It’s quality over quantity at Belmont Park on Saturday, with small fields but big names running for the money out on Long Island. The Grade 1 Woodward returns to NYC and is the standout, with Maxfield and Code Of Honor taking on talented rivals in a race that could have an effect on the Breeders’ Cup Classic market Ace juvenile Gunite locks horns with Wit once again in a showdown for the BC Challenge Series G1 Champagne Stakes, and turf king Chad Brown is the man to watch with two sharp fillies in the Grade 2 Miss Grillo.

Woodward Stakes Grade 1, $500,000, 1m 1f, 3yo+

The Woodward Stakes is back at Belmont Park after a 15-year sojourn at Saratoga. This grand old race has been won by some of the all-time greats, by Buckpasser, Damascus, Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Easy Goer and Cigar, and although there’s nothing in Saturday’s contest within a stone of those kings of the track, there are five closely matched contenders in a fascinating race.

Each of them has pieces of form that suggest they could take this, the only exception in the field being Mo Gotcha, winner of a couple of claimers at Saratoga this summer. It’s wrong to say that a horse has no chance, as we saw with 108-1 Hollywood Talent at Parx Racing last week, but Mo Gotcha is strictly here for the beer and shouldn’t be part of any serious bettor’s consideration.

The rest is more complicated. Morning-line favourite Maxfield has long been thought to be better than he has shown, and perhaps here is his chance. He has never been off the board in his life and only been beaten twice, although both those defeats came at Grade 1 level, including last time out in the Whitney at Saratoga when nothing could keep a lid on Knicks Go. Maxfield was runner-up, beaten four and a half lengths, and he couldn’t close on Knicks Go from the top of the lane.

That was no great disgrace, but it does present the theory that perhaps Maxfield is no more than a solid Grade 2 horse, and a horse whose come-from-behind style will be put to the test by the pace angles here. No doubt he can win this, but doubts remain all the same.

The Code Of Honor we saw in 2019 would be a 3-5 chance here and the conversation would be over. Things haven’t gone smoothly for the five-year-old since then, but he still possesses a ton of talent as he showed in the Grade 3 Philip H Iselin at Monmouth Park in August, on only his second start of 2021 and his first off a seven-month break.

He looked strong there, and although he didn’t beat much he did it in some style, cruising by two and a half lengths in a fast time. That paid workout will have put him right in the groove, and he has the quality to see off the opposition at a track that brings out the best in him, as long as he’s back somewhere near the old Code of Honor.

Another undergoing a slight rebuild is Art Collector, who looked a coming force for last year’s upside-down Triple Crown series until running a dull fourth in the Preakness behind Swiss Skydiver. He was way off the boil in two subsequent starts, but a switch to trainer Bill Mott has had a galvanising effect and he hasn’t looked back, winning a Listed at Saratoga and the Grade 3 Charles Town Classic.

He’s on a roll and looks likely to be on the front end in what could be a very tactical race, which is the right place to be in that case. He needs to do better but may well do just that.

His stablemate Forza Di Oro was a plain non-stayer over the ten furlongs of the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Saratoga and the drop in distance here gives him a shot. He is two-for-three at this track and is likely to be another pace factor, but has never won above Grade 3 level, so the shorter route needs to be the key to unlocking his talent.

Last year’s Belmont Stakes runner-up Dr Post has good form in the book, if a few pages back. He was also third in the Haskell last year but has looked below that level during this campaign, winning Grade 3s but missing the mark in Grade 1s, including last time out in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar when he was never in the ballgame until keeping on late for third, beaten almost six lengths.

He is probably better than that and could improve for the return to Belmont, but of the five main contenders he has the most to prove and makes the least appeal.

HorseJockeyOdds courtesy of Jazzsports
DR POSTIrad Ortiz Jr+600
MAXFIELDJose L. Ortiz+140
MO GOTCHAJalon L. Samuel+5000
CODE OF HONORPaco Lopez+250
FORZA DI OROJunior Alvarado+500

Betting Prediction Maxfield has always threatened to win a race like the Woodward Stakes, but we’ll take a chance on the revitalised CODE OF HONOR still having the class to get this job done.

Champagne Stakes Grade 1, $500,000, 1m, 2yo

As ever in these top-rank two-year-old contests, the bettor is faced with the age-old dilemma of proven ability over nascent promise – do you go with what you’ve seen or what you think you might see? The Champagne – win-and-in for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile – is that sort of contest, with the best of this year’s vintage taking on those bubbling under; somewhere along the line there’ll be a few bubbles burst.

