish conditioner shipped English Derby (G1) winner and European champion three-year-old colt Galileo for the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), resulting in a sixth-place finish, but O’Brien just missed in the 2000 Classic with six-time Grade 1 turf winner Giant’s Causeway (second by a neck) and the 2013 Classic with Juddmonte International (G1) and Queen Anne (G1) winner Declaration of War (third by a short neck). And just like City of Troy, Giant's Causeway (by Storm Cat and out of a Rahy mare) and Declaration of War (by War Front and out of a Rahy mare) had some dirt influences in their bloodlines. The dam side of City of Troy’s pedigree is mostly turf, but his dam is closely related to multiple Grade 1 victor Heatseeker, who ran well on dirt and synthetics in 2007-08.

VH: The lads at Coolmore are anxious to win the Breeders' Cup Classic at some point, and in City of Troy, they have a very talented colt who happens to be by Triple Crown winner Justify, whose offspring appear to handle most any surface. Running him in the Travers to test his dirt prowess has been an idea that's been bandied about publicly for several months.

While it would be fascinating to watch Europe's best three-year-old pitted against the best of the American classic generation at Saratoga, I'm not sure I would entirely sacrifice the opportunity to win some of Europe's significant races in the summer and fall with such a capable horse like City of Troy. Then again, Coolmore has won those races multiple times. They're also in the stallion-making and breeding business, and I'm not. They would love to make another stallion that could prove his effectiveness on all surfaces (like a Giant's Causeway) and thus appeal to breeders on both sides of the Atlantic.

AA: City of Troy is obviously versatile, having won at sprint distances and now at 1 1/2 miles in the Epsom Derby (G1). And while Justify has sired graded stakes winners on both dirt and turf, history does not play to the favor of City of Troy attempting to win the Travers (G1) or the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1). Raven's Pass, trained by John Gosden, is an exception in the Breeders' Cup, having raced exclusively overseas and on turf before shipping to the U.S. and winning the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2008. Although, that year the race was not held on dirt, but instead the all-weather track at Oak Tree. As for the Travers, Catholic Boy and V.E. Day are examples of runners who won the Grade 1 event at Saratoga after running on the turf, but both horses were U.S.-based.

City of Troy's trainer, Aidan O'Brien, praised the Justify colt as the best of his 10 Epsom Derby winners, but it's difficult to feel confident in him winning either the Travers or Classic based on past history. Co-owner Michael Tabor of Coolmore also noted that while City of Troy is likely to be pointed toward a dirt race in the U.S., he already has Sierra Leone in the states, and the Kentucky Derby (G1) runner-up is a strong Breeders' Cup contender as well.

Is there a horse you like best on the Friday card at Belmont at Saratoga?

JS: Rain may affect the graded turf stakes, and a wet track may play to the advantage of Thorpedo Anna following her 4 3/4-length win over a sloppy track in the Kentucky Oaks (G1). But I don’t expect the same cushy front-end trip that she received at her favorite track, Churchill Downs. And given that she will likely need to keep improving upon the 97 Brisnet Speed rating earned last time, I will try to beat the expected favorite.

#5 My Mane Squeeze acted up in the starting gate and wasn’t ready for the break in the Fantasy (G2) two back, losing all chance when completing missing the start. The three-time restricted stakes winner rebounded stylishly when cutting back for the seven-furlong Eight Belles (G2) over a sloppy track at Churchill, scoring comfortably by two lengths, and I will look for the up-and-coming filly to carry her momentum forward on Friday.

There are other speedy rivals entered and Thorpedo Anna will have a target on her back following the Kentucky Oaks win. From the first crop of 2018 Florida Derby (G1) winner Audible, the Mike Maker-trained My Mane Squeeze projects to receive a favorable stalking trip just behind the speed, and she will look to pounce leaving the far turn.

VH: #6 Fev Rover (8-1) looks like a sneaky prospect in her season debut Friday in the New York (G1), especially as the course is likely to come up a little wet. She's run well off extended layoffs each of the past two seasons, including a tour-de-force win over Canadian Horse of the Year Moira over a yielding course at Woodbine in her 2023 debut last July. Distance is no concern, and there's a chance she might find herself on the lead with limited other speed on paper. She could prove tough to catch if allowed to get away with a modest pace. 

AA: While My Mane Squeeze will be an intriguing longshot play in the Acorn (G1), I'm looking for #4 Just F Y I (5-2) to finally bounce back and reach the winner's circle in her rematch with Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner #9 Thorpedo Anna (8-5). Both are re-opposing a number of rivals from the Oaks, where the Fast Anna filly went gate to wire over a sloppy track. There's rain in the forecast all weekend at Saratoga, but Thorpedo Anna will have the challenge of breaking from the far outside this time, while Just F Y I (who broke from post 12 in the Oaks) will get post 4 in the 1 1/8-mile test. The Bill Mott trainee is eligible to improve third start off the layoff, and she's put in two sharp workouts at Saratoga leading up to Friday's start. The three-year-old broke her maiden on debut at this track, as well.