The Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational offers up a Kentucky Derby alum, along with a former Bob Baffert colt who may be the turf star of his generation. It also gives you one of Europe’s top turf terrors, straight from the barn of that continent’s top trainer – Aidan O’Brien.

Bolshoi Ballet-Belmont Derby
Irish colt Bolshoi Ballet came across the Atlantic and grabbed favorite status in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational. The Aidan O’Brien-trained colt won two of his last three starts, including this score at the Ballysax Stakes. (Image: INPHO/Peter Mooney)

In otherwords, Saturday’s Belmont Derby comes loaded with intrigue, interest, intensity and international flavor. It’s a nice dish for Belmont Park’s closing weekend.

The 1 ¼-mile Belmont Derby is the first leg of NYRA’s Turf Triple series for 3-year-olds. The second leg moves to Saratoga Aug. 7 for the Grade 1 Saratoga Derby Invitational. It wraps up Sept. 18 back at Belmont Park for the Jockey Club Derby. Saturday’s Belmont Derby headlines a card with the Belmont Oaks Invitational. That is the opening leg of the Turf Triple series for fillies.

Not surprisingly, O’Brien fields the favorite for that race: Santa Barbara. But it’s his dynamic Bolshoi Ballet, who captured the Belmont Derby attention much of the week. The son of champion-sire Galileo comes across the Atlantic as the 7/5 favorite. He comes into his seventh career race 3-0-1, going off as the favorite in four of his six starts.

Bolshoi Ballet flubbed his steps in the Epsom Derby

That, however, includes his last trip: a miserable seventh as the 7/4 favorite in the June 5 Epsom Derby. All Bolshoi Ballet got for his efforts that day was a cut on his right leg. Before that, however, Bolshoi Ballet danced his way to victories in the Group 3 Ballysax  by 1 ½ lengths April 11 and the Group 3 Derrinstown by six lengths May 9.

Both races at Ireland’s Leopardstown came at the 1 ¼-mile distance.

“He’s coming here now trying to pick up the pieces where he left off at Leopardstown,” O’Brien’s traveling assistant, T.J. Comerford, told the New York Racing Association. “He won both the Ballysax and the Derrinstown well. It didn’t’ work out that great at Epsom, but I’m sure he’s still on the right path to picking it up from there. He’s a good mover and he’s just a good-looking horse himself.”

Can O’Brien add Belmont Derby to recent conquests?

It’s been quite the good run of late for O’Brien’s barn. Last Saturday, his St. Mark’s Basilica won the Group 1 Eclipse at Sandown. The following day, Broome took the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in France.

“We’re having a good run of it in France, England and Ireland at the moment,” Comerford said. “He likes to bring horses over here and try to win these races. It’s kind of an annual thing we do. We bring over good chances, so there’s effort that goes into it.”

Effort defines Sainthood (10/1), who you may remember from his 11th-place Derby finish. Or you may remember Sainthood from his gritty effort finishing second in the Jeff Ruby Steaks on the Turfway Park synthetic. The gutsy Mshawish progeny makes his turf debut coming out of a score in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge.

Sainthood is adaptable as well as gutsy

Two things are notable from that race: it came off the turf and onto a very sloppy Belmont Park main track and Sainthood reeled off a career-best 101 Equibase Speed Figure in the muck.

“His works on the turf indicate that he likes it, and his pedigree certainly suggests that he will like it,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “He ran well on the synthetic and everything we’ve seen indicates he’ll handle it well. He’s tactical enough that hopefully we can get a bit of cover because I do think his turn of foot, from what we saw in his breezes, is pretty good.”

Very good defines the form of Du Jour (9/2). He comes in with a three-race winning streak for new trainer Bill Mott, who inherited the son of Temple City from Baffert. That Hall of Fame trainer is suspended from fielding any horses at NYRA tracks.

You could do worse than a three-time Belmont Derby winner

This is hardly a downgrade, because Mott is a Hall of Fame trainer himself. He’s won this race three times. He gets a colt who followed maiden and allowance wins at Santa Anita Park with a score in the Grade 2 American Turf at Churchill Downs on the Derby undercard. In his last four races, Du Jour’s Equibase Speed Figures climbed from 74 to 103. The one element to watch here, however, is Du Jour has never run past 1 1/16 miles before.

The final contender is 5/2 second-favorite Hard Love. He didn’t come in from overseas, run in the Derby or move from one Hall of Fame trainer to another. All this ridgling son of Kitten’s Joy did was win his last two races and three of his four. He came into 2021 off five months rest and won the Black-Type Woodhaven Stakes at Aqueduct April 17. A score in a second-level allowance on the Belmont Stakes undercard followed.

Hard Love has never finished worse than second in four races. His best Equibase (109) came in that runner-up finish to Never Surprised in the Central Park Stakes at Aqueduct. A victory here would give trainer Jonathan Thomas his second Belmont Derby, following Catholic Boy’s 2018 triumph.

Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational/Belmont Park

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Palazzi, 15/1 (Tyler Gaffalione/Mark Casse)
  2. Bolshoi Ballet, 7/5 (Ryan Moore/Aidan O’Brien)
  3. Safe Conduct, 15/1 (Jose Lezcano/Phil Serpe)
  4. Sainthood, 10/1 (Joel Rosario/Todd Pletcher)
  5. Du Jour, 9/2 (Flavien Prat/Bill Mott)
  6. Hard Love, 5/2 (Manny Franco/Jonathan Thomas)
  7. Tokyo Gold, 15/1 (John Velazquez/Shhinya Kobayashi)
  8. Cellist, 12/1 (Julien Leparoux/Rusty Arnold)
  9. Hidden Enemy, 30/1 (Luis Saez/Steve Asmussen)

“He’s done nothing wrong up to this point,” Thomas said. “Catholic Boy was more of a flashy horse in the morning. Turf, dirt, whatever, he always breezed sharply. He was a much more aggressive horse training in the morning. This one seems to be more laid back and is not a dirt horse. They have some similarities, but let’s just hope that the biggest similarity they have is winning the Belmont Derby.”

The pick: Hard Love. How will Bolshoi Ballet handle travel – along with a fast, firm track? How will Sainthood handle grass under his hooves for the first time? How will Du Jour handle 10 furlongs? In such a deep, salty field, Hard Love comes in with the fewest questions. He also comes with a native’s comfort of the Belmont Park turf.