Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher will saddle a formidable pair of contenders in Jouster and Con Lima in Thursday’s Grade 3, $200,000 Wonder Again, a nine-furlong inner turf test for sophomore fillies on Opening Day of the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
The festival runs from Thursday through Saturday, June 5, culminating with the 153rd running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets. The festival will encompass 17 total stakes, including eight Grade 1s on Belmont Stakes Day, capped by the “Test of the Champion” for 3-year-olds in the 1 1/2-mile final leg of the Triple Crown.
Thursday’s nine-race card, which offers a 3:05 p.m. Eastern first post, features a trio of stakes offerings, including the Grade 3, $200,000 Intercontinental, a seven-furlong turf sprint for older fillies and mares; and the $150,000 Astoria, a 5 1/2-furlong sprint for juvenile fillies on Big Sandy. The Wonder Again will go as Race 8 at 6:45 p.m. Eastern.
While both Pletcher-trained fillies are good from gate, the veteran conditioner said he expects Jouster to be more forwardly placed.
“I think Jouster is naturally quicker and Con Lima has shown that she can sit just off the pace,” Pletcher said.
Starlight Racing’s Jouster, a Noble Mission bay, will make her first appearance since a 1 1/2-length gate-to-wire score over Wonder Again rivals Gift List and Plum Ali in the one-mile Grade 2 Appalachian on April 3 over a Keeneland turf course rated good.
A $360,000 purchase at the 2019 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling Sale, Jouster is out of the Street Cry mare Playtime, who is a daughter of champion 2-year-old filly Storm Flag Flying and granddaughter of multiple Grade I-winner My Flag from the family of Champion Older Mare Personal Ensign.
Jouster has won three of her last four starts with the lone loss coming by a nose to Domain Expertise in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Florida Oaks on March 6 at Tampa Bay Downs.
“She’s a naturally fast filly and it seems like she’s starting to settle a bit,” said Pletcher. “It’s sort of a pivotal race for us in terms of which direction we go with her. If she can handle a mile and an eighth, we may look at some of those races that are a little longer. If not, we’ll cut back in distance. We’re eager to find out how she does.”
Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Joseph Graffeo, Del Toro, Eric Nikolaus and Troy Johnson’s graded-stakes winner Con Lima, a Texas-bred daughter of Commissioner, boasts a record of five wins and four seconds from 10 starts.
Con Lima, who has made her last seven starts at Gulfstream Park, made the grade via the disqualification of Spanish Loveaffair in the Grade 3 Herecomesthebride, a 1 1/16-mile turf test on February 27. She followed that effort with a fourth in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks over dirt on March 27 ahead of a dominant four-length score last out in the 1 1/16-mile Honey Ryder over good turf.
Pletcher said the versatile filly is coming into the race in fine fettle.
“She trains and runs consistently well,” said Pletcher. “She’s better on the turf, but handles dirt OK, also. We’ll see how she handles the mile and an eighth and how it all plays out for her.”
Luis Saez will pilot Jouster from post 5, while Flavien Prat has the call aboard Con Lima from post 2.
Trainer Christophe Clement will also saddle a strong pair in Michael Dubb, Madaket Stables, and Bethlehem Stables’ Plum Ali and Brereton C. Jones’ homebred Creative Cairo.
Plum Ali, by First Samurai, won her first three career starts, culminating in a 2 1/4-length score in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 Miss Grillo in October at Belmont. She completed her campaign with a closing fifth in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in November at Keeneland.
Plum Ali made her seasonal debut with a close third in the Appalachian, just two lengths in arrears of Jouster.
“I think she is a top-class filly. At Keeneland, she was a bit unlucky because of the pace scenario,” said Clement. “I have a small question mark if she will stay a mile and an eighth or mile and a quarter. But we’re giving it a try and we’ll find out. Her race at Keeneland was actually a very good race. She finished third in a good race. The pace was against her, but she finished well. She’s trained well since.”
Creative Cairo, by Cairo Prince, prevailed by a nose in a nine-furlong turf route at second asking on April 10 at the Big A. The Kentucky homebred steps into stakes company for the first time from a nearly two-month layoff.
“She has improved in her morning works since she broke her maiden at Aqueduct,” said Clement. “It’s just worth it to give her a shot in a stake because she has improved in the way she trains.”
Plum Ali will exit post 10 under Joel Rosario, while Manny Franco will guide Creative Cairo from post 8.
Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Gianni Fittipaldi’s Mia Martina, trained by Graham Motion, enters off short rest from a closing fourth in the Hilltop, a one-mile event won by Alda on May 14 over firm turf at Pimlico Race Course.
