ELMONT, N.Y. – There may be only five horses in Saturday’s Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, but four of them are capable of winning this race, which could play a pivotal role in determining two divisional champions.
Three-year-olds Code of Honor and Tacitus, the 1-2 finishers in the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers last month at Saratoga, meet older Grade 1-winning horses Preservationist and Vino Rosso in the 101st running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, a Win and You’re in race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the centerpiece of an 11-race card that includes four other graded stakes. First post Saturday – on what is expected to be a gorgeous fall afternoon – is 1 p.m. Eastern.
Olympic Village, a longshot who is coming out of a high-priced claiming race, completes the Jockey Club field.
With two-time Grade 1 winner Maximum Security sidelined seemingly for the rest of the year, there is a path for Code of Honor to potentially wrest a 3-year-old divisional title from him. Code of Honor was beaten by Maximum Security in the Florida Derby and then finished third to him in the Kentucky Derby. Code of Honor was moved up to second when Maximum Security was disqualified to 17th for interference.
Since the Kentucky Derby, Code of Honor has won the Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes, a one-turn mile race here in July, and then rallied from well back to win the Travers at the Jockey Club distance of 1 1/4 miles. Trainer Shug McGaughey skipped the chance to run against 3-year-olds in last Saturday’s $1 million Pennsylvania Derby to await this race in part because of Code of Honor’s affinity for Belmont. Last year, he ran a game second in the Grade 1 Champagne after stumbling at the break. He was terrific winning the Dwyer.
“Code of Honor likes Belmont, he’s always run good at Belmont,” McGaughey said. “We have a lot of confidence that he’ll go over and run his race.”
Code of Honor does his best running from off the pace. How fast the pace will be in the Gold Cup is hard to decipher. Tacitus and Preservationist can lay close, but neither necessarily wants to be on the lead. Perhaps Olympic Village will try and go.
“If the pace is slow we’ll be laying closer, if it’s fast we’ll be laying back,” McGaughey said. “I want him to run his race. When you get this kind of a race going a mile and a quarter over this dirt track with a short field, it kind of turns into a rider’s race a little bit, and I think I got the best at that.”
McGaughey has the Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez on Code of Honor. Through Thursday, Velazquez had won 660 graded stakes, equaling the record held by Jerry Bailey.
Tacitus, the other 3-year-old in the field, is trying to end a case of seconditis. He was runner-up in the Belmont Stakes, Jim Dandy, and Travers Stakes.
In the Travers, Tacitus wore blinkers for the first time and showed more speed than he had in his previous races. He will wear them again on Saturday. Tacitus breaks from the rail under Jose Ortiz.
“You got to go with the break,” trainer Bill Mott said. “If he breaks a length clear, I don’t think you want to drag him back.”
Preservationist, who won the Grade 2 Suburban here in July and the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga in August, will try to put himself in the conversation for older male dirt champion when he runs in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
In the Suburban, Preservationist was on the pace. In the Whitney, jockey Junior Alvarado sent him from the outside post to make the lead only to have him fade to fourth behind McKinzie. Alvarado gave Preservationist a more patient ride in the Woodward.
Trainer Jimmy Jerkens said he wouldn’t have an issue with Preservationist being on the lead Saturday if it came easily.
“If that happens at least it won’t be scrambling to the lead like he did in the Whitney,” Jerkens, recovering from hip surgery, said this week. “I would think if he does get to the lead it would be a lot easier than that day. Going wide and going around the whole field, that takes a lot more out of them.”
Vino Rosso is looking to win his second Gold Cup of the year. In May, he shipped to Southern California to win the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita – formerly the Hollywood Gold Cup – at 1 1/4 miles. In his lone start since, he finished third in the Grade 1 Whitney.
Todd Pletcher is removing blinkers from Vino Rosso’s equipment. He had worn them in his last 10 starts.
“He’s been training very forwardly without them, just felt like as he’s matured he doesn’t really need them,” Pletcher said. “Sometimes you get a little spark in an older horse when you make an equipment change. Just felt like going a mile and a quarter he didn’t need them and let him see the competition a little bit.”
John Velazquez has ridden Vino Rosso in all 12 of his starts. He is committed to Code of Honor. Irad Ortiz Jr. picks up the mount on Vino Rosso.
Olympic Village, claimed for $75,000 by owner Ron Paolucci at Saratoga, will try to pull an upset along the lines of Discreet Lover, who won this race at odds of 45-1 last year.
The Jockey Club Gold Cup goes as race 10 on an 11-race card.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.