ELMONT, N.Y. – Classic Causeway earned multiple graded stakes wins on dirt in his eight-race career before trainer Ken McPeek entered him against top-caliber divisional competition for his turf debut in the Grade 1, $1 million Caesars Belmont Derby Invitational. But the son of Giant’s Causeway took to the new surface immediately, surging to the front as a 26-1 longshot and never relinquishing the lead in a gate-to-wire three-quarters of a length victory going 1 1/4 miles on Belmont Park’s inner turf course on Saturday.
The 73rd running of the Belmont Derby, the last of four stakes on the Stars and Stripes Racing Festival card, was the first leg of the Caesars Turf Triple series, and will be followed by the Grade 1, $1 million Caesars Saratoga Derby Invitational at 1 3/16-miles on August 6 and the Grade 3, $1 million Caesars Jockey Club Derby Invitational at 12 furlongs during the Belmont Fall meet.
Kentucky West Racing and Clarke M. Cooper’s Classic Causeway won the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis and Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby over the winter at Tampa Bay Downs before finishing 11th in both the Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream and Grade 1 Kentucky Derby for his former conditioner Brian Lynch. After transferring to McPeek’s care, he ran third in the nine-furlong Grade 3 Ohio Derby on June 25 at Thistledown before the surface switch.
Under jockey Julien Leparoux, Classic Causeway broke sharp from post 4 with only Royal Patronage in close pursuit entering the first turn, leading the 12-horse field through an opening quarter-mile in 23.55 seconds and logging 48.02 for the half and three-quarters in 1:12.33 over firm going.
Out of the turn, Classic Causeway maintained his lead and fended off all challengers, including Nations Pride to his outside in the shadow of the wire before completing the course in a 1:59.99 final time.
“We knew he was pretty much the speed in the race,” said co-owner Patrick O’Keefe of Kentucky West Racing. “He’s like a 14-year-old kid that can throw a baseball 100 miles per hour. Now, he’s slowed down a little to 90 miles per hour and can hit the play.
“[McPeek] is amazing,” O’Keefe added. “To me, he’s a life send. I have someone who really knows the breeding and knows where to put them. I loved [the idea of running him on the turf].”
Classic Causeway paid $55.50 on a $2 win wager. He earned millionaire status with the victory, increasing his bankroll to $1.12 million, and improved to 4-1-2 overall in nine starts.
O’Keefe said the two-week turnaround time in addition to the turf debut did not deter them from entering and will now likely enter the Caesars Saratoga Derby Invitational next month.
“He came back good and was eating the bottom out of the feedbag. What Kenny says, I do,” O’Keefe said.
Leparoux won his first Belmont Derby and his second Grade 1 win since 2020, adding to his victory in the 2021 Flower Bowl with War Like Goddess at Saratoga.
“The plan was to go on the lead. The only time I was a little worried was in the first turn when Joel [Rosario, aboard Royal Patronage] was kind of head-to-head with me,” Leparoux said. “When he took back, my horse got to cruising and happy to be on the lead. I was getting him to relax nicely and switch off. It was a good run for him.
“He was actually feeling pretty fresh today,” he added. “It was Kenny’s idea to wheel him right back on the grass, and it paid off today for sure.”
Nations Pride, the slight 2-1 favorite for trainer Charlie Appleby and ridden by three-time Champion Jockey Frankie Dettori, held off fellow Irish-bred contender and 5-2 selection Stone Age by a head for second.
Grand Sonata, Royal Patronage, Sy Dog, Limited Liability, Machete, Tiz the Bomb, Implementation, Napoleonic War and Stolen Base completed the order of finish. Emmanuel scratched.
“He got upset in the gates. I was the last one out and I had to play catch up then and go through traffic,” Dettori said. “The winner had a trouble-free run. If he jumped, it could have been a different story. In America, if you give too many lengths away at the start, you’re going to pay at the end.”
Stone Age, trained by Aiden O’Brien and ridden by fellow internationally renowned rider Ryan Moore, was making his North American debut two starts removed from a Group 3 win in his native country at Leopardstown in May, breaking from the outermost post.
“He was finishing off well. Ryan was very happy with him. He had a wide draw,” said T.J. Comerford, travelling assistant for O’Brien. “It’s his first run in America, I’m sure he’ll build on it. It’s a good run back from his run in the English Derby. Ryan is happy with him and Aidan is happy with the run.”
Sunday will mark Closing Day for the Belmont Spring/Summer meet, with a nine-race card featuring the $100,000 Saginaw for New York-bred 4-year-olds and up going 1 1/16 miles in Race 8. First post is 12:30 p.m. Eastern.
America’s Day at the Races will present daily coverage and analysis of the spring/summer meet at Belmont Park on the networks of FOX Sports. For the complete broadcast schedule, visit https://www.nyra.com/belmont/racing/tv-schedule.
Belmont Park Press Release
Photo: Classic Causeway (Tampa Photo)