Trainer Aidan O’Brien, renowned for his talented turf stock, will bring one of his heaviest hitters to North America in Bolshoi Ballet, who will compete as part of a nine-horse field in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational for 3-year-olds going 1 1/4 miles over the inner turf course at Belmont Park.
Previously run as the Jamaica Handicap prior to 2014, the Belmont Derby Invitational is the first leg of NYRA’s Turf Triple series for sophomores, with the first leg of the filly series, the Grade 1, $700,000 Belmont Oaks Invitational, also set for Saturday. The Turf Triple series for colts will continue with the Grade 1, $1 million Saratoga Derby Invitational on August 7 and the $1 million Jockey Club Derby on September 18 back at Belmont.
Bolshoi Ballet, owned by Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier, Derrick Smith and Westerberg, makes the cross-Atlantic trip following a disappointing seventh as the beaten favorite in the Group 1 Epsom Derby on June 5, from which he emerged with a cut to his right hind leg.
Prior to his last start, the son of international champion-sire Galileo won his prior sophomore engagements, both at Leopardstown going the Belmont Derby distance, when conquering the Group 3 Ballysax by 1 1/2 lengths on April 11 and the Group 3 Derrinstown by six lengths on May 9.
“He’s been training well since the Derby,” said O’Brien’s travelling assistant T.J. Comerford. “Once he has good to firm ground, that makes a difference. I suppose the race wasn’t ideal that day at Epsom. The ground may have gone against him.
“He’s coming here now trying to pick up the pieces where he left off at Leopardstown,” Comerford added. “He won both the Ballysax and the Derringstown well. It didn’t work out that great at Epsom, but I’m sure he’s still on the right path to picking it up from there. He’s a good mover and he’s just a good-looking horse himself.”
A Bolshoi Ballet victory would add to O’Brien’s recent global success. This past weekend, the internationally acclaimed conditioner sent out St. Mark’s Basilica to victory in the Group 1 Coral Eclipse on July 3 at Sandown in Great Britain as well as Broome, who shipped to France to capture the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud on July 4.
“We’re having a good run of it in France, England and Ireland at the moment,” Comerford said. “He likes to bring horses over here and try to win these races. It’s kind of an annual thing we do. We bring over good chances, so there’s effort that goes into it.”
Bred in Ireland by Lynch-Bages and Rhinestone Bloodstock, Bolshoi Ballet is out of the Anabaa mare Alta Anna. He is a full brother to Southern France, who was a dual grouped-winning stayer in Ireland and Australia.
Ryan Moore will ride Bolshoi Ballet from post 2.
If Bolshoi Ballet wants to earn redemption stateside, he’ll have to get through a group of talented local runners including Robert LaPenta, Augustin Stable and Madaket Stables’ stakes-winner Hard Love.
Trained by Jonathan Thomas, the consistent bay ridgling commenced his sophomore season off five month’s rest in the Woodhaven on April 17 at Aqueduct, defeating next-out winner It’s a Gamble by 1 1/4 lengths.
Initially pointed to the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge on May 29, Thomas called an audible and entered Hard Love against elders in a second-level allowance over the Belmont inner turf on Belmont Stakes day, where he displayed his usual tactical running style and narrowly defeated international three-time winner Desert Peace by a head.
“We had to reroute, but thankfully the race was in the book and went,” Thomas said. “It gave us a good opportunity to get another race under his belt. I was proud of how he handled himself and was able to get himself into a bit of a dog fight that last eighth of a mile against a seemingly nice older horse.
Subsequently, he’s come out of it well and trained nicely. The whole idea was hoping he was talented enough to get to this race and the luck of getting to it.”
A victory in the Belmont Derby would be a second triumph in the race for Thomas and co-owner Robert LaPenta, who campaigned 2018 winner Catholic Boy. It also would be a third win in the past five runnings for prestigious turf sire Kitten’s Joy, who produced Belmont Derby victors Oscar Performance  and Henley’s Joy .
Hard Love won his debut October 10 at Belmont Park at 11-1 odds and followed with a strong second-place effort to Never Surprised in the Central Park on November 28 at Aqueduct.
Like Hard Love, Catholic Boy also was slightly overlooked on debut, when the latter broke his maiden at 5-1 in June 2017 over the Gulfstream Park turf.
“Some of our nicer horses have broken their maiden at first asking without being squeezed on, which is indictive of their talent,” Thomas said. “Since he broke his maiden last year, the idea was to figure out how to get to this race. We liked him first out, but we didn’t anticipate him breaking his maiden, but it’s always nice when they can.
“He’s done nothing wrong up to this point,” Thomas added. “Catholic Boy was more of a flashy horse in the morning. Turf, dirt, whatever, he always breezed sharply. He was a much more aggressive horse training in the morning. This one seems to be more laid back and is not a dirt horse. They have some similarities, but let’s just hope that the biggest similarity they have is winning the Belmont Derby.”
