The Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes draws its name from one of the most iconic horses in American racing history. Yet, it’s an Irish import who’s stealing all of the attention in the New York Racing Association’s first Grade 1 turf race of 2021.

Sovereign-Man o' War
Irish import Sovereign seeks his first victory on US soil and his first win since 2019 in Saturday’s Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont Park. (Image: Irish Thoroughbred Marketing)

That would be Sovereign, who makes his US debut in Saturday’s 1 3/8-mile turf test at Belmont Park for new trainer Chad Brown. The turf maestro inherited the 2019 Irish Derby winner over the winter from Europe’s dominant trainer, Aidan O’Brien. And Brown immediately realized what he has.

“He came over very sound and in great shape from Aidan,” Brown told the NYRA. “He sure trains like a horse with a lot of quality. I’ve seen him train on firm ground in Florida and he’s fine with it.”

Sovereign comes into the Man o’ War for his US debut 2-for-14, with more than $1.15 million in the bank. The bulk of that came from his six-length, gate-to-wire romp in that 2019 Irish Derby. But the son of noted stallion Galileo is 0-for-5 since that June 2019 victory. Included in that is a runner-up to Enable at the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Ascot.

Sovereign territory is a mystery going in

Also included was Sovereign’s last trip, a third in last November’s Bahrain International Trophy.

How the 8/5 favorite will perform in this field is anyone’s guess, so Brown is putting America’s top rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., in the irons to see how Sovereign’s early speed – his preferred MO – plays out on this side of the Atlantic.

“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel with him, so if he has speed, I wouldn’t take that away from him,” Brown said. “He’s pretty forward in his breezes. He grabs the bit and goes on. If he breaks well and Irad wants to put him on the front, I would be happy with that.”

Just the name ‘Man o’ War’ attracts quality

Winning a race named after the horse voted the greatest racehorse of the 20th century by numerous publications would make any trainer happy. That explains the quality, eight-horse field of older turf males – many of whom already have graded stakes wins on their resumes.

First among equals there is Gufo (2/1), who has yet to miss the board in eight career races (5-1-2). He makes his 2021 debut coming off a photo-finish third to Domestic Spending and Smooth Like Strait in last fall’s Hollywood Derby at Del Mar. Noteworthy here is that Domestic Spending finished first in a dead heat with Colonel Liam in last weekend’s Turf Classic Stakes at Churchill Downs. Smooth Like Strait, meanwhile, finished third.

Gufo is well-acquainted with Belmont Park, finding the winner’s circle in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational last fall.

Field Pass thankful a rival is passing here

Speaking of Smooth Like Strait, that turf terror isn’t here. That bodes well for Field Pass (6/1), who finished third to Smooth Like Strait in the Twilight Derby last October, and fourth to him in the Mathis Brothers Mile at Santa Anita last winter.

The 4-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid comes in off a fourth in the Maker’s Mark Mile last month at Keeneland. When he wasn’t losing to Smooth Like Strait as a 3-year-old, Field Pass was winning three Grade 3 races: the Jeff Ruby Stakes at Turfway Park, the Ontario Derby at Woodbine, and the Transylvania at Keeneland. The first two were on synthetic, the Transylvania on turf.

Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes/Belmont Park

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Sovereign, 8/5 (Irad Ortiz Jr./Chad Brown)
  2. Moon Over Miami, 8/1 (Junior Alvarado/Bill Mott)
  3. Ziyad, 6/1 (Manny Franco/Graham Motion)
  4. So High, 50/1 (Eric Cancel/Naipaul Chatterpaul)
  5. Channel Cat, 10/1 (John Velazquez/Jack Sisterson)
  6. Shamrocket, 15/1 (Javier Castellano/Todd Pletcher)
  7. Field Pass, 6/1 (Luis Saez/Mike Maker)
  8. Gufo, 2/1 (Joel Rosario/Christophe Clement)

Two other horses warrant watching: Ziyad (6/1) and millionaire-in-waiting Channel Cat (10/1). An English import, Ziyad won the Group 1 Grand Prix de Deauville in August 2019, but is 1-for-8 since. Included in that for trainer Graham Motion are five thirds, the last two coming in Grade 3s at Keeneland and Aqueduct last fall.

Sitting on $998,522 in career earnings, Channel Cat is another who went 0-for-2020. His last winner’s circle visit came at the Grade 2 Bowling Green in July 2019 at Saratoga. Since then, Channel Cat is 0-for-9. But he does come out of a runner-up finish by 1 ½ lengths to Say the Word in the Grade 2 Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland last month.

The pick: Gufo. In a race where every contender has multiple triple-digit Equibase Speed Figures, here is a horse who finds his way into the mix every time he runs. There’s something to be said for winning a race in 2020 – and Gufo won four of them — which most of his leading rivals here can’t say. He’s battle-tested, speed-solid, and has hot jock Joel Rosario at the controls. Add it up, and it adds up for Gufo here.