Belmont Park Report



Jose Espinoza's first career Grade 1 victory, aboard Mission Approved in last month's Manhattan Handicap at Belmont Park, was a long time coming for the 41-year-old jockey and made him that much more desirous of competing in top-level races.

'I was very excited,' Espinoza said in a recent interview. 'I'd like to ride more horses and better horses.'

Espinoza will seek his second Grade 1 victory when he rides Mission Approved back in Saturday's $600,000 Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park. It was in last year's Man o' War when Espinoza nearly won his first Grade 1 leading every step of the way aboard Mission Approved, then a 53-1 longshot, before getting run down in the final jump by Gio Ponti. Mission Approved, trained by Naipual Chatterpaul, beat Gio Ponti in the Manhattan and will have to face the multiple Eclipse champion again on Saturday.

For Espinoza, the Manhattan was the biggest of his 767 career victories in North America. It was his 11th career graded stakes win and first since Jan. 30, 2005, when he won the Grade 3 Aqueduct Handicap aboard Country Be Gold.

Espinoza grew up in Mexico City, Mexico, and followed his brother Victor to Southern California in the mid-1990's following a successful stint in Canada in 1995 at Northlands Park, where Jose won 20 races as an apprentice. Espinoza couldn't catch on in Southern California, and he and his brother agreed that one of them should try a different circuit. Jose Espinoza had some success Emerald Downs in Washington in the summer of 1996, before moving to New York in the fall of that year.

Espinoza had two standout years, winning more than 80 races in 1999 and 2001. After each of those years, Espinoza tried riding in Saudi Arabia, but in 2002 he opted out of a four-year contract just four months into it because he didn't like the lifestyle change.

For the last six years, Espinoza has averaged 42 wins a year, winning rich races out of town on New York-based horses Evening Attire and Interpatation. Through the first half of this year, Espinoza has won 32 races, the majority of which have returned double-digit prices.

'I'm very excited when I win on longshot horses, but I ride the same way on any kind of horse,' said Espinoza, who is represented by agent Mike Monroe. 'Every win for me is exciting, even if it's cheap races, I feel the same. The other day I won the Grade 1 it was special for the horse and trainer because the horse was off for 11 months. I give all the credit to the horse.'
Espinoza said he had worked Mission Approved several weeks in a row on the turf and knew he was ready to run a big race after working him a mile in 1:37.68 over the Belmont turf course a week before the Manhattan.

'I said no question about it, he's ready,' Espinoza said. 'Chatterpaul asked me, 'Jose, what do you think?' I said he's ready for one mile, one mile and a half, whatever. He's laughing. He said, 'I know it too, Jose, I know he's ready.' '

Espinoza, who worked Mission Approved a mile in 1:41.36 last Saturday, hopes Mission Approved is ready to fire another big race on Saturday.


When last seen in North America, Bank Merger won the $250,000 Gallant Bob Stakes at Parx Racing, capping a brief, but successful, 3-year-old campaign for Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stable and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.

After a fruitless winter racing over the synthetic surface of Dubai's Meydan Racecourse, Bank Merger returns to North America and – perhaps, more importantly – dirt to try to jump-start his career in Friday's third-level allowance feature at Belmont Park. The 6 1/2-furlong race, which also carries an optional claiming tag of $75,000 will go as race 5 on a nine-race program that begins at 3 p.m. This is the second of three 'Party at the Park' programs at Belmont scheduled to feature live entertainment in addition to food and drink specials.

In 2009, Bank Merger won his debut at Monmouth Park. He was away from the races for 11 months when he returned to take a first-level allowance race at Saratoga. That prompted his connections to try the Grade 1 King's Bishop, where he finished second to Discreetly Mine, who was winning his third consecutive graded stakes. Bank Merger then won the Gallant Bob by a neck over the promising Rule by Night.

Bank Merger wintered in Dubai, where, racing for Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin outfit, he put in two non-competitive races over the Tapeta surface at Meydan.

'I don't think he showed a whole lot in his training, and he didn't do much running in either one of his races,' said Rick Mettee, assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor, for whom Bank Merger now races. 'Since he's been back, he's been pretty straightforward, he's trained well. This is a good spot to see where we are at with him.'

Bank Merger shows five works for his return, including a five-furlong move in 1:00.60 last Friday that was the best of 12 at the distance.

'Kiaran tells me he runs a little better than he works,' said Mettee, who will give a leg up to Alan Garcia from post 5.

Have You Ever looks like the horse to catch under Javier Castellano. After successfully being utilized as a rabbit for stablemate Calibrachoa in the Grade 3 Tom Fool in March, Have You Ever has won two of three starts, including a starter handicap here May 29 where he carved out solid fractions and won by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:09.17.

'The horse has been training well,' trainer Todd Pletcher said. 'Obviously, his last race was very good, so I'm happy with that. I think he's somewhat one-dimensional, no need to change.'

Just Hold On, who beat Have You Ever at Belmont on May 15, has upset potential. Strapping Groom and Delaunay complete the field.

by David Grening


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