Dornoch holds lead in final stretch to win Belmont Stakes

Pick Pony |June 9, 2024, 1:04 p.m.

The Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, for the first time in 156 years, took place at Saratoga Race Course. Dornoch, ridden by jockey Luis Saez, won the $2 million race for sophomores.

In front of a fully packed crowd of 50,000, Dornoch held his lead in the final stretch of the race. Mindframe was closing in, but Dornoch stood his ground and won by a half-length.

The Belmont Stakes was hosted at Saratoga to allow for work at Belmont Park. The race was at 1 1/4-miles instead of the usual 1 1/2-miles because of Saratoga’s track layout.

Danny Gargan trained Dornoch for West Paces Racing, R. A. Hill Stable, Belmar Racing and Breeding, Two Eight Racing and Pine Racing Stables. The victory marked Gargan’s first Grade 1 win, and Dornoch became the second Classic winner for his dam, Puca, following his full-brother Mage’s win at last year’s Grade 1 Kentucky Derby.

“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 expressed gratitude towards Dornoch for his determination. He also acknowledged Dean Reeves and Randy Hill, long-term clients who supported him at the start of his career. The latter, Hill, is the namesake of the victorious 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 emerged successful from the 10-horse field, which included notable participants like Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan and Grade 1 Preakness champion Seize the Grey. Dornoch's jockey, Jaime Torres, sent him up the rail, enabling him to take the lead around the first turn and maintain it through an opening quarter-mile in 22.99 seconds on 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 ran in the two-path while Resilience was third on the rail. Mindframe, guided by Irad Ortiz, Jr., followed Dornoch's path, moving into contention on the backstretch. Saez held Dornoch back, allowing Seize the Grey to lead. They finished the half-mile in 47.25. Sierra Leone, the favorite, was far behind in ninth, saving energy for a late rally.

At the three-quarters mark (1:10.67), Seize the Grey and Dornoch led the race, leaving Resilience behind. Mindframe started to chase the leaders, while The Wine Steward, a New York-bred, struggled in the middle. Antiquarian advanced from behind. Sierra Leone was last after one mile (1:35.51) and had to move wide in the turn. Dornoch overtook Seize the Grey and went 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 close to winning, with Mindframe, trained by Todd Pletcher, threatening to overtake him. But Mindframe, ridden by Ortiz, Jr., veered off course, while Dornoch stayed on the rail.

Mindframe managed to close the gap, and Sierra Leone made a late charge, but Dornoch held them off to win the race. The final time was 2:01.64.

Mindframe was one length ahead of Sierra Leone, with Honor Marie another four lengths back. Mindframe, Sierra Leone, Honor Marie, Antiquarian, Protective, Seize the Grey, Mystik Dan, The Wine Steward and Resilience were the finishing order.

This was the second Belmont Stakes win for Saez, who also won in 2021. Saez, originally from Panama, said Dornoch was strong throughout the race.

“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, after a problematic 10th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, participated in the Belmont Stakes. In a field of 20, he started from the inside post. He faced multiple interruptions and checks before making a late bid. He finished significantly behind Mystik Dan, driven by Brian Hernandez, Jr.

"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 rode in all of Dornoch's eight races except one, and stated that the mid-pack position was a critical factor 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's Triple Crown journey began last summer at the Spa, finishing second on his debut against Seize the Grey. Two starts later, he won at Keeneland and secured another victory in the Grade 2 Remsen in December at Aqueduct Racetrack. Despite losing the lead to Sierra Leone, he fought back to win.

This year, Dornoch won the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth using bold tactics. He then finished fourth in the Grade 1 Blue Grass, where he was rated by Saez and came behind Sierra Leone. These efforts in graded stakes earned him enough points to secure 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.”

Before the Belmont Stakes, Pletcher, who was also handling Antiquarian and Protective, stated his worry about Mindframe's limited experience. Mindframe had no losses in two starts, including a noteworthy last-out allowance win on Derby Day at Churchill Downs. After Mindframe showed signs of inexperience in the stretch, Pletcher confirmed his concerns were justified.

“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, who came in second last in the Kentucky Derby, raced with a cage bit for the first time to address steering issues that became apparent when she struggled in the stretch of the Derby. Her trainer, four-time Eclipse Award winner Chad Brown, said a rough start didn't help the 8-5 post-time favorite. This was her first race with jockey Flavien Prat.

“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."

Dornoch, bred in Kentucky by Grandview Equine, was bought for $325,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. He won $1.2 million in the Belmont Stakes, increasing his total earnings to $1,752,275. He has a record of 8-4-2-0 and his $2 win wager paid out $37.40.

Racing continues at Saratoga on Sunday, marking the end of the four-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival. The day starts with the Grade 1 Beverly R. Steinman Hurdle Handicap, followed by the New York Showcase Day featuring six state-bred stakes worth $900,000. The main events are two nine-furlong $200,000 races for 3-year-olds and up: the Commentator and the Critical Eye for fillies and mares. The first race starts at 12:50 p.m. Eastern.