In Italian all class in the Jenny Wiley (G1) April 15 at Keeneland (JennyPhoto/Past The Wire)
By Brian Bohl – NYRA Press Office
ELMONT, N.Y.— It might not be as longstanding of a tradition as white carnations adorning the Belmont Stakes winner, but the weekend of the final jewel of the Triple Crown has consistently seen trainer Chad Brown enter formidable contenders to the Grade 1, $500,000 Just a Game, at Belmont Park.
After saddling five winners in the race’s previous six editions, Brown will send out Peter Brant’s In Italian and Speak of the Devil in Friday’s 30th running of the one-mile Widener turf contest for older fillies and mares on the eve of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.
The Just a Game, named in honor of Brant’s 1980 American Champion Female Turf Horse, is one of five graded stakes on Friday’s impressive 11-race card, joining the Grade 1, $600,000 New York for older fillies and mares going 1 1/4 miles on the inner turf; the Grade 1, $500,000 Acorn presented by Great Jones Distilling Co. for sophomore fillies competing at 1 1/16 miles on the main track; the Grade 2, $250,000 Belmont Gold Cup for 4-year-olds and up going a marathon two miles on the Widener turf; and the Grade 3, $200,000 Intercontinental for older fillies and mares sprinting six furlongs on the inner turf.
Brown, who shares the record of five Just a Game wins with Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, won last year’s edition with Regal Glory en route to honors as Champion Female Turf Horse.
He will send out four-time graded stakes-winner In Italian, who commenced her 5-year-old campaign the same way she tore through her 2022 year by posting a three-length victory in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley going 1 1/16 miles on the Keeneland turf in April.
“She looks good. She’s at her best right now. We’ve been down this road before with a top horse like her,” Brown said.
The British-bred daughter of Dubawi has registered triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in four consecutive starts, encompassing Grade 1 wins last year in the Diana at Saratoga Race Course and the First Lady at Keeneland, the latter earning a 104 figure that was matched for her runner-up effort to Tuesday by one length in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf in November at the same Keeneland track to close her year.
Brown said he appreciates Brant’s decision to bring back In Italian for a 2023 campaign.
“Peter loves running his horses and if they’re sound and healthy, he’ll run his mares through age five,” Brown said.
In Italian has finished on the board in all 10 starts, compiling a 6-3-1 record with a field-high $1.635 million in earnings. Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. will have the call from post 1.
Brant also owns Speak of the Devil, who ran fourth in last year’s running of the prestigious race at Belmont. The French-bred mare did not race again in 2022 following the Just a Game but started her 6-year-old year with a fifth-place effort in the Grade 3 Honey Fox in March at Gulfstream Park before earning black type with a third-place finish in the Grade 2 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile in May.
Brown said Speak of the Devil would appreciate a bit of moisture in the ground Friday after racing on firm footing in Kentucky.
“She seems to be a little bit sensitive for her ground, so if it comes up a little soft with a little more give, she’ll be more effective. Most of my horses didn’t handle the Churchill ground,” Brown said.
Flavien Prat will be in the irons from post 5.
Gainesway Stable’s New York homebred Spendarella outkicked Speak of the Devil by one length for second in the Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill and will have a rematch in making her Empire State debut for trainer Graham Motion.
After some weather-related challenges postponed Spendarella’s 2023 bow, the 4-year-old daughter of Karakontie was able to get back on track and was bested by winner Fluffy Socks by one length, earning a personal-best 95 Beyer while moving to 4-2-0 in six career starts.
Motion said she ran well enough to win but was happy she progressed from her impressive workouts following a layoff of more than eight months since suffering a slight setback last fall.
“I thought she was very tenacious. It’s tough to come back from that kind of a layoff against that kind of company,” Motion said. “Since then, she’s worked well. She breezed well last week and we went easier on her in her last work. It was a good work and I’ve been pleased with her.”
Spendarella recorded another workout at Motion’s Fair Hill, Maryland base on Friday, going five furlongs in a minute flat over the all-weather training course.
“In her last race, I was initially a little disappointed that she was second because she was training really well,” Motion said. “But looking at it now, it was the best figure that she’s run and she’s done well since the race. Hopefully, having a race will help her moving forward.”
Tyler Gaffalione will ride from post 3.
Team Valor International and Gary Barber’s Wakanaka closed her 4-year-old season with a win in the Fall Harvest in November at Keeneland.
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott put her against high-caliber competition to start 2023, beginning with a fifth-place finish in the Grade 3 Pegasus World Cup Filly and Mare Turf Invitational in January at Gulfstream Park before a fourth-place effort in the Distaff Turf Mile against a contingent of familiar faces she’ll race against again in the Just a Game.
After consistently showing a propensity to stalk the speed of the race, Mott said the inclusion of fast early speed could be beneficial.
“She’s doing well. A bit of pace helps her,” Mott said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a tough race.”
Jockey Joel Rosario drew the assignment and will break from post 4.
Qatar Racing, Marc Detampel and Fergus Galvin’s New Year’s Eve [post 2, Luis Saez], who finished third last out in the Grade 3 Modesty going 1 1/8 miles on the Churchill turf, will return to Belmont for trainer Brendan Walsh.
The 4-year-old Kitten’s Joy filly’s only previous appearance on the Belmont turf came in an eighth-place effort in the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational last July in the 1 1/4-mile test. But New Year’s Eve followed with a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Saratoga Oaks Invitational and was third in the Tom Benson Memorial in March at Fair Grounds before returning to graded stakes company.
The Just a Game is slated as Race 4 on Friday’s 11-race card. First post is 12:50 p.m. Eastern.