Recap of the Belmont Stakes Won by Dornoch

by Mary Eddy

For the first time in 156 years, the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets saw the quest for glory in the final leg of racing’s Triple Crown take place at Saratoga Race Course. Dornoch, under jockey Luis Saez, rose to the historic occasion and filed their names in the history books with a tenacious score in Saturday’s prestigious $2 million test for sophomores.

The electric, sold-out crowd of 50,000 fans watched with bated breath as the pace-pressing Dornoch clung to the lead in the final eighth of a mile over the storied main track with the lightly raced Mindframe charging furiously to his outside, but the resolute Dornoch would not be denied, claiming victory by a half-length in the esteemed route.

The Belmont Stakes was held at Saratoga for the first time to allow for the uninterrupted construction of a new Belmont Park. Due to the configuration of Saratoga’s main track, the Belmont Stakes was contested at 1 1/4-miles rather than the traditional 1 1/2-miles.

Trained by Danny Gargan for West Paces Racing, R. A. Hill Stable, Belmar Racing and Breeding, Two Eight Racing and Pine Racing Stables, the son of Good Magic became the second Classic winner for his dam, the graded stakes-placed Puca, after his full-brother Mage won last year’s Grade 1 Kentucky Derby. Dornoch became the first Grade 1-winner for Gargan, who said he was humbled by the victory.

“I’m still just taking it in. It’s pretty exciting,” Gargan said. “It’s a special thing just to be a part of these races, not to mention to win one with a horse you bought at Keeneland and have had it for its whole [racing] life. I spend so much time with him and my staff has done such a great job with him.”

Gargan said he is thankful for the strong-willed Dornoch, and gave credit to longtime clients Dean Reeves and Randy Hill for their support in the early years of his career, the latter of which is the namesake of winning co-owner R.A. Hill Stable.

“He’s not an easy horse to train and it’s not easy to get in this kind of situation,” said Gargan. “I’ve been blessed to have the right owners. Randy has been with me since the beginning. He and Dean Reeves wanted me to start training 2-year-olds and focus on them instead of the claiming game, and I have to thank them.”

Hill expressed equal emotion towards the memorable victory.

“Nobody ever wake me up. I’ll be damn mad. Let me keep dreaming,” Hill said. “I said to my partners, to Danny and Luis, ‘Let’s run our race today, let’s get the lead, and if anybody can beat us, let them come and get us.’”

Dornoch was a prominent winner after a clean exit from post 6 in the talented 10-horse field that included Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan and Grade 1 Preakness victor Seize the Grey, who was sent up the rail by jockey Jaime Torres to make a successful challenge for the lead rounding the first turn and through an opening quarter-mile in 22.99 seconds over the fast footing.

“You are always going to have a Plan B,” Saez said of Seize the Grey’s early push for control. “The plan was to try to take the lead, but we couldn’t. We were in the perfect spot so I just let him be comfortable. He did what he was supposed to do. He finished pretty well.”

Dornoch raced in the two-path while Resilience rode the rail in third with the Irad Ortiz, Jr.-piloted Mindframe following the run of Dornoch to inch up into contention heading into the backstretch. Saez kept a snug hold of Dornoch to let Seize the Grey do the legwork, marking a half-mile in 47.25 while post-time favorite Sierra Leone was held far off the pace in ninth in anticipation of his trademark deep-closing rally.

After reaching the three-quarters call in 1:10.67, Seize the Grey and Dornoch had made it a race of their own, opening up several lengths on the backpedaling Resilience as Mindframe was turned loose to set his sights on the topflight, and the New York-bred The Wine Steward spun his wheels in mid-pack outside of the advancing Antiquarian. Sierra Leone was last after one mile in 1:35.51 and forced to move widest of all in the turn with plenty of work left to do as Dornoch surged past Seize the Grey to go head-to-head with Mindframe at the top of the stretch.

“At that point, I thought the other horse was going to beat us,” Saez said. “But Dornoch, he kept finding. He never let the other one get by. Pretty nice horse, big heart.”

Dornoch was an eighth of a mile from immortality as Mindframe loomed large in the center of the course, threatening to sweep by and provide his Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher with a fifth Belmont Stakes victory. But the inexperienced colt veered out sharply when asked for his best by Ortiz, Jr. with a left-handed crop, while Dornoch maintained his rail position with his ears pinned in determination.

The talented Mindframe closed the gap while the meandering Sierra Leone found a clear path and charged on late ahead of fellow deep-closer Honor Marie, but Dornoch had enough left to turn back his challengers and post the 17-1 upset victory under a celebrating Saez in a final time of 2:01.64.

