Zhukova dominates male rivals in Man o' War

ELMONT, N.Y -- Zhukova may have traveled more than 3,000 miles to get here, but she felt right at home Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park.

On a raw, rainy Saturday afternoon over a yielding turf course, the 5-year-old mare Zhukova demolished four male rivals to win the Grade 1, $400,000 Man o' War Stakes by six lengths. Taghleeb nosed out Sadler's Joy for second. Charming Kitten and Wake Forest -- last year's Man o' War winner -- completed the order of finish.

Highland Sky, Patterson Cross, and Twilight Eclipse, the 2015 Man o' War winner, scratched.

Zhukova improved her record to 7 for 10 for owner John Murrell and trainer Dermot Weld.

Weld had shipped Zhukova here hoping to get soft ground and Mother Nature delivered with a daylong deluge that prompted New York Racing Association officials to move three of the scheduled five turf races to the dirt.

Zhukova, ridden by John Velazquez, stalked the tortoise-like pace of Charming Kitten, who set posted fractions of 27.47 seconds for the quarter-mile, 56.45 for a half-mile, 1:24.16 for six furlongs, and 1:49.69 for a mile.

Zhukova took over outside the eighth pole and kicked away from the field in the stretch for the dominant victory, her first in a Grade 1. Zhukova's final time for 1 3/8 miles was listed as 2:25.31 over the inner turf. She returned $3.80 as the 4-5 favorite.

"I don't know if the fractions were completely right but it did feel like we were going at a very slow pace," Velazquez said."She was enjoying it all the way around, she sat really comfortable. As soft as it was, she never felt like she struggled. Obviously, they're kind of used to it over there."

The victory was the third Grade 1 triumph at Belmont for the Ireland-based conditioner Dermot Weld. He won the 1990 Belmont Stakes with Go and Go and the 2003 Flower Bowl with Dimitrova.

"Belmont has always been good to us and this is right up there for us," said Mark Weld, assistant to his father.

Mark Weld said the Man o' War had been the target for Zhukova for several weeks, since she made a successful seasonal debut in a listed stakes at Cork in Ireland in April.

"We're absolutely over the moon with that," Mark Weld said. "The rain came, which was a huge help today. Johnny was very complimentary about her; he said she just could have a future here. This is a good mare and we've known she's a good mare for a little while."

Weld said that Zhukova would return to Ireland on Thursday. He said that provided she is doing well in the fall, she could return to the U.S. for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar in November.