At the end, the Belmont was a New York race

Winner may have done most of his racing in Florida, but he lives here
Jose Ortiz aboard Tapwrit celebrates his win Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.
Jose Ortiz aboard Tapwrit celebrates his win Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT — So much for Calexit.

Instead of seceding from the Union, the state of California was threatening to annex New York at Belmont Park on Saturday.

Cali-based trainer Bob Baffert won the Easy Goer with a horse named — wait for it — West Coast, then went on a scorched-earth rampage across the grounds, going 4-for-4, all in graded stakes, by a combined 14 1/4 lengths and racking up almost $1.4 million in purse money in the process.

RELATED: Tapwrit captures Belmont Stakes

Cali-based jockey Mike Smith, an absolute marvel of an athlete at the grand old age of 51, lived up to his Big Money Mike nickname, riding all four of Baffert’s winners as well as the transcendent Songbird, who returned from a seven-month layoff to win the Ogden Phipps.

When the main event hit the track, though, with Frank Sin­atra’s traditional “New York, New York” piping over the PA, the 149th Belmont Stakes was all-New York, baby.

The winner, Tapwrit, may have done most of his racing in Florida, but he lives here.

As a yearling in 2015, he walked into the Fasig-Tipton sales ring in Saratoga Springs and walked out of the ring as the property of Bridlewood Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Yonkers native Robert LaPenta, who shelled out $1.2 million for the then-unnamed son of Tapit.

Just over a year later, he made his career racing debut across the street at Saratoga Race Course and promptly got blasted, finishing in last place in a 10-horse field.

But just as Baffert and Smith threatened to wrestle most of the spotlight away from the Belmont on Saturday, New York, New York prevailed, as trainer Todd Pletcher won his third Belmont at the tail end of a crazy, rollicking 

Triple Crown season that began when Tapwrit’s stablemate, Always Dreaming, won the Kentucky Derby.

The 49-year-old Pletcher may be a Texas native, but he settled into the biggest and best racing jurisdiction in North America almost 30 years ago. He  holds 26 meet titles in New York, including 12 at Saratoga. Tapwrit’s Belmont was Pletcher’s third, after Palace Malice won it in 2013 and the filly Rags to Riches outdueled Curlin in 2007 in what remains one of the most goosebump-inducing sporting events I’ve witnessed live.

And Tapwrit was piloted by Jose Ortiz, who won his first Saratoga riding title last summer and is one of the emerging New York-based jockeys who has gained a firm foothold on the national scene.

There may have been no Triple Crown on the line this year, but don’t try to tell someone like Pletcher that the race lacked meaning. And Tapwrit’s victory over the gritty Irish War Cry was a popular one with the crowd of 57,729.

“Well, this is our home base,” Pletcher said. “This is where we live, this is where my children go to high school and this is home. So it’s extra special. For Rags to Riches to be our first American classic win, it’s a race that’s been so good to us and we’ve been very fortunate now to win three. Took a couple of tough beats, too, but it seems, for whatever reason, to suit our style well.”

Part of Pletcher’s program is to give his horses a little bit more time between races, and the five weeks between Tapwrit’s sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont fit like a well-worn saddle. The Belmont was a bit of payback against Irish War Cry, since that colt crashed into Tapwrit coming out of the starting gate in the Derby and compromised his chance to win.

With a possible Triple Crown glittering on the horizon, Always Dreaming lost the Preakness, which, as disappointing as it was for Pletcher, provided a measure of relief, since it eliminated a scenario in which two horses he liked for the Belmont, Tapwrit and the one-eyed Patch, would be shoved into a position to thwart their own stablemate’s Triple Crown bid. With those two, Pletcher finished first and third on Saturday.

“It’s the nature of this business,” Pletcher said. “You very seldomly just get to enjoy a win and not have a target right around the corner. Especially with the Derby winner, the two-week turnaround between the Derby and the Preakness is a really short time for horses, but it’s a pretty long 14 days for a horse trainer.

“We really were hoping that Always Dreaming could take a shot at coming in for a Triple Crown try. I think that’s every trainers ultimate dream. But in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Man, if he won it, I’m wondering what’re you going to do with Tapwrit?’ But it’s all good today.”

Besides Tapwrit’s victory, two other highlights on the card were an incredible lightning-bolt finish in the stretch by Antonoe, who gave trainer Chad Brown from Mechanicville a nice win in the Grade I Just a Game, and a quote from Smith after he won the Met Mile on Mor Spirit, Baffert’s fourth win of the day.

Smith said, “That was for Holy Bull,” who was euth­anized at the age of 26 this week and whom Smith rode to victory in the Met Mile in 1994, less than three months before he put together the greatest Travers victory I’ve ever seen.

As Mor Spirit crossed the finish line, track announcer Larry Collmus bellowed, “Bob Baffert and Mike Smith are un- . . . BEATABLE!”

Star-on-the-rise  Brown also seems unbeatable these days as he looms over the New York scene, and he will be defending his first-ever Saratoga title in a few weeks, having stopped Pletcher’s domination with a record 40 wins last summer.

But Pletcher isn’t going anywhere.

And Saturday was his time to shine, with a horse whose victory could be appreciated on many New York-centric levels, even without a Triple Crown on the line.

“Each of these races individually stands on their own as major, major races and huge wins,” Pletcher said. “The 

Derby win was awesome, and the ebbs and flows of this game are well-documented. The last five weeks have been the ultimate rollercoaster for us.

“But we felt really good coming in that actually both horses were doing very well and were suited to the mile and half, with the right running styles and the right disposition, the right pedigrees. We’re fortunate it fell into place.”

Reach Gazette Sportswriter at 395-3148 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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