The quality of horses scheduled to compete this weekend is enough to leave one agape. With the exception of the top two ranked horses in the country, a majority of the best divisional players will be showcased in the 10 Grade I races Saturday at Belmont and Santa Anita Park.
Belmont's $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup is deemed the headline act. Such a designation is not just rooted in formality this year as the eight horses entered Wednesday for the 11/4-mile contest are deep across the board
Two American classic winners, the two-time defending race winner and the victors of the Grade I Whitney and Woodward make up a spectacular Jockey Club Gold Cup field, with Whitney hero Cross Traffic named the 5-2 morning-line favorite.
The Jockey Club Gold Cup is one of six graded stakes and five Grade I contests on Belmont's "Super Saturday" card which also features a regal meeting between two-time Eclipse Award champion Royal Delta and leading sophomore filly Princess of Sylmar in the Grade I, $400,000 Beldame Invitational.
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Even with the connections of defending Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned opting for Saturday's Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs instead of a trip to New York, the Jockey Club Gold Cup stands as a defining prep for what may transpire in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Belmont Stakes victor Palace Malice will be taking on elders for the first time, and a victory by either would give the 3-year-old male division its clearest leader since the former's exploits on the first Saturday in May.
Seven-year-old Flat Out, most recently second to fellow entrant Alpha in the Woodward, is attempting to win the Gold Cup for the third straight year and has never been off the board in six career starts over the Belmont main track.
Though he is the baby of the group in terms of experience, 4-year-old Cross Traffic has made arguably the quickest progression, winning the Whitney on Aug. 3 by three-quarters of a length in his fifth career start after getting beat a nose in the Grade I Met Mile.
"With his fifth start of his career to be able to win a race like the Whitney, a little less than eight months into his career, I think it just speaks volumes for his ability," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle Cross Traffic, Palace Malice and Brazilian-bred stakes winner Vitoria Olimpica in the Gold Cup. "I would say it's a very strong renewal (of the Gold Cup). It's a tall order for everybody in there."
Their paths to this point have had little in common, but both Cross Traffic and his 3-year-old stablemate Palace Malice have flourished with a little bit of tweaking and patience.
Shin problems prevented Cross Traffic from making his career debut until January. Two wins later, he was making his graded stakes debut in the Grade III Westchester Stakes, falling a head short of venerable Flat Out.
Where the large-bodied son of Unbridled's Song has needed some artful handling, Palace Malice has stunned his trainer with the way he has taken the punches of the Triple Crown trail and beyond.
Since breaking through to win the Belmont Stakes — an effort that halted a five-race losing streak — the son of two-time Gold Cup winner Curlin has continued to add to his credibility. He toppled eventual Travers and Pennsylvania Derby winner Will Take Charge with a stalk-and-pounce outing in the Grade II Jim Dandy and had many still thinking he ran the best race in the Travers when he finished fourth after stumbling at the start.
"To me he's a remarkable horse that, you know, he began his campaign in January at Gulfstream and he's raced at Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Keeneland, Churchill, Belmont, Saratoga, and through all of that," Pletcher said. "With him, he seems like the more activity he has, the more races he has and the stronger his races are the better he gets."
Kentucky Derby winner Orb, by contrast, received a break after his losses in the Preakness and Belmont, but returned to run third in the Travers last time out.
The son of Malibu Moon will have his third different rider in as many starts when Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey gives a leg up to Javier Castellano on Saturday.
"I think the Travers helped him," said McGaughey of Orb. "I thought he ran a very good race in the Travers and he came out of it very good. I think we've got a fresh horse that's going in the right direction with a good, solid race under his belt."
Jockey Club Gold Cup
Where: Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
When: 5:49 p.m.
Purse: $750,000 (Grade I)
Distance: 11/4 miles
For: 3-year-olds and up
Jockey Club Gold Cup
PP Horse Jockey Odds
1 Ron the Greek Lezcano 12-1
2 Orb Castellano 9-2
3 Last Gunfighter Maragh 10-1
4 Vitoria Olimpica Ortiz Jr. 20-1
5 Alpha Bravo 8-1
6 Flat Out Alvarado 3-1
7 Palace Malice Smith 4-1
8 Cross Traffic Velazquez 5-2