ELMONT, N.Y. – Grade 1-winner Flagstaff bested Eclipse award-winner Whitmore in a thrilling finish last out and will look to win his third consecutive stakes race as part of a seven-horse field in Friday’s Grade 2, $300,000 True North for 4-year-olds and up sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs over the main track at Belmont Park.
The 43rd running of the True North is one of five stakes on the Friday card as part of the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival that commences Thursday and runs through Saturday, which will be highlighted by the 153rd running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.
The True North will see Flagstaff, owned by Lane’s End Racing and Hronis Racing, enter off his first career Grade 1 score, when he edged both Lexitonian and Whitmore by a head in a blanket finish in the seven-furlong Churchill Downs on May 1.
The John Sadler trainee started his 2021 campaign with a fourth-place effort in the King Cotton before earning his first black type as a 7-year-old when third in the Hot Springs. The son of Speightstown then posted a 1 1/4-length score in the Grade 3 Commonwealth going seven furlongs on April 3 at Keeneland before topping a 12-horse field last out.
“It was great, he ran two dynamite races in Kentucky,” Sadler said. “Both of those races were seven furlongs, but we think that 6 1/2 furlongs should be good for him, also.”
Unraced until his 4-year-old year, Flagstaff has made up for lost time, winning stakes at ages 5, 6, and 7. After making the bulk of his starts in California, Flagstaff will ship to New York for the first time, drawing post 2. Luis Saez, aboard for the Churchill Downs victory, will have the return engagement.
“He almost has no bad races on his form,” Sadler said. “He’s just a nice honest horse and has run with top class horses all the time. He’s well-bred and he’s a gelding so we try to take good care of him and make him last.”
Mr. Amore Stable’s Firenze Fire, winner of the Grade 3 Runhappy going six furlongs at Belmont on May 8, has recorded Beyer figures of 90 or better in six of his last seven starts for conditioner Kelly Breen.
Firenze Fire won last year’s edition of the True North, topping Stan the Man, and is 6-1-0 in nine career starts at Belmont, including three straight wins at the track, and has not lost in Elmont since running fourth in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap last June on Big Sandy.
Irad Ortiz, Jr. won the race aboard Firenze Fire in 2020 and will ride again, breaking from the rail.
Long Lake Stable and Madaket Stables’ Looking At Bikinis bested optional claimers going seven furlongs last out on April 24 at Belmont and will be returning to stakes company for the first time in four starts for four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown.
The son of Lookin At Lucky ran 11th in the 2019 Grade 1 Travers last year and capped his 3-year-old year with a fourth-place effort in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile that December at the Big A. After racing just twice in 2020, Looking At Bikinis earned a 94 Beyer last out in his 5-year-old bow. He will now look to improve to 4-for-4 running at Belmont.
“It’s one of those things where he was able to knock out an allowance win there and has no more conditions to work with and you try a stakes with him,” Brown said. “I thought, between this and the Met Mile, it was an easier spot for him. With the cutback, hopefully he gets a strong pace and a clean outside trip where he can make a run.”
Hall of Famer Javier Castellano will be in the irons from post 5.
“He’s a funny horse,” Brown said. “Sometimes he shows up and runs great races and other times he’s left us scratching our head. A wet track should be fine for him if it happens.”
Phat Man, fifth in the Churchill Downs last out, will be looking for his first stakes win since the 2020 Grade 3 Fred W. Hooper in January at Gulfstream Park. Trained by Kent Sweezey, Phat Man has not run at Belmont since 2017.
Owned by Marianne Stribling, Force Five Racing and Two Rivers Racing Stable, Phat Man will break from the outermost post 7 with Joel Rosario aboard.
American Power, trained by Rob Atras, won the Caixa Eletronica in March at Aqueduct and will be returning to stakes competition after running second against optional claimers on April 24 at Belmont. Kendrick Carmouche rides from post 4.
Trainer Linda Rice will send out a pair of contenders in Big Engine, third in the Affirmed Success on April 23 at Belmont, and Wicked Trick, who ran fourth in last year’s True North and ran second in his first stakes appearance of 2021 last out in the Grade 3 Westchester on May 1 at Belmont, finishing behind 2020 Belmont Stakes runner-up Dr Post.
“Hopefully, he can improve off his last effort; he’s going to have to with this class,” Rice said. “But we thought this would be an interesting spot for us.”
Eric Cancel will ride Big Engine from post 3, while Jose Lezcano has the call on Wicked Trick aboard post 6.
“Big Engine, like Wicked Trick, has experience on this track, so that helps, for sure,” Rice said.
The True North is named for the 1945 winner of the Fall Highweight Handicap and on Friday will be contested as Race 7 at 4:07 p.m. Eastern. First post is 12:50 p.m.
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Belmont Park Park Release
Photo: Flagstaff at Churchill Downs, (Coady)