Rich Strike yes, Preakness champ Early Voting no for Belmont

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BALTIMORE ⁠— Twelve hours before Early Voting won the Preakness, Kentucky Derby champion Rich Strike was back on the track at Churchill Downs to begin preparations for the Belmont Stakes.

After impressing with a strong workout, Rich Strike remains on track for the third leg of the Triple Crown. Trainer Eric Reed confirmed to The Associated Press on Sunday the plan is “absolutely” still to run Rich Strike in the Belmont.

But there won’t be a showdown between the surprise Derby champion and the Preakness winner. Early Voting’s owner and trainer confirmed the colt will bypass the Belmont; they plan to run him this summer with the ultimate goal of getting him ready for the $1.25 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York on Aug. 27.

Owner Seth Klarman and trainer Chad Brown cast doubt on the Belmont minutes after Early Voting held off favorite Epicenter to win the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, citing the mile-and-a-half distance as an obstacle.

“There will be some racing before (the Travers),” Brown said. “We’ll get him back to Belmont, assess him, train him a bit and then start to map out a campaign that hopefully leads us to the Midsummer Derby.”

Epicenter, the first horse in a decade to finish second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, likely won’t be brought back for the Belmont, which would be a third race in five weeks. Owner Ron Winchell said “that’s a stretch” based on Epicenter’s recent schedule.

Owner Rick Dawson prioritized extra rest for Rich Strike after the 80-1 long shot won the Derby rather than pushing for a return two weeks later in the Preakness, which was won by a well-rested horse off a six-week layoff. Reed on Saturday called skipping the Preakness “one of the toughest decisions” he has made and added he thought Rich Strike wouldn’t have been mentally ready for the race.

The plan is now for Rich Strike to stay at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, through the end of the month before traveling to New York.

“He does so well here I just didn’t want to change anything yet,” Reed said. “He’ll get eight or nine days at Belmont to gallop and get used to the surface.”

Little-known jockey Sonny Leon is expected to ride Rich Strike in the Belmont after engineering the perfect trip to win the Derby.

It took a horse being withdrawn from the Derby to get Rich Strike into the field just before the deadline. That horse, Ethereal Road, came from behind to win the $100,000 Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard Saturday.

“We can definitely build off this,” said 86-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who started second-guessing himself for not letting Ethereal Road run in the Derby.

But there’s still a chance of Ethereal Road running in a Triple Crown race. After winning the Sir Barton at 1 1/16 miles, jockey Luis Saez didn’t seem worried about the longer Belmont.

“Oh yeah, he can run all day,” Saez said. “He can definitely go longer.”

Lukas-trained filly Secret Oath, who finished fourth in the Preakness, won’t run in the Belmont. Lukas said last week the ideal roadmap for the Kentucky Oaks winner includes Saratoga races in July and August and one at Parx outside Philadelphia in September before the Breeders’ Cup in early November.

A couple of other Preakness horses are Belmont candidates, most notably third-place finisher Creative Minister. Trainer Kenny McPeek said the Belmont is the plan because Creative Minister’s pedigree indicates the longer distance will help.

“I just think he’ll like the added ground, as long as he handles the surface up there,” McPeek said.

Skippylongstocking, who was fifth, could also go to the Belmont. But trainer Saffie Joseph isn’t in a hurry to make a decision until next week.

“It might be worth taking a shot at it,” Joseph said. “We’ll see how he comes out and see how his energy is and then decide.”

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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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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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.