Last month, Highland Chief passed his first stateside Grade 1 test with a flourish, beating four other rivals, including Champion Turf Male Yibir, to win the Grade 1 Man o’ War at Belmont Park.

Highland Chief-Manhattan
Highland Chief captured last month’s Grade 1 Man o’ War as the 19/1 longest shot in the field. He’ll have his hands full at 6/1 repeating in a deep, experienced Manhattan field at Belmont Park Saturday. (Image: Coglianese Photos)

A nice score to be sure, especially as the 19/1 longest shot in the field.

Now, however, Highland Chief must validate this surprising effort against nine other horses in the 1 ¼-mile Grade 1 Manhattan. The turf test for older horses along Belmont Park’s inner turf course is one of eight Grade 1 events on the weekend’s Belmont Stakes card.

For Highland Chief, it comes a month after he turned away a Man o’ War field that included not only Yibir, but multiple Grade 1 turf winner Gufo. He’ll see Gufo, who he beat by a length after taking control at the top of the stretch, again in the Manhattan.

Highland Chief didn’t get much of a 4-year-old season

It comes two months after Highland Chief finished a non-threatening ninth in a 1 1/16-mile Aqueduct allowance. That came in his stateside debut for new trainer Graham Motion, who took over conditioning duties of the Irish-bred horse this year. Motion inherited a horse who ran only once as a 4-year-old, and who finished fifth in the Group 1 Coronation Cup at Epsom.

“I probably asked too much of him in that 1 1/16 race, but I really wanted to get him doing and that race benefited him to get him to the Grade 1,” Motion told the New York Racing Association. “If you go back through his form lines, it’s not that crazy he was able to pull that off based on his Ascot form. He was a solid enough horse before he came to me and then he had throat surgery before he came to me, which probably helped.”

Motion credits jockey Trevor McCarthy for the Man o’ War score — one that brought the jockey his first Grade 1 victory. McCarthy and Motion understood part of the problem from that Aqueduct allowance came because Highland Chief broke slowly out of the gate. Breaking clean was key in the Man o’ War.

“We felt he could be forwardly placed, but that was really Trevor’s call,” Motion said. “I was glad we got the jump on those guys. Both Gufo and the Breeders’ Cup winner (Yibir) have a tremendous turn of foot and I thought it was important he got the jump on them.”

Gufo seeks redemption on two fronts

There are plenty of horses with tremendous turns of foot in the Manhattan field, including Gufo, who won the 10-furlong Belmont Derby last summer. That, after finishing third in this event to Domestic Spending last year. He opened his 2022 ledger winning the Grade 2 Pan American at Gulfstream Park.

There’s Santin, who comes in off his neck victory in the Grade 1 Turf Classic on the Kentucky Derby undercard. There’s the familiar Channel Maker, who finished eighth in this race in 2018, and fourth in 2019 and 2020. The Eclipse Award winner as Champion Turf Male in 2020 opened his 8-year-old season winning the 1 ½-mile Grade 2 Elkhorn at Keeneland.

“I’ve had some nice older horses before, but he’s been a real warrior,” trainer Bill Mott said. He’s made $3.5 million. He’s a good old gelding and he’s run in a lot of stakes. It’s amazing.”

Grade 1 Manhattan/Belmont Park

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. L’Imperator, 15/1 (Eric Cancel/Chad Brown)
  2. Gufo, 3/1 (Joel Rosario/Christophe Clement)
  3. Tokyo Gold, 30/1 (Cristian Demuro/Satoshi Kobayashi)
  4. Adhamo, 4/1 (Flavien Prat/Chad Brown)
  5. In Love, 15/1 (Alex Achard/Paulo Lobo)
  6. Rockemperor, 10/1 (Irad Ortiz Jr./Chad Brown)
  7. Tribhuvan, 8/1 (Manny Franco/Chad Brown)
  8. Highland Chief, 6/1 (Trevor McCarthy/Graham Motion)
  9. Santin, 7/2 (Tyler Gaffalione/Brendan Walsh)
  10. Channel Maker, 8/1 (Luis Saez/Bill Mott)

And, of course, Chad Brown has his customary presence. The three-time defending champion, who won this race a record seven times, sends out four: L’Imperator, Tribhuvan, Rockemperor, and Adhavo.

Tribhuvan finished second to Domestic Spending in last year’s Manhattan. He’s missed the board in his two 2022 starts, including a fifth in that Turf Classic. Rockemperor finished second in this race two years ago and fifth last year. He arrives off a dismal fifth to L’Imperator in the May 7 Grade 2 Fort Marcy at Belmont Park.

“I think L’Imperator probably only made the lead last time because it was so slow, but he ran very well that day,” Brown said. “I don’t think he has more pace than Tribhuvan.”

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