Mindframe finished one length ahead of Sierra Leone with another four lengths back to Honor Marie, who was squeezed between Sierra Leone and the maiden Protective after Mindframe came in from the outside post at the start. Antiquarian, Protective, Seize the Grey, Mystik Dan, The Wine Steward and Resilience completed the order of finish.

The win marked the second Belmont Stakes for Saez, who guided Essential Quality to victory in 2021 at the race’s traditional 12-furlong distance. The 32-year-old native of Panama said Dornoch was game to the wire.

“It was a pretty good race. The horse broke pretty sharp,” Saez said. “The position we were looking for. He did everything right. He came to the top of the stretch, I still have a lot of horse and he fights. He fights to get there first. He’s a horse that really has a big heart and man, he ran the perfect race.

“Of course, [I thank] God,” Saez added. “My family for the support, the owner, trainer, everybody involved, thank you.”

Dornoch entered the Belmont Stakes from a troubled 10th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby where he emerged from the inside post in the field of 20 and was shuffled and checked several times before making a mild late bid and finished well behind the Brian Hernandez, Jr.-piloted Mystik Dan.

“We wanted to be on the lead. In the Derby the one-hole got us,” said Gargan. “He broke a touch slow. Right after, Brian came over and we got checked out of there. It’s game over then. Three days later, we got him up here and pointed for this race. We trained him and tried to do everything the best we could. He was training phenomenal. He worked great here. We got overlooked a little bit because he ran one bad race. Now, they’ll look at us a little more next time, hopefully.”

Saez has been aboard for all but one of Dornoch’s eight starts, and said the mid-pack post made all the difference in the Belmont Stakes.

“Better post, we were expecting a good break from there,” Saez said. “We were thinking to take the lead, but we knew they had a lot of speed to the inside from the one-hole [Seize the Grey]. That was great because we had a target to follow.”

Dornoch began his journey towards the Triple Crown last summer at the Spa, where he finished second on debut to Seize the Grey. He would graduate two starts later at Keeneland ahead of another gritty victory in the Grade 2 Remsen in December at Aqueduct Racetrack, where he lost the lead to a lugging-in Sierra Leone in the stretch but battled back to get his nose down on the wire.

This year, Dornoch won the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth with prominent tactics before an educational trip in the Grade 1 Blue Grass where he was rated by Saez and finished fourth behind Sierra Leone. His graded stakes efforts earned him enough points for a spot in the Derby starting gate.

“I never lost faith in him,” Gargan said. “He had tremendous works up here. He’s a big, powerful horse. You just have to be patient and not lose focus and just grind away, and hopefully, you get lucky and win one of these.”

In the weeks leading up to the Belmont Stakes, Pletcher, who also saddled Antiquarian and Protective, had expressed his concern for the lack of experience from Mindframe, who entered undefeated through two starts, including an impressive last-out allowance score on Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Pletcher said those concerns were valid after Mindframe ran greenly in the stretch.

“It’s just his third start and first time at this distance. First time he’s really been challenged; all the things we were concerned about,” Pletcher said. “If he could have run a straight course down the lane, that would have been the difference. Irad felt like he just lost that little bit of focus. He was still coming at the end.

“It verifies what we thought of him,” Pletcher continued. “He showed so much talent in those two races but now we had to test him and see where he fit with the big horses.”

Ortiz, Jr., who won three graded stakes on Saturday’s card, was in agreement.

“It was beautiful. A great trip. For a second, I thought I was going to get there,” Ortiz, Jr. “It’s only his third start, so he showed a lot. He had only a little experience, but these horses, they’ve been running everywhere and had a lot more races than him. I think it was a great effort from him.”

Sierra Leone, defeated a nose when second last out in the Kentucky Derby, raced with a cage bit for the first time in hopes of correcting steering troubles that were evident when lugging in down the stretch of the Derby. Four-time Eclipse Award-winning conditioner Chad Brown said a bumpy beginning did not aid the 8-5 post-time favorite, who received the services of Flavien Prat for the first time.

“We got slammed at the start and he got far back,” Brown said. “He had an opportunity to engage the bit and improve his position down the backside and he really didn’t do it. At the quarter-pole, it looked like he wasn’t going anywhere, then he grabbed the bit late and he came on. It’s a hard track today to close ground on.”

Bred in Kentucky by Grandview Equine, Dornoch was a $325,000 purchase at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. He banked $1.2 million for his Belmont Stakes triumph, bringing his bankroll to $1,752,275 through a 8-4-2-0 record. He returned $37.40 for a $2 win wager.

Source: NYRA