International scouting report: Belmont Gold Cup

June 9th, 2017

Friday’s $400,000 Belmont Gold Cup (G3) presents a fascinating handicapping challenge, particularly in light of the six European invaders. They can be divided neatly into two groups of three: the old stagers and the up-and-comers.

We’ll start with the progressive trio, all with long-term designs on the Melbourne Cup (G1).

Red Cardinal, already prominent in the antepost betting for the Melbourne Cup, ships in from Germany for Andreas Wohler.

This well-bred son of Montjeu was originally in training with Aidan O’Brien, but never made it to the races for Ballydoyle. Instead, he turned up with David Simcock and became rapidly progressive after being gelded in early 2016. Red Cardinal racked up three straight wins, from an ordinary Bath maiden to proper performances in a pair of handicaps. At Salisbury, he romped with any amount in hand, and at Yarmouth, all he needed was a crack of the whip to forge clear under 144 pounds (not a typo).

Red Cardinal accordingly caught the eye of Australian Bloodstock, which purchased him ahead of his first class test in the Geoffrey Freer (G3) at Newbury. He chased the front-running King’s Fete, then peaking for Sir Michael Stoute, and ultimately looked bound for second only to be caught at the line and relegated to third. Plans called for Red Cardinal to head straight to Australia, but he lost his spot on the flight, reportedly in favor of a higher-rated horse.

Plan B has worked out well for him. Transferred to Wohler, who trained 2014 Melbourne Cup winner for the same connections (in part), Red Cardinal made a fine Group 1 debut in last September’s Grosser Preis von Europa (G1). He beat his nearest rival but never saw the high-class filly Nightflower rallying on the near side of the course. In any event, he shaped as if he wanted further than 1 1/2 miles anyway.

Red Cardinal got that opportunity in his 2017 debut in the Oleander-Rennen (G2), chosen specifically as a “Win and You’re In” for the Belmont Gold Cup. He stayed every yard of the two metric miles at Hoppegarten, where he closed stoutly up the inside to defeat favored Nearly Caught. A solid yardstick, Nearly Caught had captured last summer’s Prix Kergorlay (G2) and most recently finished third in the Sagaro (G3), the local prep for the Ascot Gold Cup (G1).

That formline makes Red Cardinal a serious contender here, if he can give six pounds to the other two up-and-comers. An interesting footnote from Wohler’s website: jockey Eddie Pedroza was able to ride only one of Wohler’s duo at Belmont (thanks to a suspension incurred in France), and he chose to pilot Red Cardinal here over Potemkin in the Manhattan (G1).

Wall of Fire, likewise snapped up by antipodean interests in Australian Racing Stables, is an upwardly mobile type for trainer Hugo Palmer.

Although you wouldn’t expect his pedigree to produce a stayer – he’s by Canford Cliffs and from a quick family – broodmare sire Galileo may have imparted his stamina. Wall of Fire improved once stretching out in distance last summer. In his Haydock handicap score last June, he looked beaten until deep stretch, when suddenly getting up. Forget his subpar 10th next time at Glorious Goodwood, a messy race in which his rider wrapped up on him once he was squeezed out.

Wall of Fire’s next two stamped him as an exciting young stayer. In both the Melrose versus fellow sophomores at York, and in the Mallard at Doncaster over elders (getting a ton of weight), he revealed a startling change of gear late to win handily. Those were handicaps; now he needed to try Group company.

Making his four-year-old debut in the March 25 Dubai Gold Cup (G2), Wall of Fire raced far off the pace before working his way home steadily into sixth. He wasn’t disgraced, since world-class Vazirabad was the only closer able to catch the leaders in his repeat victory. Because of that race shape, the fact it was his first start in more than six months, and a massive class hike, it’s not entirely fair to judge his two-mile proficiency from World Cup night.

Back home in England, Wall of Fire was favored to earn his first black-type coup in the Further Flight, and for a time he appeared ready to justify that view at Nottingham. But just when he pounced on Elidor, he wandered a bit, allowing his savvy older rival to come again and outduel him. His more forward tactics that day may have also taken him out of his closing game. Wall of Fire received a more patient ride in the Ormonde (G3) at Chester, finishing a close if one-paced fourth to John Gosden’s useful Western Hymn. Runner-up US Army Ranger let the form down badly in the Coronation Cup (G1), but his bad day at the office shouldn’t negate the efforts of those around him at Chester.

Wall of Fire smacks of a talented horse still putting it together at a higher level. With the addition of Lasix, and the light impost of 115 pounds, he could roll late. As a four-year-old colt, he still has a potential stud career to mind.

St Michel, a four-year-old colt by Sea the Stars, has methodically climbed the ladder for the cagey Sir Mark Prescott.

Breaking his maiden in a 1 3/4-mile handicap over Chelmsford’s Polytrack, St Michel was well spotted to rack up three more handicap wins last term. He might have made it four if he hadn’t wandered around and gotten nailed at Sandown. He was even more wayward at Goodwood – drunken sailor comes to mind – but he got reorganized and held sway.

Sir Mark then pitched him into the 2 1/4-mile Doncaster Cup (G2). Sporting cheekpieces for the first time, St Michel was a staying-on third to the high-class pair of Sheikhzayedroad and Quest for More. That helped him just get into Newmarket’s Cesarewitch, and go off co-favored under a light weight in the historic 2 1/4-mile handicap. Prescott was worried about drawing post 32 in the cavalry charge, and although St Michel made a middle move into contention, he ended up fading to 17th.

St Michel made a pleasing reappearance May 10 at Chelmsford, finishing second to Harrison and beating Dylan Mouth at a 1 3/4-mile trip on the short side for him these days.