Jockey Manny Franco pilots Hard Love from post 6.
WinStar Farm and CHC Inc.’s Sainthood will make his turf debut after capturing the off-the-turf Grade 3 Pennine Ridge by a length over a sloppy and sealed track.
The son of Mshawish gave his second-crop sire his first graded stakes winner in the nine-furlong Pennine Ridge, which came after finishing 11th in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby on May 1 at Churchill Downs.
Sainthood has shown ability in his quintet of starts, all over different racetracks. Following a second on debut at Gulfstream Park, he shipped to Fair Grounds to break his maiden in his two-turn debut in a race which featured subsequent graded stakes-winner Masqueparade. Sainthood followed with a second beaten a length over the all-weather surface at Turfway Park in the Grade 2 Jeff Ruby Steaks on March 27.
Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher said the dark bay or brown colt should take to the turf based on how well he has trained over the surface.
“His works on the turf indicate that he likes it, and his pedigree certainly suggests that he will like it,” Pletcher said. “He ran well on the synthetic and everything we’ve seen indicates he’ll handle it well. He’s tactical enough that hopefully we can get a bit of cover because I do think his turn of foot, from what we saw in his breezes, is pretty good.”
Breaking from post 4, Sainthood will be ridden by jockey Joel Rosario.
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott vies for his fourth Belmont Derby triumph, with Natalie J. Baffert and Debbie Lani’s Du Jour.
The son of Temple City has displayed a clear appetite for victory having done no wrong since breaking his maiden at third asking three starts back. Following his maiden triumph in February going one mile over the Santa Anita turf, Du Jour defeated winners over the southern California oval in March before taking his talents outside the Golden State for the first time with a victory in the Grade 2 American Turf at Churchill Downs.
Du Jour, to be piloted by Flavien Prat from post 5, will see ten furlongs for the first time in his upcoming engagement, having never raced past 1 1/16 miles.
Bred by Woods Edge Farm, Du Jour is out of the Bernardini mare Guiltless and was a $280,000 acquisition from the Off The Hook consignment at the OBS April 2020 Sale. His fourth dam is prolific broodmare Baby Zip – the dam of champion-producing stallions Ghostzapper and City Zip.
John C. Oxley’s Palazzi is the most seasoned horse in the field with a record of 2-2-2 through ten starts for Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse.
The bay son of Pioneerof the Nile earned his two trips to the winner’s circle over the winter, capturing a maiden special weight victory at 15-1 on December 19 at Fair Grounds ahead of a nose score in the Texas Turf Mile at Sam Houston on January 31. He arrives off a close second to Belmont Derby-rival Cellist in the Audubon on May 29 at Churchill Downs.
“Churchill Downs is never easy to close and it’s even tougher to close when the rails are out,” Casse said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of speed in his last race. I thought he ran really well. I think he’ll really like Belmont’s turf course as well. He’s a classy dude.”
Jockey Tyler Gaffalione will ride Palazzi from the inside post.
Tokyo Gold will also ship from Europe for the Belmont Derby. Owned by Teruya Yoshida and trained by Shinya Kobayashi, Tokyo Gold last out captured the 11-furlong Derby Italiano on May 23 at Campanelle Race Course in Italy, which was his first start outside of France.
Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez has the call from post 7.
Trainer Rusty Arnold seeks his first win in this race since saddling West by West in 1992, sending out Calumet Farm’s up-and-comer Cellist, a last-out winner of the Audubon on May 29 at Churchill Downs.
The son of Big Blue Kitten was in command throughout the entire nine-furlong journey, repelling Palazzi’s late bid to win by three-quarters of a length.
Cellist is out of the English Channel mare Cello, and comes from the direct line of prolific Phipps family-owned mare Blitey.
Jockey Julien Leparoux will ride Cellist from post 8.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen sends out L and N Racing’s Hidden Enemy following fourth-place finishes in the Grade 2 American Turf and Audubon. The well-bred son of Galileo broke his maiden at sixth asking over the Fair Grounds turf on March 20 going one mile.
Hidden Enemy is out of the Grade 1-winning Empire Maker mare Acoma and hails from the prestigious family of influential broodmare Courtly Dee.
Jockey Luis Saez will be in the irons from post 9.
Completing the field is WellSpring Stables’ two-time winner Safe Conduct.
Trained by Phil Serpe, the Ontario-bred son of Bodemeister broke his maiden in frontrunning fashion when travelling two turns for the first time in August over the Mellon turf course at Saratoga. After a seven month break, he returned to action with a second at Gulfstream Park against winners before notching an upset triumph at the same condition on May 2 at Belmont Park.
Jockey Jose Lezcano, a three-time winner of this race, will ride from post 3.
The Belmont Derby Invitational is slated as Race 9 on Saturday’s 11-race card. First post is 1 p.m. Eastern.
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Belmont Press Release
Photo: Bolshoi Ballet (Francesca LeDonne Photo)