Ed Stanco said that his filly graduated from college and went to the NFL by winning the Alabama at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 17.
Now, it’s time for a different sports metaphor.
One racing publication called Saturday’s Beldame a “Royal Rumble,” and, perhaps not coincidentally, Stanco views Princess of Sylmar as “Sugar Ray Leonard against a heavyweight.”
The Princess will take on the queen of racing, Royal Delta, in the Grade I Beldame as part of Belmont Park’s Super Saturday program that is rife with Breeders’ Cup implications.
With her Alabama win, the Pennsylvania-bred virtually locked up the 3-year-old filly Eclipse Award for the Schenectady native Stanco, a 1967 Linton High School graduate. On a loaded card featuring the Jockey Club Gold Cup as the main event, anticipation is high for the nine-furlong Beldame simply because of the head-to-head matchup between the two-time champion Royal Delta and the young star Princess of Sylmar.
“I never could have imagined getting this far, and now we’re knocking on the door,” Stanco said on Wednesday. “It’s going to be a great race.”
The Beldame, which Royal Delta won last year after finishing second to Havre de Grace in 2011, is one of six “Win and You’re In” Breeders’ Cup Challenge series races at Belmont on Saturday.
Stanco wants to race Princess of Sylmar next year at 4, so it’s not a given that she’ll go on to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
Even shutting her down for the year after the Alabama was a consideration, but trainer Todd Pletcher has kept her race-ready to see if she would show signs of having another good race in her. All indications are that she does.
“Todd really thinks she’s good right now,” Stanco said. “He used words I’ve never heard him use. I text him once a week and ask how she’s doing, and he always says, ‘Very good.’ On Tuesday, he texted that she was ‘Perfect,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, he never says that.’ ”
Princess of Sylmar, the only horse Stanco has racing, for now, has won five of six starts this year, finishing second to Close Hatches in the Gazelle at Aqueduct in April.
Close Hatches won the $1 million Cotillion at Parx last weekend, a race that had been considered for Princess of Sylmar.
Pletcher said the Beldame was a better option because of the distance, surface and the fact that Princess of Sylmar, winner of three straight Grade I stakes, would have had to give substantial weight to everyone in the Cotillion field.
As the only 3-year-old in the Beldame field, she’ll carry 120 pounds, and the other five will carry 123.
“We felt like staying home and trying our luck against some of the best older mares. This was the right time to try it,” Pletcher said during a national teleconference on Tuesday.
Stanco, an actuary who is CEO of Toa Reinsurance in Morristown, N.J., calculated the Beldame odds at 9-5 for Princess of Sylmar and 4-5 for Royal Delta, and wasn’t far off.
Royal Delta, impressive winner of the Personal Ensign at Saratoga, is 3-5 on the morning line, and Princess of Sylmar is 2-1. This will be Princess of Sylmar’s first try at Belmont and Royal Delta’s fourth; she broke her maiden there first time out three years ago in her only start of 2010.
“She’s a phenomenal mare,” Pletcher said of Royal Delta. “She has a tremendously high cruising speed, and she’s able to carry that over a distance of ground, so we have a lot of respect for her. We’ve been fortunate to beat her twice last year with Love and Pride and Awesome Maria, and we’ll hope that Princess of Sylmar can give her a run for her money.”
“Royal Delta is an outstanding mare, and I like [trainer] Bill Mott and [jockey] Mike Smith a lot,” Stanco said. “Royal Delta is built like a tank. Everyone thinks we need a fast pace, but if it’s slow, I think she can stay closer to Royal Delta, and if she hangs behind, I think she has a better turn of foot.”
Smith has been on both horses, subbing for Javier Castellano to win the Kentucky Oaks at odds of 38-1, while Castellano had a commitment on the Pletcher-trained Unlimited Budget, who was third.
Castellano got back on for the Coaching Club American Oaks win at Saratoga and the Alabama.
He said during the Saratoga meet that they learned something about Princess of Sylmar when, absent any other front-runners, she chased Close Hatches too closely in the Gazelle.
Since then, Princess of Sylmar has won by hanging a little farther back and exploding to the lead on the second turn of her races.
“We will not alter her style, and I think that’s really important, that Javier understand that and not take her out of her own style,” Pletcher said. “What we’ve got to hope is the last eighth of a mile, the last sixteenth of a mile, that Royal Delta comes back to us a little bit. We can be helped by someone showing some initiative early, but if they don’t do it, we’re just going to let our filly run her race and hope for the best.”
Confidence justifiably remains high in the queen’s camp.
She won the Delaware Handicap by 10 1⁄2 lengths, then Smith geared her down at the finish of a 4 1⁄2-length win over Athenticity in the Personal Ensign.
“I’ve been blessed to have ridden some good mares, and she certainly belongs right up there with the best of them,” Smith said during the teleconference. “She’s just got a tremendous stride, you just let her get into her rhythm and it’s just amazing the ground she covers.
“She’s [Princess of Sylmar] going to come running, it’s just a matter of if she can get to me or not.”
“She’s a serious filly; you can’t take her for granted, but Royal Delta is doing well,” Mott told the New York Racing Association. “I would say she’s on the same path she was last year.”
Royal Delta will be cross-entered in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Distaff (the renamed Ladies’ Classic), like she was last year.
Her connections seem to be leaning toward the Distaff in an attempt to win it three years in a row.
