Five Questions to be Answered in the Jockey Club Gold Cup

Belmont Park

By Joe Kristufek, courtesy America's Best Racing

Run at 1 ¼ miles on dirt, the $750,000, Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., is a Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The Jockey Club Gold Cup winners who took down the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year were Cigar (1995), Skip Away (1997) and Curlin (2007).

Jockeys John Velazquez (Rally Cry) with Tonalist in 2015 and Hoppertunity in 2016 and Joel Rosario (Good Samaritan) with Flat Out in 2012 and Tonalist in 2014 have won four of the last five editions of the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

The Jockey Club Gold Cup has been won by a 3-year-old in four of the last 11 years. Good Samaritan and Pavel represent the sophomore class this year.

Here are five questions that must be answered …

1. Can proven turf horse Highland Sky successfully convert his form to dirt?

A three-time winner from 12 career starts, all on grass, Highland Sky showed some class last year as a 3-year-old, just missing in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes behind the top-flight runner Deauville. He’s only kept allowance company so far this year and enters this assignment on a four-race losing streak.

Highland Sky’s sire, Sky Mesa, raced only six times, all on dirt, with a second in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on his resume. He’s proven to be a versatile sire, but his offspring have had the most success on turf and synthetics.

His dam, Kristi With a K, raced 18 times, all on turf, and earned just shy of $200,000. His granddam, Kristi B, raced only three times, all on turf.

Joe’s answer: There is hope. A late runner, he’s been pace compromised in each of his last four losses, 1 ¼ miles probably is his best distance, and he did fire a bullet half-mile workout on dirt a couple of weeks ago.

Playing the race is all about weighing risk versus reward based on your opinion. Personally, I’d be surprised if he ran well, but the pace should be strong, and the price will be right.

2. Which one of trainer Todd Pletcher’s trio gives him the best chance to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup?

A seven-time Eclipse Award winner with more than 4,400 victories to his credit, shockingly Pletcher has never won the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He will take three live shots at it this year with Rally Cry, Destin, and Keen Ice.

Rally Cry didn’t live up to expectations as a 3-year-old, but he’s hinted at becoming a top handicap horse this year. Two starts back he defeated four overmatched opponents in the restricted Alydar Stakes going 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga, earning a 110 Beyer Speed Figure in the process. Last out, he proved no match for top Classic contender Gun Runner in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, but he did gut out second.

Keen Ice scored one of the most memorable upsets in recent racing history when nailing Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, but one major barn switch and the next 10 starts produced an 0-fer.

Transferred from Dale Romans to Pletcher following a dull eighth behind California Chrome in the 2016 Dubai World Cup, Keen Ice was winless in his first five assignments for Pletcher. Despite the slump, he shipped to Meydan again, and once again failed to get a stretch call.

It was tough to fathom Keen Ice giving the razor-sharp Shaman Ghost a run for his money off the desert bench in the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes, but he did just that and more, closing into a slow pace to best that accomplished foe by four increasing lengths.

After a late-closing second behind Gun Runner in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes, Keen Ice’s connections elected to skip the 1 1/8-mile Woodward and await the Jockey Club Gold Cup at 1 ¼ miles, which has proved his best distance.

A two-time graded stakes winner at age three, Destin finished a respectable sixth in the 2016 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and would later just miss in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. He’s only raced twice this year, most recently winning a 1 1/8-mile Saratoga allowance race by a nose.

Joe’s answer: Keen Ice is the most accomplished of the Pletcher trio. The 1 ¼ miles of the Jockey Club Gold Cup is his best distance, and he’s been pointed to this race. Destin has taken a different path to get here, but he too is proven over distance and may be ready to peak in just his third outing of the year. Rally Cry has never run 1 ¼ miles. You don’t know until you try, but the distance may be stretching his limits just a bit.

There’s little doubt that Keen Ice will run well, and it could be good enough to win as the probable favorite, but don’t sleep on Destin. Pletcher’s patience with him could pay off.

3. How good is Pavel?

A son of the $15,000 sire Creative Cause, Pavel is a half-brother to the obscurely bred, multiple stakes-winning fan favorite Caracortado (Spanish for “scarface”). Pavel was plucked out of the sales ring for a mere $90,000.

Shin and tibia issues as a 2-year-old delayed his career debut until July of his sophomore season, but he certainly appears to be making up for lost time.

He broke his maiden impressively in a Santa Anita sprint before running a respectable fourth behind Good Samaritan in the 1 1/8-mile, Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets at Saratoga. He returned to wax a field of overmatched foes in the Grade 3 Smarty Jones Stakes at Parx Racing, and since trainer Doug O'Neill already had the since-injured Irap set for a go in the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby, Pavel was rerouted to New York.

Joe’s answer: Go back and watch the replay of Pavel’s Smarty Jones win. It’s not who he beat, but how he beat them. He won handily, and O’Neill has stated all along that added distance wouldn’t be a problem for this rising star. I think he has the chance to be very good and Saturday could be his coming out party.

4. Will blinkers help Good Samaritan?

A turf horse for the first six starts of his career, Good Samaritan successfully converted to dirt in the Jim Dandy, closing from off the pace to win going away. The Grade 1 Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets didn’t go nearly as well as he was only able to pick off tired horses to finish an even fifth behind West Coast.

Wanting to get him more focused and into the race a little sooner, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has elected to add blinkers for the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He’s been pleased with the way the colt has trained with them in the morning.

Joe’s answer: Blinkers could help Good Samaritan big time, but the jury’s still out on how high his ceiling is and if he’s a better horse on dirt or turf. This one could go either way. Again, if you like him and the odds offer fair value in your mind, go for it.

5. Who wins the Jockey Club Gold Cup and why?

Joe’s answer: This is a fascinating race and a case could be made for all seven horses, even the speedy New York-bred Diversify, who should assure an honest to fast pace.

Keen Ice is the most accomplished and reliable, but Pavel really excites me. I absolutely loved the way he ran in the Smarty Jones and he should enjoy an advantageous, stalking trip here. He’s short on seasoning, which is a bit of a concern, so if the price goes too low, I’m out.

Joe’s Jockey Club Gold Cup picks: 1. Pavel 2. Keen Ice 3. Destin 4. Good Samaritan