The Not This Time bay, with Irad Ortiz, Jr. up, rallied from 16 lengths off the pace to finish just 2 1/4-lengths behind the winner.
“She didn’t have a great trip in the Hilltop. It was nobody’s fault; just one of those things,” said Motion. “I didn’t feel like she had a hard race, so for that reason, I don’t mind running her back in three weeks. Plus, I think she’ll appreciate the mile and an eighth.”
A winner at first asking on the Gulfstream Park West turf for former trainer Juan Avila, Mia Martina won first out for Motion in a 1 1/16-mile optional-claimer on the Gulfstream turf in January. She closed late to be fourth in the Grade 3 Florida Oaks before a difficult dirt debut in which she was eased.
“The Gazelle was a white wash. I just put a line through it,” said Motion.
Mia Martina will look to get back on track from the inside post under Hall of Famer John Velazquez.
Four-time Eclipse Award-winning conditioner Chad Brown will have a pair of contenders in Fluffy Socks and Technical Analysis as he looks to win his fourth Wonder Again following scores by Lady Eli , New Money Honey , and Cambier Parc .
Head of Plains Partners’ Fluffy Socks, a Kentucky homebred daughter of Slumber, made the grade in the Grade 3 Jimmy Durante traveling one-mile over firm Del Mar turf in November to close out her juvenile campaign.
“She’s doing really well. After she won late last year at Del Mar, we tucked her away for a little bit and just planned on focusing on this turf series for 3-year-old fillies,” said Brown. “She doesn’t seem to have any distance limitations—longer the better—and a real, true mile and a quarter filly. When you look at the top and bottom of her pedigree, it fits, and she’s coming in really well.”
The talented bay won the Selima over yielding Pimlico turf in October ahead of a nose loss to Ingrassia when second in the Chelsey Flower in November over a soft Belmont turf.
Fluffy Socks enters from a closing second in the 1 1/16-mile Memories of Silver over firm Aqueduct turf on April 18.
“She got into a lot of trouble in her last race and, as you can see last year when we were developing her, she’s a little better when you get a race under her belt,” said Brown. “She’s trained that way, too. Now that she’s got a race, she’s sharpened up a bit in her training, too.
“She might be closer to the pace as we stretch her out,” he added. “But you would hope there’s some pace in the race for her to make one run.”
Klaravich Stables’ Technical Analysis, a bay daughter of Kingman bred in Ireland by Rabbah Bloodstock Limited, graduated at second asking over good Aqueduct turf in November to complete her 2-year-old season.
Technical Analysis enters from a 2 3/4-length score in a 1 1/16-mile optional-claiming event on firm Belmont turf on April 29.
Brown said he has high hopes for progeny of the talented Kingman, who in 2014 won the Group 1 Irish 2000 Guineas, St. James’s Palace Stakes, Sussex Stakes and Prix Jacques le Marois en route to being named Cartier Horse of the Year in Europe.
“She’s very talented. Fortunately, we were onto Kingman early as a young stallion,” said Brown. “He was a remarkable racehorse who was unfortunately maybe a little bit overshadowed by Frankel, running around the same time for Juddmonte, but he only lost one time and appeared to really like firm ground. It doesn’t always work out, but we’ve been a big supporter of Kingman from the very first crop. Now that ship has sailed and he’s harder to buy, but we’ve been fortunate to buy the ones we have and nearly all of them have turned out to be runners.”
Brown said he is hopeful Jose Ortiz will be able to engineer a measured, one-run trip for the Irish-bred filly out of the Sea The Stars mare Sealife.
“I keep looking at that [damsire] Sea the Stars and thinking, even though she’s been keen in her races, she’s a beautiful, big, scopey horse and if we can keep working with her and Jose to get her to settle a little bit, she’ll have no problem with the distance,” said Brown.
Ortiz, Jr. will guide Fluffy Socks from post 7, while Technical Analysis will emerge from post 9 under Ortiz.
Amerman Racing’s Gift List, trained by Brian Lynch, was a 4 1/4-length winner of the Grade 2 Edgewood last out on April 30 over a Churchill Downs turf rated good. The Bated Breath chestnut launched her career in England with trainer Karl Richard Burke, winning a pair of starts before joining Lynch for her sophomore season.
Gift List completed the exacta behind Jouster in the Appalachian in her North American debut ahead of her Edgewood coup.
Hall of Famer Javier Castellano will be aboard Gift List from post 6.
Completing the field are I Get It [post 3, Kendrick Carmouche], and Alwayz Late [post 4, Jose Lezcano].
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