There’s Gufo, who hasn’t missed the board in 12 career starts. There’s Japan, one of his rivals, who ships in from Europe for another crack at Gufo. And there’s Arklow and Channel Maker, who combined to win the last three editions of the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.

Gufo (right) held off a surging Japan to win August’s Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga. The two turf rivals tangle again in Saturday’s Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park. (Image: Sarah Andrew)

It’s Turf Reunion Weekend at Belmont Park Saturday, where the older male turf runners tangle yet again in the Hirsch. The $500,000 race headlines Belmont Park’s 11-race Saturday card that also features Firenze Fire running for a Breeders’ Cup Sprint berth in the Grade 2 Vosburgh, among its three graded stakes.

The Hirsch doesn’t offer a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” berth. But it does offer up Gufo, who offers up quite the resume. He is 7-2-3 in his 12 starts, never finishing out of the money. As good as that is, this doesn’t do the 4-year-old Declaration of War’s recent form justice.

In Gufo’s last six races – dating back to last October’s Belmont Derby – he is 3-1-2. This reflects victories in that Belmont Derby and Gufo’s last two outings: the Black-Type Grand Couturier at Belmont Park in July and the Sword Dancer at Saratoga on Travers Day in August.

Give Gufo more distance

Of the six, all but the Grand Couturier were Grade 1s. And of the six, four were at Belmont Park, where Gufo is 2-1-1 in four starts. This includes May’s Man o’ War Stakes, where Gufo finished second to 8/1 Channel Cat by a neck as the 1.50/1 favorite, and June’s Manhattan, where Gufo finished third to Domestic Spending and Tribhuvan. There’s no harm losing to those two.

Two other trends run alongside Gufo’s stellar form. The first: his stamina. The Hirsch sends its runners 1 ½ miles on the Widener Turf Course. Gufo’s last two wins came at 12 furlongs, including his neck victory over Japan in the Sword Dancer. That came with a career-best 104 Beyer Speed Figure.

Even in his 1 3/8-mile Man o’ War loss, he was closing hard at the end. That lends credence to the theory the more distance, the merrier Gufo’s trip.

Adding blinkers subtracted Gufo’s distractions

His Belmont Derby victory last year came at 1 ¼ miles. But trainer Christophe Clement credits one other element for Gufo’s sizzling form.

“The blinkers made him a bit more manageable,” Clement told the New York Racing Association’s Ryan Martin. “It’s nice to have a horse that is so consistent at that level. We’ll need some racing luck as always. He’s run well in every Grade 1 in New York on turf this year and that’s what it’s all about.”

In all of Gufo’s recent races, you’ll notice who hasn’t finished ahead of him. Nobody in the Hirsch field has beaten Gufo in his 12 races. That includes not only Japan, but defending champion Channel Maker — who also won the 2018 edition — and 2019 champion Arklow. This marked Arklow’s lone Grade 1 victory in 35 career races.

Japan rising again

As for Japan, he rebounded from an 0-for-5 2020 campaign with a pair of Group 3 wins in Europe this year. But the 5-year-old Galileo progeny hasn’t won a Group 1 race since the May 2019 Grand Prix De Paris at Longchamp.

“He’s going the right way,” said assistant trainer TJ Comerford, who handles Aidan O’Brien’s US shippers. “He’s training well and Aidan is very happy with him. All he has to do is run like he did the last time and that gives him a good shot.”

Channel Maker parlayed this victory and the Sword Dancer triumph – along with a third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf – into Champion Male Turf Horse honors. He did go gate-to-wire with matching 108 Beyers in both his Hirsch scores.

Arklow speedy in defeat as the 2.30/1 favorite

Arklow, meanwhile, comes into Belmont Park off a second to Argentine invader Imperador in the Grade 2 Calumet Cup at Kentucky Downs. That came with a career-best 123 Equibase Speed Figure. The 7-year-old son of Arch owns at least one graded stakes victory every year since 2017, a string continued by his win in the Grade 3 Louisville at Churchill Downs in May.

“He had a tough trip last out at Kentucky Downs, but he ran a really good race,” trainer Brad Cox said. “He came out of the race in good shape and had two nice works on the turf at Belmont. He’s made almost $3 million in his career and it would be exciting to win this race for the second time.”