Japanese horse Epicharis treated for lameness before Belmont

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NEW YORK — The mystery surrounding the Japanese horse that is the early 4-1 second choice to win the Belmont Stakes has gotten deeper.

Epicharis didn’t train on Thursday, hours after the 3-year-old dark brown colt was treated with an anti-inflammatory for lameness in his right front hoof, calling into question whether he will be fit to run in Saturday’s final leg of the Triple Crown.

The Belmont already lost expected favorite Classic Empire on Wednesday because of an abscess in his right front hoof. The $1.5 million race also is without Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and Preakness winner Cloud Computing. A field of 12 is set to run the 1+-mile race, with Irish War Cry as the early 7-2 favorite.

Epicharis was treated intravenously with Butazolidin, commonly known as bute, on Wednesday night, according to veterinary records from the New York State Gaming Commission. The vet treating the horse cited “possible foot” as the issue.

“He looked a little different favoring his right front yesterday afternoon, so we treated his hoof and gave him bute,” trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara said Thursday through a translator. “It looks like it’s getting better and I think there is no problem running him in the race. We still have time, so we will give him the best care we can.”

Epicharis walked around his barn on Thursday, two days after he had his last serious workout. Hagiwara is hopeful he will return to the track on Friday.

The New York Racing Association surely hopes he runs on Saturday. It is offering a new $1 million (110,289,555 Japanese yen) bonus to Epicharis if he wins as part of an effort to recruit a Japanese horse to the Belmont. The winner’s share of the purse is $800,000 (88,236,744 yen).

“When you make such a long trip with the horse, you need confidence in your horse,” said Christophe Lemaire, his French jockey. “For sure, the connections studied the form very well, and the opportunity to come here. If they decided to bring the horse, it’s because they think he’s able to win. I think so too, especially this year with no Derby winner, no Preakness winner. I think he’s got a good chance.”

Last year, Japanese-trained Lani ran in all three Triple Crown races. His best finish was third in the Belmont.

Belmont Park’s sweeping turns and deep, sandy track is similar to those in Japan. However, the 1+-mile distance is a question for every entrant since most horses have never run that far and will never be asked to again.

“A mile and a half is a long way to go, but in his previous races he has shown us some stamina,” Lemaire said. “He should stay the trip.”

Epicharis was undefeated as a 2-year-old in his homeland, winning his first three starts in Japan by a combined 25 lengths. This year, Epicharis won another race in Tokyo before losing for the first time by a nose to Thunder Snow in the UAE Derby in March.

His sire, Gold Allure, is a son of 1989 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence.

The colt arrived in New York on June 1 after a 24-hour journey from Japan that included a layover in Alaska. He cleared quarantine last weekend.

Hagiwara trained 2009 Japanese Derby winner Logi Universe, the only Group 1 winner so far in his career. The 58-year-old trainer has never raced in the U.S. before.

“I’m hoping for a good result because he’s getting good support from Japan, the horsemen, and the other connections, so I’m sure that Japan is hoping for a good result,” he said.

There is great interest in Japan surrounding the 149-year-old Belmont, the oldest of America’s Triple Crown races. For the first time, a Triple Crown race will be available for pari-mutuel wagering in Japan through a separate, non-comingled pool.

“Every time a Japanese horse competes abroad, it’s a big event for Japanese fans and the Japanese horse racing world,” Lemaire said. “If Epicharis could win the Belmont, it would be a big shocking wave in Japan. A big tsunami maybe.”

Breeders’ Cup spots on the line this weekend, top trainers hold keys to 2-year-old tests

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Sometimes, in assessing stakes races, it is best to look at the history of the race and see if there is a dominant factor in that history. This weekend’s racing features both the Champagne Stakes and the Miss Grillo Stakes, two Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup (coverage begins Saturday at 4 pm ET on NBC). For both races, you need to look no further than the “winning trainer” column, which provides some unavoidable facts:

  1. Since 2004, Todd Pletcher has won the Champagne Stakes a record-setting six times.
  2. In recent times, Chad Brown has asserted himself in this race, winning 3 of the last 6 runnings.
  3. In the 14 runnings of the Miss Grillo since 2008, Chad Brown has been the winning trainer 8 times.

All observations and handicapping of these two races must begin with these facts. Is there something that makes horses from these barns better than others? Not necessarily. But history tells us that these two barns have high-quality and expensive horses and they tend to get them to peak at this time of year. You can try to beat them at the betting windows, but be aware of the history that you are running into.

Further research brought up some interesting notes about these two races and their Breeders’ Cup divisions.

First, a look at the 2-year-old colt division. Since 2004 (when Todd Pletcher won the first of his 6 Champagne Stakes), three 2-year-olds have won the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award. They were War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010) and Shanghai Bobby (2012).  Pletcher trained Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito handled War Pass.

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Looking at the 2-year-old turf fillies, the dominance of Chad Brown is even more striking. Since 2008, when Chad Brown captured his first Miss Grillo and the first running of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, four 2-year-old fillies have captured the Miss Grillo and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. They were Maram (2008), Lady Eli (2014), New Money Honey (2016) and Newspaperofrecord (2018). All four fillies were trained by Chad Brown.