The best race for two-year-old colts this year was the Grade 1 Hopeful over seven furlongs at Saratoga, in which Gunite served up a thoroughly dominant performance to win by five and three-quarter lengths from Wit, stepping right up on previous form that included runner-up spot in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special. The son of top freshman sire Gun Runner missed the break in the Hopeful but was rushed up on the rail and soon took the race by the scruff of the neck.

In front a half-mile out, he never let up the gallop and was never threatened down the stretch, keeping on strongly to be much the best on the day, showing that the step up to this mile will hold no fears. Gunite likes to be on the pace – in a small field such as this that task is made easier, and there is a scenario where he breaks well and simply runs his rivals out of town.

If Gunite can sometimes start tardily, then Wit is still asleep when the bell rings, only getting going when the others have gone. That slackness may have been a major contributory factor to his defeat in the Hopeful, as he was always playing catch-up and had nothing left in his legs for the stretch run. On his previous start in the Grade 3 Sanford at the Spa, he also had trouble at the gate and was left with plenty of ground to make up, although in that lesser grade he found that no problem.

Wit was an odds-on favourite for the Hopeful, and there are few things more frustrating than seeing your hopes expire straight out of the gate. If Wit can wake up when the alarm goes, he has the ability to turn the tables on Gunite – if he can get close enough to him to land a blow.

So much for the proven class: Gunite and Wit are the best two-year-old colts on the east coast. One of the most exciting is Jack Christopher, who blew his rivals away on his debut at Saratoga over six furlongs in August, pulling clear from the top of the stretch to hit the wire eight and three-quarter lengths clear. He left a big impression, not least on his trainer Chad Brown. “He was so brilliant with his debut,” he said. “The way he’s training, I don’t think he’ll have any difficulty getting the mile.”

The runner-up there, Hoist The Gold, made the form look good when finishing second at Churchill Downs next time, getting the race on disqualification, and if Jack Christopher improves even the usual amount off debut then he’ll be right in the mix today.

Just as exciting is the Todd Pletcher-trained My Prankster, stablemate of Wit, who outdid Jack Christopher when posting a ten-length victory on his debut at Saratoga. My Prankster was in front soon after halfway and simply powered away down the stretch, as visually impressive as you could want, although the runner-up Seal Beach was beaten again next time out and is still a maiden.

That was over six and a half furlongs, and again there seems no obstacle to My Prankster seeing out the mile. He’s certainly worth his place in the Champagne but – like Jack Christopher – is taking on seasoned runners now and will have to learn quickly if he is to translate that maiden stroll into something more substantial.

Pletcher’s third challenger Commandperformance was beaten on his Saratoga debut over six furlongs, finishing off his race in taking style but coming up two lengths short at the line. This is a tough spot for a maiden, and along with Kavod, well beaten in both his starts in Graded company, he looks booked for the role of onlooker.

Horse Jockey Odds courtesy of Jazzsports
WITIrad Ortiz. Jr+200
KAVODCharles Roberts+5000
GUNITERicardo Santana. Jr+400
COMMANDPERFORMACETyler Gaffalione+1000

Betting Prediction There are two very promising maiden winners here in the Champagne, but the established form is strong and GUNITE is the clear choice on the basis of his Saratoga romp.

Miss Grillo Stakes Grade 2, $200,000, 1m 1/2f turf, 2yo fillies

There is less obvious class about the Miss Grillo this year than might be suggested by its Grade 2 status, with no previous Graded winners in attendance. On occasions such as these the best place to start is with the race’s history, and so we start with Chad Brown.

The son of Saratoga has won the Miss Grillo eight times, including with star names such as Newspaperofrecord and Lady Eli, and has won it seven times in the last ten runnings, so anything he sends is worth more than a second look. He saddles two contenders in McKulick and Kinchen, and there is little to choose between them.

McKulick, a daughter of the mighty Frankel, got it right first time on her debut at Saratoga when coming through to take it up in deep stretch and score by a length and a half. That maiden was at today’s trip of an extended mile, so there are no doubts over her stamina, and she is certain to come forward for that experience.

