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Controversy cools ahead of Belmont; new Arizona track opens

Updated May 23, 2019 - 5:42 pm

Let’s all draw a deep breath and exhale slowly after what has already been one of the most eventful Triple Crown seasons ever. And whatever you do, don’t try to imagine what strangeness may await in the Belmont Stakes two weeks from now.

The field for the 1½ mile Belmont Stakes — the “Test of the Champion” — is still taking shape, but it is not expected to include Maximum Security, who finished first in the Kentucky Derby only to be disqualified, or the Derby winner via knockout, Country House.

Instead, we will likely see Preakness winner War of Will; Tacitus, moved up from fourth to third in the Derby; Japanese-bred Master Fencer, a fast-closing sixth in the Derby; and possibly Game Winner, who was placed fifth after the DQ, as well as a few new shooters.

Meantime, the only development in the past week regarding the Derby controversy came from Maximum Security’s owner Gary West, who offered to put up $20 million to stage a race within a race against the top four official finishers in the Derby: Country House, Code of Honor, Tacitus and Improbable.

West’s challenge would require the owners of those steeds to put up $5 million themselves. The pot would go to the horse that finished in front of the other in any race where they happened to cross paths.

Not sure we’ll see anyone take West up on his outsized offer, nor whether a challenge in which the owner of a fifth-place finisher handing over $5 million to the owner of the fourth-place finisher would fire up the general sports fan like a match race might, but that’s a discussion for another day.

New track opens in our backyard

OK. Maybe my definition of backyard is more expansive than yours, but anytime a new racetrack opens within a day’s drive of Las Vegas, I get excited.

That’s why you’ll find me this weekend at Arizona Downs, a mere 256 miles from Las Vegas as the crow hitchhikes.

In this case, the “new” track isn’t exactly new. Arizona Downs in the Prescott Valley formerly operated as Yavapai Downs until it was shuttered in 2010.

Arizona-based J&J Equine Enterprises LLC purchased the track out of bankruptcy for $3.22 million in January 2018 and has invested more than $7 million to get Arizona Downs ready for the 2019 season, which begins Friday and runs through July 21.

I’ll have a full report on the track next week.

#RJhorseracing featured races

Rust never sleeps and neither do the #RJhorseracing handicappers. This week we’re off to the Jersey shore to tackle the $75,000 Boiling Springs, a 1 1/16th mile turf test for 3-year-old fillies, and the $150,000 Salvator Mile, Grade 3, for 3-year-olds and up at, you guessed it, a mile on the main track at Monmouth Park.

In the former, the handicappers are of the opinion that the line maker picked the wrong Chad Brown-trained horse. They favor Beautiful Lover, 4-1, over the 3-1 favorite Clause. In fact, they weren’t too impressed by Clause, picking Trailblazer (12-1) and Aunt Hattie (6-1) to fill out the minor placings.

I agree that Beautiful Lover is the one to beat, but I’ll try with Her Royal Highness (10-1), who dips in class off a decent try in a stakes at Aqueduct last out. I’ll use Beautiful Lover in second and first-time turfer Karama (6-1) in third.

In the Salvator Mile, the crowd ‘cappers are nearly split between Sunny Ridge, the 2-1 morning line favorite, and Diamond King (5-2), but give a slight edge to the latter. Sunny Ridge is their second choice, with Bal Harbour (4-1) in third.

“Diamond King (gate to wire), Servis gets the win (no DQ),” wrote handicapper Jerry Van Valkenberg of the choice, riffing on the fact that Diamond King’s trainer is John Servis, brother of Maximum Security’s trainer Jason Servis, who coincidentally also is the trainer of Sunny Ridge.

My head’s spinning, but I’ll take another shot here with Nanoosh (6-1), who’s cutting back to what may be his best distance. I’ve got Diamond King to place and the speedy California Night (6-10) rounding out my top three.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears on Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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