Belmont pick is Tacticus, aided by bloodlines

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This is a Triple Crown season that will be remembered, though probably should be forgotten.

Maximum Security was the winner of the Kentucky Derby for about 20 minutes, then got taken down over a claim of foul that will be debated forever. The Preakness was probably most notable for Bodexpress throwing jockey John Velazquez to the ground as they lurched from the starting gate and then running the race anyway.

And now, the Belmont Stakes gets its turn. If form holds, something peculiar will happen.

A field of 10 horses will be in the gate on Saturday for the mile-and-a-half race, which is racing’s equivalent of a marathon. The Preakness winner, War of Will, is in there. So is Tacticus, who was placed third in the Kentucky Derby and is set as the morning-line favorite for the Belmont at 9-5 – slightly better than War of Will, at 2-1.

They are, far and away, the best horses in the field on paper.

Thing is, this race – like every other race – isn’t run on paper.

There are horses that can beat Tacticus and War of Will in this race, including Bourbon War, who was inexplicably a non-factor in the Preakness. If basing solely off that race, there would really be no reason to take a shot with him in the Belmont. But there is a big reason to take a look at him, and Intrepid Heart, and Tacticus.

They were all sired by Tapit.

There may not be a race where bloodlines matter more than the Belmont. Not every horse can go 12 furlongs. Those sired by Tapit have shown they’re more than capable of handling the distance; he was the winning sire in three of the last five Belmonts.

Bourbon War also gets Mike Smith to ride in this one, which is always a plus. His morning line of 12-1 is going to get bet down considerably simply because of the Smith factor, which is especially noteworthy in New York.

Intrepid Heart’s record – two wins and a third in three starts, with $140,400 in earnings – doesn’t look like much. But his last start, at Belmont four weeks ago in the Peter Pan, was actually very impressive considering he stumbled at the start and seemed to burn through his gas tank trying to make up ground.

Tacticus was placed third in the Kentucky Derby after Maximum Security was taken down and smartly skipped the Preakness. He’s a closer and he’ll be fresh for this race, always a good Belmont combination, plus keeps Jose Ortiz in the irons. This will be Tacticus’ sixth start; he’s had the same rider every time.

Everfast has raced 11 times; he won his first start and hasn’t won since, yet got up for second in the Preakness and he’s officially puzzling. Joevia needs a perfect trip and some luck to be a factor. Tax and Spinoff both never fired in the Kentucky Derby, though that may have been more about the slop in each case than anything else. Sir Winston ran huge at the end of the Peter Pan and looks like he’ll be a hard-charger at the end, if he doesn’t steal the whole thing.

War of Will was fantastic to win the Preakness, another horse with the closing style that one needs at the Belmont. As always, though, the question remains about how a horse can handle the daunting task of competing in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont in a five-week window. Some get through it with ease. Others are gassed before they get to New York.

Master Fencer is racing for more than anyone else. He’s a Japanese-bred and would get a $1 million bonus from the New York Racing Association if he wins the Belmont. He had a big finish in the slop at the Kentucky Derby and showed big-time closing speed. So he could be there at the end, and there will be value with him since New York bettors aren’t likely to bet down a horse they’ve rarely seen. He had a misstep in a workout last week, which may scare some potential backers off.

Plenty of good options. But a wacky Triple Crown season should end on a fairly predictable note.

Tacticus is the best horse of the 10. If he gets the right trip, even coming from the outside in a marathon, he wins.

The pick is Tacticus, with Bourbon War second and Master Fencer third, with Sir Winston rounding out the superfecta.

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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Pat McDonogh/USA TODAY NETWORK
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

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Courier Journal/USA TODAY Sports
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Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.