At the moment she has bragging rights over Kinchen, who came off second best in an identical race at the Spa on her debut, doing plenty of good work late but hitting the line three-quarters of a length behind the more experienced Hail To. There were traffic issues involved, and perhaps Kinchen – who gets 2lb from all her rivals today – can be considered slightly unlucky to still be a maiden. Whatever the numbers on the board, this looks a case of six-to-five and pick ‘em, with both fillies strong candidates on their first start in Graded company.

Kinchen’s conqueror Hail To is back to try to confirm the form, after stepping up a long way from her debut defeat at the Spa. She was a longshot when overcoming Kinchen and it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise to see Kinchen improve past her with the benefit of that experience.

Sail By showed plenty of resolve when pitched into a black-type at Saratoga latest, battling all the way down the stretch but unable to keep her head in front, eventually filling third spot, a length and a half off the winner. She won here over six furlongs on her debut and shouldn’t be ignored given her previous efforts in stakes. Charlee O also won here over six furlongs on her debut, but fared less well up in class and down in distance next time when sixth in a black-type at the Spa. The extended mile has to be a worry.

The most intriguing entry is Philly Eagles, who won her only start in Britain and now makes her first start Stateside. That victory, over seven furlongs at Doncaster, is only moderate form back home, but we have seen how strong European turf form is when applied to the US scene and Philly Eagles is not without a shot. She kept on well in the closing stages at Doncaster and was value for more than the half-length margin.

Horse Jockey Odds courtesy of Jazzsports
SAIL BYJunior Alvarado+800
CHARLEE OManuel Franco+2000
HAIL TORicardo Santana. Jr+350
KINCHENTyler Gaffalione+250
PHILLY EAGLESDylan Davis+800
MCKULICKIrad Ortiz. Jr+100

Betting Prediction Chad Brown holds the key to the Miss Grillo, but working out which way that key will turn is tough. Slight preference is for KINCHEN in receipt of 2lb from her barnmate.

Belmont Turf Sprint Invitational Stakes Grade 3, $200,000, 6f turf, 3yo+

If a week is a long time in politics, a year is almost a lifetime in racing, but that’s how long Backtohisroots has had to wait to get a shot at the Turf Sprint Invitational. Twelve months ago he stumbled leaving the gate and unseated Jose Lezcano; now he’s back, and Luis Saez will be sitting tight.

Backtohisroots has run only once since then, four weeks ago when failing by just a neck to catch Pulsate in a Listed race over five and a half furlongs at Saratoga. He’ll be much straighter with that under his belt and can capitalise on the 4lb pull in the weights he gets with Pulsate. A length and a quarter back in third that day was Guildsman, who hasn’t won in more than a year and meets Backtohisroots on the same terms.

Belgrano arrives in good form, looking for a hat-trick after two wins at Monmouth Park, the latest when quickening clear to take a black-type contest by two lengths. He is certainly in the mix for this congested, well-contested sprint along with the only mare Piedi Bianchi, who returned to winning form last time out in a four-runner Listed race at Saratoga and has been placed in Graded stakes three times here, including the Grade 2 Ruffian last summer.

Also in good order is the sole three-year-old Arrest Me Red, winner of his only start in 2021 when scraping home by a neck in a Listed at Saratoga in August on his first run for Wesley Ward. He has the scope for improvement that many of these lack and that reappearance run will have put an edge on him.

Last year’s Turf Sprint Invitational runner-up Chewing Gum tries his luck again and has never been off the board here in six races, notably when runner-up to Casa Creed, beaten two lengths, in the Grade 1 Jaipur in June. He is inconsistent but that form sits very well in this company and his course form makes him a must for those playing exotics.

Therapist hasn’t won in four starts this year, but gave notice that he might be getting his mojo back when runner-up in a black-type at Saratoga in August, beaten a nose over an extended mile. The drop in distance might not be what he needs, although trainer Christophe Clement has won this three times in the last five years and ought to know what’s required. Buy Land And See is having his first start for almost a year and might be a little rusty.

Horse Jockey Odds courtesy of Jazzsports
PIEDI BIANCHICharles Roberts+2000
ARREST ME REDIrad Ortiz. Jr+500
BUY LAND AND SEEJose L. Ortiz+1000
THERAPISTTyler Gaffalione+450
GUIDSMANRicardo Santana. Jr+1000
PULSATEManuel Franco+350
BELGRANOJunior Alvarado+800
CHEWING GUMEric Cancel+800

Betting Prediction The Turf Sprint is a very competitive contest and five or six come here with a good chance of victory. Maybe ARREST ME RED can confirm the promise of his Saratoga score.

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