The $1.25-million Belmont Derby Invitational lured two shippers from France, one from Ireland and another from England. Yet on Stars and Stripes Day Saturday at Belmont Park, the winner's connections were as red, white and blue as it gets. On Fourth of July weekend, America's ultimate old school stable continued a tradition that dates to the Roaring Twenties.
Just when it appeared as if Ireland-based Adelaide was gone in midstretch, 23-1 shot Mr Speaker shot up the rail under Jose Lezcano in the black silks and cherry red cap of the Phipps Stable. Mr Speaker took the lead inside the sixteenth pole and held on by a neck over 2-1 favorite Adelaide, who came back at him in the final strides on the inner turf course. It was the second of three consecutive stakes victories for Lezcano, who was hotter than a firecracker.
Owner-breeder Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps and Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey were as thrilled with Mr Speaker's performance as they were perplexed by his fifth-place finish at odds-on May 26 at Belmont. "He definitely redeemed himself from his last race, which was very disappointing,'' McGaughey said. "My confidence was shaken, but he was a different horse today.''
Phipps said coming from last instead of setting the pace made the difference. "We found out last time he doesn't like to run in front,'' he said. "He likes to run at horses.
He paused and added, "I was surprised by what he paid.''
Mr Speaker returned $49 for his third win in seven grass starts after running 1¼ miles in 2:01.18.
In the co-feature, the $1-million Belmont Oaks Invitational, four European fillies were off the board as Belmont-based Minorette ($14.60) and Sea Queen ran 1-2. The result rewarded bettors who believe history repeats itself but hedge by boxing their picks. The exacta was worth $106, $154 less than the payoff May 25, when Sea Queen edged Minorette in a $200,000 stakes
Besides the Derby, Lezcano dominated the Grade III, $400,000 Belmont Sprint Championship with Clearly Now ($6.40), who rocketed a track-record 1:19.96 for 7 furlongs in a 6¼-length runaway. Lezcano then crushed the Grade I, $500,000 Suburban Handicap by 3 lengths with Zivo ($29.40), who, like Minorette, is trained by Chad Brown. Zivo went 1¼ miles in a quick 2:00.43. "A big day,'' Brown said. "A wonderful day of racing they put on here.''
Kid Cruz ($3.40) rallied to take the $196,000, Grade III Dwyer at 1 1/16 miles for trainer Linda Rice, who said she will point him for the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga.
The card showcased five stakes worth $3.35 million and drew 11,184 fans at a time when most horsemen and handicappers are awaiting Saratoga. Martin Panza, New York Racing Association senior vice president of racing operations, decided to create an event day for the holiday weekend. He renamed two grass stakes for 3-year-olds, the Garden City for fillies and the Jamaica Handicap, which became the Oaks and Derby, respectively, extended each to 10 furlongs and inflated their purses.
The megabucks lured some of Europe's leading horsemen, including Irishmen Aidan O'Brien, who trains Adelaide, and Dermot Weld, whose Flying Jib ran eighth in the Oaks. Most of the money stayed on this side of the Atlantic, because of the eight European runners, only Adelaide finished in the top three.
"We're tickled that Martin carded this race,'' McGaughey said of the Derby, "and we're tickled to death that we won it.''
Phipps personally congratulated Panza in the winner's circle, saying: "You put together a good race.''
When your horse comes in at 23-1 and earns $670,000, what could be better?