Ostensibly a prep for the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park might serve as a launching pad to the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic if the Bill Mott-trained To Honor and Serve pulls off a win in the one-turn mile. The Hall of Fame conditioner left some wiggle room earlier this week when asked which Breeders' Cup race his Grade 1 Woodward winner would ultimately target.
First things first. The Kelso has attracted a tough group, with classic winner and Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap hero Shackleford the likely favorite despite a sub-par last in the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap in the slop most recently. The four-year-old Forestry colt has been a tough nut to crack in most of his other one-turn efforts this year, preceding his game Met Mile score with a victory in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs over seven furlongs.
To Honor and Serve has often seemed a miler heart despite several graded stakes triumphs at 1 1/8 miles. He ended 2011 on a high note with a victory over subsequent top-level winner Hymn Book in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, and then kicked off this term with a facile score in the Grade 3 Westchester over the Kelso course and distance. However, he dropped two straight, including the Met Mile, before getting a gutsy neck win over Mucho Macho Man in the September 1 Woodward.
Grade 2 winner Tapizar enters the Kelso in peak form, most recently beating an overmatched group in the West Virginia Governor's at Mountaineer Park by 4 1/2 lengths. The speedy colt, trained by Steve Asmussen, was returning from a five-month layoff in that August 4 feature and set a fast pace en route to a near coast-to-coast triumph.
Others of note in the Kelso are Pacific Ocean and Golddigger's Boy, one-two in the Grade 3 James Marvin at Saratoga; 2010 Cigar Mile winner Jersey Town, who ran third in the Grade 1 Forego last time; and multiple stakes winner Trickmeister, who shortens up after three straight losses at nine furlongs.
The Grade 1, $400,000 Vosburgh at six furlongs lacks the star power of other Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Sprint preps that will occur over the next two weekends.
Poseidon's Warrior, who upset the Vanderbilt at 36-1 in a three-way photo, will try and prove that win was no fluke when he breaks from the rail under Irad Ortiz Jr. Following him in the starting gate will be Vanderbilt runner-up Justin Phillip and 2010 Vanderbilt winner Sean Avery, who recently returned from a 13-month layoff to win a minor stakes over the Vosburgh course and distance.
Dual Grade 2 winner Caixa Eletronica will need a sensationally fast pace, like the one he saw in the Grade 2 True North Handicap on June 9, to wear down his front-running rivals. Grade 2 Jerome winner The Lumber Guy takes a big jump up in class off a 4 1/2-month layoff, while Grade 3 winner and Grade 1 King's Bishop runner-up Fort Loudon does not look out of place stepping up to face older rivals. Rothko has caught two off track since his victory in the Grade 3 Aristides at Churchill Downs in early June.