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It's not a Derby, but Sir Winston wears it well

It's not a Derby, but Sir Winston wears it well

A tip of the hat to a Peter Pan runner-up who likes Belmont Park
It's not a Derby, but Sir Winston wears it well
Sir Winston, far right, trails the field in the Peter Pan before finishing second to Global Campaign.
Photographer: ROBERT MAUHAR/NYRA

ELMONT -- The sun was acting like it wanted to come up, and the various Capital Region radio stations on the dial were acting like they wanted to come down, as I headed south on I-87 early (very early) Friday morning.

So it was that I switched on the iPod and immediately heard a Peter Pan reference.

This, not long after "Don't You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds on one of the stations.

You'll find no shortage of Belmont Stakes analysis and selections heading into Saturday's third leg of the Triple Crown.

My simple mind? I'm just looking for an omen, a sign, anywhere I can find one. (And not just "EZ-Pass. No cash receipts.")
 

It's easy to characterize the field for the 151st running of this race as two sets of horses, the nearly co-favorite duo of Preakness winner War of Will and Wood Memorial winner Tacitus, and the Other Eight.

It also has been easy for some to portray this Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, as the New York Racing Association bills it, as Met Mile Day with an oh-by-the-way Belmont on the card, based on the blockbuster race that will go to post two races before the actual main event. Think of that concert you went to where the opening act blew away the headliner. The Met Mile is that good.

But the Belmont Stakes is still the pivot upon which this week turns, and always will be no matter how many goodies NYRA stuffs into this stocking.

And it could turn out to be a pretty cool race and not a bad wagering puzzle, to boot, with significant implications for the rest of the season, mostly based on what War of Will does.

As evidence of how ridiculously star-studded Saturday's racing will be, six of the 11 horses currently on top of the NTRA national poll are running on the card, including McKinzie, Mitole and Thunder Snow in the Met Mile; Bricks and Mortar in the Manhattan; Midnight Bisou in the Ogden Phipps; and World of Trouble in the Jaipur.

That's not to mention that the only filly in the top 10 of the NTRA poll restricted to 3-year-olds, Serengeti Empress, is in the Acorn.

War of Will is the only horse who will run in all three Triple Crown races, and other than that, the Belmont field includes two other Preakness horses (runner-up Everfast, Bourbon War) and four from the Kentucky Derby (Tacitus, Tax, Master Fencer, Spinoff).

I'm picking none of these, and settled on the two from the Peter Pan, Intrepid Heart and Sir Winston, especially after my iPod told me to.

That's the nine-furlong stakes race run at Belmont the week after the Derby each year that Tonalist successfully used as a prep to his defeat of California Chrome in 2014, thus denying the first Triple Crown in decades.

The Peter Pan isn't even particularly a great key race for Belmont Stakes success. Tonalist was the first to complete that double since A.P. Indy in 1992, and since then only 14 Peter Pan winners have even run in the Belmont.

But I'm taking that route this year, based on several factors, not the least of which was a conversation with trainer Mark Casse, who is very good at promoting his horses' chances before races, and swayed me with some Sir Winston love Friday morning on the Belmont backstretch.

I was leaning that way, anyway, and "Don't You Forget About Me" on the radio seemed to be a retroactive omen.

Casse also trains War of Will, whom he nicknamed WOW from the moment his assistant Jamie Begg worked the colt as a 2-year-old on the Belmont training track last year. And he has rightfully earned the spotlight in the 3-year-old male division after his Preakness win on the heels of Maximum Security's disqualification in the Derby.

Besides a good second in the Peter Pan on May 11, Sir Winston was sired by a Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Awesome Again, and his mother's sire was Afleet Alex, who flirted with a Triple Crown in 2005, dominating the Belmont by seven lengths.

As the "other" Casse, Sir Winston has much to offer.

"I would not be surprised one iota," Casse said. "The interesting thing about him is he wants ground, but he's not a plodder, if that makes sense. He has an extremely quick turn of foot.

"A lot of times you see those races where they run and they're just a grinder. They don't ever run fast, they just run the same speed. At a mile and an eighth in the Peter Pan, that horse ran the last quarter in 23 [seconds] and 2 [fifths]. That tells you that he's not some plodder. Going a mile and a half, the question is will that kill his kick? We don't know. But we've got is probably the best rider at that. Joel's [Rosario] won a lot of big races for us coming from last."

Another rider, Julien Leparoux (who will ride Master Fencer), raved about Sir Winston after he finished four lengths behind Tacitus in the Tampa Bay Derby.

"Julien Leparoux has ridden for me for years, and he doesn't get too excited," Casse said. "When he rode Sir Winston in the Tampa Bay Derby, he came back excited. He said, 'When he finally got into gear, he was flying.'"

Sir Winston may be running in the shadow of stablemate War of Will, but his signature don't-you-forget-about-me moment came for Casse when he schooled in the Belmont paddock on Thursday.

"I'm laughing about Sir Winston because he's about the most dead-headed horse, and he was leaping out there like ... where did this come from?" he said.

I did not hear any Grateful Dead songs on the way down.

 

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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