Gary Stevens backs Oxbow to add Belmont to fairytale return


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The Independent Online

For each new scandal absorbed by the British racing community, their American cousins seem to contrive fresh consolation. Admittedly the craving for a first Triple Crown since 1978 has already been prolonged by defeat for the Kentucky Derby winner, Orb, in its second leg. But Oxbow's Preakness success none the less consolidated the romantic gains made by Orb, in himself satisfying the patient Derby quest of his admired, old school connections – notably his trainer, Shug McGaughey. Oxbow in turn restored two Hall of Fame titans, Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens, from the shadows at 77 and 50 respectively.

Orb and Oxbow meet again on Saturday, the 21st time winners of the first two legs of the Triple Crown have squared off for a decider in New York. But the Belmont Stakes will also break heartening new ground, with Rosie Napravnik set to become the first female jockey to contest all three races in the same season.

It is not quite the breakthrough that seemed within her reach last autumn, when she found herself on a hot Derby favourite after Shanghai Bobby's success at the Breeders' Cup. That colt was ultimately sidelined by injury, but Napravnik still managed fifth at Churchill Downs on Mylute, who then finished third in the Preakness – each representing the best finish yet by a woman in either race. Fittingly, her Belmont partner also makes a stand for equality: Unlimited Budget is seeking to become only the fourth filly to beat the colts in the race's 145-year history. Auspiciously she is trained by Todd Pletcher, who saddled Rags To Riches to become the third in 2007. (The previous two had been back in 1905 and 1867.)

Unlimited Budget won her first four starts before finishing third in the Kentucky Oaks, though her pedigree guarantees less stamina than did that of Rags To Riches. "[But] when you look at running against colts, you want to make sure that physically you're going to stack up," Pletcher said. "Unlimited Budget is a very strong filly, she'll fit right in from a physical standpoint."

The Belmont is notoriously gruelling for American three-year-olds. At a mile and a half, it represents a rare test of stamina, and will also be the third Classic contested by some in just five weeks. But Napravnik, 25, will not want for toughness. Already a winner of 1,500 races, her strike-rate this year approaches one in four. Moreover it was in the 1993 Belmont that the pioneering Julie Krone scored a landmark success on Colonial Affair.

Stevens, meanwhile, is seeking a fourth Belmont. Having ended a seven-year retirement in the winter, he was beginning to have doubts after a barren month leading into Preakness day. But he rode a masterly race from the front on Oxbow, has since won a Grade One in California, and sounds full of confidence for Saturday.

"I don't think I've ever ridden a horse as focused on his job," Stevens said. "He's almost like a running back looking at the hole he's got to go for. His recovery rate is unbelievable as well. After the Derby I almost ran over the top of Orb, as he was being pulled up, and it was the same in the Preakness: he pulled up full of energy, and recovered his normal breathing rate before I got back to the winner's circle – a first for me in eight previous Classic wins. So [along] with his pedigree, I have no doubt the mile and a half will be right up his alley."

Happily, whatever their Belmont fortunes, Stevens and Napravnik will soon be illuminating the beleaguered British sport in person. Both are booked for the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup at Ascot on 10 August.

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Dick Bos (8.15 Ripon) Few miles on the clock and easily pardoned disappointment in heavy ground since a fine run against a thriving rival over course and distance.

Next best

Gucci D'Oro (2.0 Southwell) By a dirt stallion and could build on promise elsewhere now he tries this surface and a pair of blinkers.

One to watch

Italian import Jiroft (Robert Cowell) Has joined a trainer who excels with sprinters and did well to hang onto a close fifth after sharing a frantic pace at Epsom on Saturday.