New York’s stars were on display at Belmont on Saturday. The weather was beautiful, the atmosphere festive, the backyard crowded. And the horses didn’t disappoint.
Early in the card, Flying Zee Stable took two races. The racing operation of the late Carl Lizza, Flying Zee’s dispersal begins this week at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky yearling sale, when 40 New York-bred yearlings will go into the auction ring. Agave Kiss, a two-year-old filly by Lion Heart out of Salty Romance (Salt Lake), broke her maiden in the second race, while Night Maneuver won the $100,000 Bertram F. Bongard for two-year-old males.
General Maximus came to this year’s Hudson off a four-month layoff and got his first win since his appearance in this race last year. He looked gorgeous in the paddock and equally so coming back to the winner’s circle.
But the stars of the day for me were Hessonite and Haynesfield, running in the Ticonderoga and the Empire Classic.
David Donk’s three-year-old Hessonite made her debut at Saratoga a year ago, finishing fifth at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. Coming back at Belmont the next month, she cruised to an 8 ¼ length win in an off-the-turfer (click here for a post & photos from that day), but after two disappointing performances in restricted stakes races dirt, she took the winter off and returned as a dynamite sophomore.
In six starts this year, Hessonite is 4-1-1; her win in yesterday’s Ticonderoga gives her victories over all three of Belmont’s surfaces. Coming back just 12 days after running second in the Pebbles, she raced comfortably towards the back of the pack, coming very wide around the final turn to cruise down the middle of the racetrack and racing eyeball to eyeball with favored Gitchee Goomie before drawing away for the win.
“It was a really, really good race,” said trainer David Donk. “They finished really fast, and she beat a really good older filly in Gitchee Goomie. [Jockey] Ramon [Dominguez] said she will do anything you want, settles wherever he needs to. She comes flying home.”
Donk said that Hessonite is now done for the year; she’ll take the winter off and come back to Belmont early in 2012 to prepare for a 2012 campaign.
On Sunday morning at the barn, Hessonite welcomed visitors, though she was not particularly cooperative when it came to photographs. Donk’s wife Fay said that between Saturday and Sunday morning, the filly had consumed a significant quantity of peppermints, but her appetite for treats was not sated: the crinkle of a wrapper elicited pricked ears and nosy curiosity.
A few barns away, spirits were high in the Asmussen barn, the glow of Haynesfield’s second victory in the Empire Classic still evident.
“We’re just enjoying it,” said Toby Sheets, Asmussen’s New York assistant and the man who’s worked most closely with Haynesfield. “He doesn’t have to do anything else, and we’re going to wait and see how he comes out. Now, we’re just enjoying it.”
Sheets deserves to revel in the moment, having nursed his star charge through foot problems after three- and four-year-old campaigns that resulted in New York-bred Horse of the Year honors for the five-year-old son of Speightstown.
Haynesfield’s last win came a year ago, in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup; two years ago, he won the Empire Classic. Half of his lifetime starts have come at Belmont, and he’s won six of nine starts over the mile and a half oval.
Energetic and playful, Haynesfield hammed it up for a visitor, taking peppermints as if they were his just reward for a job well done. “He’s a character,” said Sheets. “He’s got a lot of personality.”
And the Belmont crowd loves him as much as he loves the track: when he came back to the winner’s circle Saturday afternoon, he was applauded and cheered, an old favorite re-taking his rightful place.
Dominguez was aboard both Hessonite and Haynesfield; the Dominguez/Double H double paid a whopping $13.80