Pletcher’s longshots can’t be ignored in Belmont Stakes

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NEW YORK (AP) Trainer Todd Pletcher, always dangerous in the Belmont Stakes, sends out a pair of long shots Saturday in the final leg of the Triple Crown.

The focus of attention will fall on two other horses – Tacitus, the 9-5 favorite, and War of Will, the Preakness winner and the close second choice at 2-1.

Bettors who ignore Pletcher do so at their peril.

Pletcher’s duo this year includes Spinoff, 15-1 after finishing 18th in the Kentucky Derby, and the lightly-raced Intrepid Heart at 10-1.

Pletcher owns three Belmont wins: the filly Rags to Riches (2007), Palace Malice (2013) and Tapwrit (2017).

None were favored in the wagering, ranging in price from 4-1 on Rags to Riches up to 13-1 for Palace Malice’s upset.

Even when he doesn’t win, Pletcher often lands a piece of the action. Since sending out his first Belmont runner in 2000, Pletcher has been second five times and three times finished third in the 1+ mile race.

Belmont Park is Pletcher’s base of operation, and he targets this race.

Like most trainers who develop 3-year-olds, Pletcher takes aim first at the Kentucky Derby. When that doesn’t pan out, Pletcher immediately turns his attention to the Belmont.

“It’s a race we really cherish,” Pletcher said. “It’s home for us. I think one of the advantages is most of our horses have trained five weeks at Belmont after the Derby. It helps, and it’s a race we really enjoy.”

Pletcher’s best Belmont hope this time probably rests with Intrepid Heart, running for only the fourth time. The gray colt stumbled at the start of his most recent outing, the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont, and ran third as the even-money favorite in his first career loss.

“We were disappointed in the outcome of the race for sure because going in he had a big chance to win,” Pletcher said.

He will make an equipment change, adding blinkers to narrow Intrepid Heart’s field of vision. Blinkers often help improve focus by screening distractions.

Intrepid Heart should be acclimated, having worn the blinkers in his last two workouts.

As for Spinoff, Pletcher blames the poor effort on the sloppy track on Derby Day.

“The horse has trained, to me, consistently with some of the horses we’ve run in the Belmont over the years that have performed well,” Pletcher said. “I’m hoping he catches a fast track and gets to prove how good he is, or is not.”

In the end, it comes to down to hoping the home-field advantage again comes into play for the seven-time Eclipse Award winner as Outstanding Trainer.

“I think you can make that argument from the standpoint of training on a mile and a half track,” Pletcher said. “Getting accustomed to that can be helpful.”

Taiba wins $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for Baffert

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BENSALEM, Pa. – Taiba won the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby by three lengths on Saturday for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

Ridden by Mike Smith, Taiba ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.67 and paid $4.80, $3 and $2.60.

It was Baffert’s fourth win in the Grade 1 event at Parx Racing. He also won in 2014, 2017 and 2018. Smith won the race for the third time, all aboard Baffert horses.

Zandon returned $3.80 and $2.60. Cyberknife was another 3 3/4 lengths back in third and paid $3 to show.

Taiba was coming off a second-place finish in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth in July. The colt was 12th in the Kentucky Derby under Tim Yakteen, who took over training him while Baffert was serving a 90-day suspension.

“He had a little bit of a rough trip in the Haskell, but we had some time to get him ready for this one,” Baffert said from his base in California. “He proved today he is a good horse. He is getting better and better.”

Baffert Taiba will be pointed toward the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. The colt has three wins in five starts this year.

Kentucky Derby modifies qualifying, elevates prep races

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs has modified paths to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, awarding points to the top five finishers in qualifying races and increasing significance for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and late prep season events.

Most Derby prep races during the qualifying series for 3-year-olds will award points on a 10-4-3-2-1 sliding scale after using a 10-4-2-1 system since 2013. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, run during the season-ending championships on Nov. 4 at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, will increase points from 20-8-4-2 to 30-12-9-6-3 to differentiate the Grade I event from others during prep season.

Select prep races for the 20-horse Derby field have elevated points from a 10-4-2-1 scale to 20-8-6-4-2 to increase their importance and motivate hopefuls to begin their 3-year-old campaigns earlier in the season, track officials stated in a release.

“We believe these modifications adhere to and amplify our goal of assembling the finest group of 3-year-olds in the starting gate for a race at the classic distance of 1\ miles on the first Saturday in May,” Churchill Downs vice president/general manager Mike Ziegler said.

The 149th Kentucky Derby and Oaks for fillies will be held on May 5-6, 2023. Derby qualifying season begins with Saturday’s $300,000, Grade III Iroquois for 2-year-olds at Churchill Downs.

The point changes apply to Oaks qualifiers.

Elevated Derby preps include the Lecomte at Fair Grounds in Louisiana; Southwest at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas; Withers at Aqueduct in New York; Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in Florida; Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in California; Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs; and John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park in Kentucky.