Last fall, Yibir used Belmont Park as his American test stage for what became a marvelous score in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. And the British colt returns to the scene of his first American victory as the favorite for Saturday’s Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes.

Yibir-Man o' War
Yibir clinched his Eclipse Award for Male Turf Horse of the Year with this clutch victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. He is the one to watch in Saturday’s Grade 1 Man o’ War at Belmont Park. (Image: Benoit Photo)

The 1 3/8-mile Man o’ War, Belmont Park’s first Grade 1 of 2022, headlines the track’s 11-race, five-graded stakes Saturday card. Those five races are featured in the New York Racing Association’s weekly Cross Country Pick 5 wager. The Man o’ War is scheduled as Belmont Park’s eighth race.

As for Yibir, he seeks his first victory of 2022 at the site of his first American victory. That came in last September’s Jockey Club Derby Invitational. That race, in turn, vaulted Yibir to a come-from-behind, half-length victory over Broome in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, considered that marquee event’s No. 2 race, behind only the Classic.

And that, in turn, sealed Yibir’s Eclipse Award as Champion Male Turf Horse. It came in a season where he won the Group 3 Bahrain Trophy at Newmarket and the Group 2 Great Voltigeur at York. Those served as his calling cards for his US triumphs.

Yibir loves these American tracks

Trainer Charlie Appleby loved what Yibir did the last time he visited Belmont Park.

“He did what we hoped he would do. It was important that he gained experience traveling and get used to the running style of American tracks and horses,” Appleby told NYRA. “He’s a horse that sometimes will be off the bridle in behind, but he seems to pick up at the right end, thankfully. We’re going into the weekend confident he’ll be a big player.”

That “big player” goes into the weekend looking for a return to the winner’s circle. Yibir opened his 4-year-old season with runner-up finishes in two events. He finished second in both the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic on the Dubai World Cup undercard, and the Group 2 Jockey Club a month later at Newmarket.

First 4-year-old start a wild trip

In the Sheema Classic, Yibir put on a stirring rally, coming from 15th and last to finish a neck behind multiple Group 1-winner Shahryar. Jockey William Buick took him outside and up the center of the track.

“We were delighted with his first run back as a 4-year-old in the Sheema Classic. He was a fast-finishing second,” Appleby said. “We know the tracks he loves are the more conventional flat galloping tracks like Meydan and Belmont. The American tracks seem to suit him.”

Appleby used the Newmarket race as a prep for the Man o’ War. That Yibir was the beaten favorite that day doesn’t bother the trainer, given how it prepared him for Belmont Park.

“I know he was a beaten favorite on the day, but our European tracks don’t seem to suit him so much,” Appleby said. “We were pleased that we got a run into him and he came out of the race well. I’ve spoke to the team at Belmont on a daily basis and they’re happy with the way the horse has shipped and trained so far.”

Gufo will provide a worthy rival

Yibir comes into the six-horse Man o’ War 6-3-2 in his 14 starts, with more than $4.12 million banked.

His main competition figures to come from Gufo. The 5-year-old Declaration of War horse opened his 2022 season winning the Grade 2 Pan American at Gulfstream Park. Like Yibir, Gufo is well-traveled. His last four races came at four different tracks: Gulfstream, Del Mar, Belmont and Saratoga.

And like Yibir, Gufo loves the Belmont Turf, going 2-1-2 in five starts at Big Sandy.

The more yards, the merrier

And Gufo loves distance. His last five starts came at 1 1/2 miles and except for an uncharacteristic 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, went rather well. Gufo won three, including the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga — where he rallied from seventh and last. He finished third in another. That 10th marks the only time in 15 races Gufo missed the board.

Cutting back a furlong doesn’t faze trainer Christophe Clement. He knows Gufo can handle 11 furlongs as easily as 12.

“We’ll be just fine,” he said. “He’s done it before. It’s my job as a trainer to bring him back for the race as well as I can and he’s doing well.”