As a thoroughgoing stayer type, who appears to need two miles in Europe, St Michel could be outpaced at the crucial stage in American conditions. On the other hand, he’s battle-hardened, Sea the Stars’ progeny can improve with maturity, and he adds Lasix. It’s quite possible he’ll take another step forward here, but his price is short for a horse in his circumstances, and post 13 doesn’t help. (His price in Europe is anywhere from 6-1 to 10-1, compared to a 4-1 morning line at Belmont.)

Still, Sir Mark rarely sends a horse across to our side of the pond. Approach was runner-up in the 2003 Galaxy (G2) at Keeneland, and Worthadd was seventh in the 2012 Woodbine Mile (G1). Both took up residence stateside with new trainers. Might St Michel change hands soon – not to stay here, but perhaps look further afield? His owner/breeder, J.L.C. Pearce, has since passed away, and his executors are listed as his owners. Speculation aside, Sir Mark told Racing Post that if St Michel proves himself at Belmont, he’ll plan for the Melbourne Cup.

I’ve given a lot of ink, or pixels, to the fresher faces on the scene, mainly because the veterans are better known and I’ve written about a couple of them before. But that doesn’t mean the old stagers are past their prime.

Indeed, Wicklow Brave is favored with most bookmakers, and his stablemate from the Willie Mullins yard, Clondaw Warrior, isn’t far behind as the third choice. In other words, Europeans would be surprised at a Belmont morning line with Wicklow Brave at 5-1 and Clondaw Warrior at 12-1. Both are dual-purpose performers, racing over hurdles as well as the Flat, for Ireland’s top jumps trainer, with Wicklow Brave brandishing the deeper resume.

Wicklow Brave can boast of the biggest win of anyone in the field, having shocked reigning Ascot Gold Cup star Order of St George in last September’s Irish St Leger (G1). Granted, it was a perfect storm produced by controlling the pace on a yielding course that was suiting front-running tactics, and unlikely to be replicated in different circumstances. Until that landmark victory, his notable successes had come in the National Hunt arena where he began his career, and still dabbles in during the winter and spring.

Yet Wicklow Brave’s pedigree is well suited to the Flat, being by Beat Hollow and out of a Rainbow Quest mare tracing to Sarah Siddons. And he took to it when first switching disciplines in 2015, placing in the Ebor, Irish St Leger, and British Champions Long Distance Cup (G2). Wicklow Brave continued that fine series last season, just missing to Dartmouth in the Ormonde (G3), checking in fourth in the Goodwood Cup (G2) and third in the Lonsdale Cup (G2) before his career high.

That earned him a tilt at the Melbourne Cup, but Wicklow Brave didn’t ship Down Under particularly well and wound up 22nd of 24. He’s well and truly over that by now, as evidenced by his bold victory in the April 28 Punchestown Champion Hurdle, a Grade 1 at the Festival. He added blinkers that day and keeps them on here. Mullins reports that Wicklow Brave coped with the flight to New York much better than the trek to Melbourne.

If there is one concern about Wicklow Brave, it’s the likely firm ground. His best efforts tend to come with a little give underfoot, and he can look one-paced on a firmer course. That might matter as he’s giving away weight too.

Clondaw Warrior, on the other hand, loves it firm, as his terrific second in the American St Leger (G3), at an inadequate trip, illustrates. You might recall that the American St Leger winner, Da Big Hoss, had previously won the Belmont Gold Cup.

More details on Clondaw Warrior can be found in his scouting report ahead of the American St Leger. He’s performed well in conditions races at Royal Ascot, winning the 2 1/2-mile Ascot S. in 2015 and placing third in the even longer Queen Alexandra last year, and he’s turned a (unique?) double at Galway, capturing a premier handicap in 2015 as well as a lucrative hurdle there last summer. [Addendum: scouting report has video of the Galway Hurdle and of his finest hour on the Flat, a hard-charging second in the 2015 Doncaster Cup.]

The one question mark over Clondaw Warrior is whether he’s in the same form as he was at Arlington. He was running better over the winter than in his last two over hurdles, and he is 10 years old now. Still, the cutback from three miles, and a return to better ground, must help. So could the dramatic drop in weight to 115 pounds.

Now We Can, a fast-finishing second to Da Big Hoss in this race a year ago, is back again for Nicolas Clement.

I’d written of his background in the lead-up to the 2016 Belmont Gold Cup, including his prior high-class French form and the reason he ended up being gelded. Since then, Now We Can has been running well enough to earn his keep in series of Group races, notably when third in the Prix Maurice de Nieuil (G2) to Candarliya and in the Prix du Conseil de Paris (G2) to One Foot in Heaven.

If his bare results don’t look as good this year, Now We Can has been competing in deeper races than at the corresponding time last year. In 2016, he was just working his way back into fitness in conditions races over Chantilly’s Polytrack and a listed event at Lyon Parilly. Fast forward to 2017, and Now We Can jetted off to Qatar for the valuable Emir’s Trophy. Although eighth of 16, the field was mostly bunched in a heap behind the dominant Chopin, so he wasn’t beaten much for the minors.

Again, on his return to France, Now We Can contested the Prix de Barbeville (G3) and finished with interest for fourth. The winner, Marmelo, came back with a close fifth to Dartmouth and Simple Verse in the Yorkshire Cup (G2).

Now We Can has every reason to perform well in this second attempt at the Belmont Gold Cup, especially since he’ll break from post 3 this time instead of post 12 (where Wicklow Brave landed). The one concern is that he has a lot more than the domestic runners to beat – he’s got five other Europeans.