Because Princess of Sylmar’s connections believe she has a lock on the 3-year-old filly Eclipse no matter what, that won’t factor in a decision to go to the Breeders’ Cup, Pletcher said.
“I don’t think she has anything to prove at this point,” he said. “The year she’s had has been unbelievable. But we have a lot of respect for Royal Delta, and she is going to be the filly or mare to beat.”
“The key thing for me is not to burn her out this year,” Stanco said. “We want to save something for next year. They’re not racecars; they’re animals.
“It’s all different. In the Kentucky Oaks, we were a big long shot. In the Coaching Club, I thought we were co-favorites. In the Alabama, she was expected to win, and that’s when she graduated from college and was in the NFL. Now, it feels like Suger Ray Leonard against a heavyweight.
“I’m just so thrilled about this.”
If the Beldame appears to be a two-horse race, the eight-horse Jockey Club Gold Cup will be a free-for-all despite the fact that a few of the big-name older horses will be running elsewhere.
The reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic winner — Fort Larned — will stick to his home base at Churchill Downs to run in the ungraded $175,000 Homecoming.
Golden Ticket, who dead-heated with Alpha in the 2012 Travers, is cross-entered in the Homecoming and Awesome Again at Santa Anita, but will run in the Santa Anita race against the likes of Mucho Macho Man and Paynter on a card that boasts five Grade I races.
Weep not for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, though.
Among older horses, the race has drawn Flat Out, 5-for-6 at Belmont with wins in the JCGC the last two years; Whitney winner Cross Traffic, who is the 5-2 favorite; 2012
Stephen Foster winner Ron the Greek; Alpha, fresh off his Woodward victory at Saratoga; Last Gunfighter, a three-time Grade III winner this year for Mechanicville native Chad Brown; and Vitoria Olimpica.
They’ll be joined by the 3-year-olds Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, and Palace Malice, winner of the Belmont and Jim Dandy before a terrible start cost him a very good shot at the Travers.
“I think you have to be very good to begin with [as a 3-year-old], and particularly with this running of the Jockey Club, because it looks to be a strong one,” said Pletcher, who trains Palace Malice along with Cross Traffic and Vitoria Olimpica.
Palace Malice is the 4-1 third choice behind Cross Traffic and Flat Out after finishing a fast-closing fourth in the Travers.
Smith was aboard and said after the race that he had two choices — hustling Palace Malice to the front, or taking a long, measured cruise to gradually get in contention at the end.
He chose that route and had Palace Malice flying at the end, only to finish three-quarters of a length behind winner Will Take Charge in fourth, also behind Moreno and Orb.
“He absolutely lost his back end leaving the gate,” Smith said. “He was just really unlucky in that race, but I believe he was the best horse in there.
“He’s very powerful, and he certainly wants every bit of a mile and a quarter. He’s already proven that, so that’s something to our advantage. A lot of the older horses in there, they’re not really sure if they want to go a mile and a quarter, to be honest with you.”
One who won’t have that problem, especially at Belmont, is the 7-year-old Flat Out.
Last year, he was the 10th horse to win the JCGC two years in a row, the last of whom was Curlin in 2007-08.
The only horse to win three in a row is Kelso, who actually made it five straight in 1964.
“I think it’s great that a horse can participate in it three times in a row,” Mott said. “It’s a testament to the horse’s durability and class.”
Flat Out’s only loss at Belmont was a third in the Met Mile this year.
He has won the Suburban twice.
The biggest distance question mark among the top contenders involves Cross Traffic, who has never raced beyond the Whitney distance of a mile and an eighth.
Pletcher said that the lightly raced Cross Traffic galloped out well enough in the Westchester and Met Mile that it’s worth a shot to try the JCGC.
Among those he beat in the Whitney were Successful Dan, Mucho Macho Man, Ron the Greek, Fort Larned and Alpha.
“That [gallop-outs] gave us confidence that going a mile and an eighth would be in his scope,” Pletcher said. “We’ll have to see about a mile and a quarter, but everything he’s shown us indicates that it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Like the JCGC, the Awesome Again is a “Win and You’re In” for the BC Classic.
Fort Larned’s connections don’t have to worry about that, so trainer Ian Wilkes decided to keep him in Kentucky for the Homecoming.
He was entered in the Woodward, but scratched two days before the race because of a minor physical issue.
Wilkes told Churchill Downs that Fort Larned, who won the Whitney last year besides the Classic, is “healthy, very bright, very alert.”
“The ultimate goal is to get to the Breeders’ Cup,” he said. “Someone said the other day that this is probably the strongest Classic that we’ve seen in a long time. You want everyone to stay sound and get there in good form. It’s going to be a tremendous race.”
BEHOLDER IN ZENYATTA
Santa Anita’s five “Win and Your’re In” races include the Zenyatta, where 2012 2-year-old filly champion Beholder is the 121-pound co-topweight with Joyful Victory as the only 3-year-old in the eight-horse field.
She was second to Princess of Sylmar in the Kentucky Oaks and is coming off a listed stakes win at Del Mar following a break for a few months.
“We’ll point to the Breeders’ Cup, more likely the Distaff, unless we see something this weekend that makes us think we ought to go shorter into the seven-eighths race,” trainer Richard Mandella said.
“She had a very good comeback race at Del Mar, won very easily and gave us a lot of optimisim that there’s more to come.”