There is little doubt that New Yorkers identify with their hometown more than most. They talk in boroughs, their heritage and sometimes even in cross streets.
So, there was a sense of everything-right-with-the-world when New York-owned and New York-trained Mo Donegal won the 154th running of the Belmont Stakes, in Elmont, N.Y., on the cusp of Queens but really in Long Island.
Mo Donegal, the winner of New York’s Wood Memorial, came from slightly off the pace to win the third leg of the Triple Crown by three lengths. Rich Strike, the long shot winner of the Kentucky Derby, finished sixth in the eight-horse field.
“It’s a 40-year dream,” said part-owner Mike Repole. “I’m a kid from New York. … This is New York’s race. I’ve won a lot of big races in New York, but getting a first and second here is the biggest goal in my racing life. It’s something about New York. I’ll always be Mike from Queens.”
The other owner is Jerry Crawford of Donegal Racing, hence part of the name of the horse. The other part of the name was a tribute to Uncle Mo, who was the sire and owned by Repole.
“To be honest with you, we were a little confident going into the race and when he turned for home I said, ‘Forget about it,’” Crawford said. “I knew Todd thought he could get a strong last quarter mile and he surely did.”
The race started as expected with We The People going to the front with pressure from Skippylongstocking on the outside. Nest, who stumbled at the gate, was in striking distance while Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike was stuck at the back. Mo Donegal was running comfortably mid-pack.
It wasn’t until the stretch that it appeared that We The People was done as Mo Donegal drove on the outside to win easily. Nest passed Skippylongstocking in the final strides to take second.
Mo Donegal paid $7.20 to win, $3.80 to place and $3.00 for show. Nest was second followed by Skippylongstocking, We The People, Creative Minister, Rich Strike, Barber Road and Golden Glider.
Pletcher despite having won this race four times, felt his New York state of mind.
“First of all, it’s our family’s favorite race,” Pletcher told the New York Racing Assn.’s communications staff. “Our kids grew up here and went to school here and we’ve always felt like it’s our hometown race. When we’re fortunate enough to win it, it adds some specialness to it. That hometown feel. That part of it is really cool. Also, just the mile-and-a-half challenge is something we’ve been fortunate enough to do well at.”
The winning jockey was Irad Ortiz Jr., who has three Eclipse Awards as top jockey. He was aboard Mo Donegal to a fifth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.
“Last time in the Derby, he didn’t have the best trip and he still got beat by [only] three or five lengths,” Ortiz said. “I knew if I got a better trip, he could get there. When I asked him in the clear, he took off. He’s a nice horse.”
Ortiz’s brother, Jose, was the rider on Nest.
“When I took a peek to go out, Mo Donegal was already there full of horse,” Jose Ortiz said. “I didn’t want to make a premature move and when I called her to run, I wanted it to be my only move. I had to wait to make my move. I don’t know if it would have made a difference. Mo Donegal was traveling very nicely at the quarter pole and traveled very nicely to the wire, so I would call myself second-best. It was a huge effort by my filly.”
As for Rich Strike’s pedestrian performance, trainer Eric Reed blamed himself.
“We were hoping we could have been a little closer and our pace was slow,” Reed said. “Our biggest change was deciding to stay a little off the rail and try to give him a good, open run where he could take off. The whole way, his head turned and he was trying to get to the inside. I guess we made a mistake not putting him on the fence.”
As good as the winner’s performance was, some will agree that the best performance on the Belmont Stakes card was by Flightline in winning the Metropolitan Handicap, better known as the Met Mile. The Santa Anita-based colt, trained by John Sadler, broke poorly, got shut off on the rail but still won by six lengths. He is undefeated in four starts.
“He overcame trouble, that’s the storyline,” Sadler said. “He had a rough trip and took up a couple times but still circled around and proved much the best.”
As for many of the Belmont Stakes horses, their next targets are the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.