A review of charts from the Champagne back to 2004 (the year of Todd Pletcher’s first winner in the race) reveals that he had 20 starters, with 6 wins, 3 seconds and 1 third. That means he has won 30% of the time and been in the money 50%.

A review of the charts from the Miss Grillo dating back to 2008 (Chad Brown’s first winner in the race) shows that he has had 23 starters, with 8 wins, 1 second and 4 thirds. That means he has won approximately 35% of the time and been in the money 56%.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Champagne Stakes

So, what does this mean for this year’s editions of these two “Win and You’re In” races for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup?

In the Champagne, it seems that the dominant trainers in the sport are putting forth the major contenders.

  • 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is likely to start Verifying, who was a solid winner at Saratoga as a big favorite in his only career start.
  • The sport’s all-time winningest North American trainer is Steve Asmussen, who is rapidly closing in on 10,000 career wins. Asmussen, who won this race in 2020 with Jackie’s Warrior, will send out Gulfport, a very impressive son of Uncle Mo. Gulfport won his first two races by an average winning margin of almost 10 lengths. Then, he had some real misfortune in his next two starts, finishing 2nd in both races at Saratoga. In the Saratoga Special, he had major traffic problems that led to losing several lengths at the top of the stretch. As the favorite in the Hopeful, he endured a wide trip on a sloppy surface to be 2nd best again. With a clean trip, he will be a major contender in the Champagne.
  • As previously stated, Chad Brown has won the Champagne in 3 of its last 6 runnings. He is likely to enter Blazing Sevens, who is a son of Good Magic, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. After a big win in the first race of his career at Saratoga, Blazing Sevens endured a wide trip on a sloppy track in the Hopeful Stakes, and he should improve here, especially on a fast track.
  • The horse who beat Gulfport in the Hopeful was Forte, trained by the 6-time winner of this race, Todd Pletcher. The stretchout to a one-turn mile in the Champagne would have seemed to be made to order for his closing kick. At entry time, Pletcher chose to not enter Forte in the Champagne Stakes, in all likelihood because he plans to enter the horse in the Breeders’ Futurity next Saturday at Keeneland. The Breeders’ Futurity is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and can be seen on CNBC.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Miss Grillo Stakes

Moving on to the Miss Grillo, Chad Brown is likely to enter Free Look, who was an impressive late-closing winner of a Maiden race in her second career start. In her first start, she was a victim of a slow pace, and the best she could do from the back of the pack was close to be 3rd. She seems to be a horse who is likely to improve with more racing. Free Look is a daughter of the leading sire Tapit.

Two others to watch in the Miss Grillo are Be Your Best and Pleasant Passage. Be Your Best is undefeated in two starts for trainer Horacio DePaz. Her last start was the P.G. Johnson Stakes, and she displayed the stalking style that has led to wins in both of her starts. Another with a license to improve is Pleasant Passage, from the barn of legendary trainer Shug McGaughey. In her only career start, she rallied up the rail and endured a stretch battle to get up for a narrow win. She has outstanding grass breeding, and the experience of that win should work in her favor in this race.

It is hard to predict outcomes with lightly-raced 2-year-olds. What we do know is that two horses will win their way into two Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. That’s the great thing about these “Win and You’re In” races… they are running for something other than purse money, and it often produces some outstanding outcomes.

Lookahead to 2022 Breeders’ Cup

These races lead up to two of the 14 championship races on November 4th and 5th. For those who have never watched an entire Breeders’ Cup, get ready for the rush of witnessing a world championship event every 35 minutes or so. It’s like the Olympics of our sport. Be ready to watch and wager, and you’re sure to come away with some great memories. If you pick some winners, you might come away with a nice profit, as well. The Breeders’ Cup…there’s nothing like it!

Pegasus on Jan. 28, Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Gulfstream Park announced the schedule for the 2022-23 Championship Meet, highlighted by the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 28.

Also on Pegasus day: The $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, as well as the $500,000 Pegasus World Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Gulfstream’s top Kentucky Derby prep race, the $1 million Florida Derby, will be run on April 1 as part of a card with 10 stakes races. Other top 3-year-old preps at Gulfstream in early 2023 include the $150,000 Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 1, the $250,000 Holy Bull on Feb. 4 and the $400,000 Fountain of Youth on March 4.

The Pegasus is returning for a seventh time. The format has changed several times in the race’s infancy; the purse structure for the Pegasus World Cup no longer requires owners to put up $1 million apiece for a spot in the starting gate for what was, at its inception, the world’s richest race with a purse that reached $16 million.

This much has remained constant: Winning the Pegasus changes a horse’s resume. No Pegasus winner has ever finished worse than sixth in the yearlong earnings among North American horses, and two past winners – Arrogate and Gun Runner – are two of the three highest-earning thoroughbreds in U.S. history.

Gulfstream’s Championship Meet runs from Dec. 26 through April 2, featuring 60 stakes races, 35 of them graded, and worth a combined $13.6 million.