Man O' War Stakes preview featuring Aidan O'Brien duo Magic Wand and Hunting Horn

Magic Wand impresses at Chester
Magic Wand impresses at Chester

Jake Pearson looks ahead to the Man O' War Stakes at Belmont Park this weekend and feels Magic Wand doesn't offer much in the way of value.

Man O’ War Stakes (Grade 1) – Belmont Park

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1. Hunting Horn

Trainer: Aidan O’Brien Jockey: Michael Hussey

One of two Aidan O’Brien charges to make the trip from Ireland, Hunting Horn is already considered something of a globetrotter having competed in Dubai, France, America and Britain.

His form is solid without being impressive but he has kept pretty substantial company in his career so far having twice taken on the mighty Enable.

While this Camelot colt has been competing in some of the world’s top races, he has only won two contests in his career. Once at Ascot and once at Naas in a maiden. There have been some good performances such as the runner-up finish in the Prix Niel, along with his third in last year’s Belmont Derby, but this could yet again be a case of always the bridesmaid.

2. Zulu Alpha

Trainer: Michael Maker Jockey: Javier Castellano

This six-year-old had always been something of a fringe horse in terms of graded races. In the first two years of his racing career he only made two appearances in graded stakes, a tenth place finish in the Kentucky Turf Cup followed by 13th place in the River City Handicap.

He started off 2018 a little better picking up a few more victories and recording some plus 100 Equibase Speed Figures in the process. The end of the year saw him win his first graded race and that is where the revival began.

This season the son of Street Cry has competed in three graded races, winning two and finishing third in the final – where he recorded a career high graded Equibase Speed Figure of 115.

It seems odd to say about a horse with four years racing experience under his belt but this gelding could be the most improving horse in this field.

3. Village King

Trainer: Todd Pletcher Jockey: John Velazquez

Bred in Argentina, this Pletcher colt has already rubbed shoulders with a fair few of this field and could be key in finding the winner.

The five-year-old’s first outing of the season saw him finish seventh in the W.L. McKnight Handicap at Gulfstream Park. First that day was Zulu Alpha who won the race by half a lengths to Soglio. A further three ½ lengths back to third was Hunting Horn.

Next up was the Mac Diarmida Stakes in which Village King returned in fifth place. Winner of that race was again Zulu Alpha, solidifying the form line between the two, while third and fourth place were occupied by Kulin Rock and Channel maker respectively (both of whom go here).

Hi third and final race of his season prior to this outing was in Gulfstream’s Pan America Stakes. A better performance this time saw the son of Campanologist finish in third place. The winner that day was Focus Group who finished just over two lengths ahead of the Pletcher horse.

This would suggest that Focus Group and Zulu Alpha are the horses to beat but both recorded similar speed figures in their victories of Village King which leaves it very difficult to separate the two.

4. Arklow

Trainer: Brad Cox Jockey: Florent Geroux

In terms of US horses, Arklow probably sits just behind Focus Group and Zulu Alpha in terms of form here.

His runner-up finish to Zulu Alpha in the Sycamore at Keeneland is a very good piece of form and that was following his victory in the Kentucky Turf Cup. On this occasion he finished ahead of Soglio who has been beaten by both Zulu Alpha and Focus Group. On this form he isn’t too far behind either of them and that can be justified by his impressive fourth place finish in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf where he finished ahead of Hunting Horn and Channel Maker.

The concern surrounding this horse is he has only had one start in 2019 and that did not go to plan. An easy first run of the season in a Keeneland allowance was the plan but the horse unseated jockey Florent Geroux upon leaving the stalls.

This behaviour will be a worry but the colt has never really acted up like that before and connections will be hoping it was the exception and not the rule.

If he breaks well he has as good a chance as any in here.

5. Magic Wand

Trainer: Aidan O’Brien Jockey: Wayne Lordan

Magic Wand is the second of the O’Brien duo contesting for the Man O’ War Stakes and like his stablemate Hunting Horn, he is also something of a globetrotter with them both having competed in similar events.

The four-year-old filly is there more fancied of the two Irish runners and in truth will probably go off as favourite for the race.

The daughter of Galileo was last seen finishing a place behind Hunting Horn in the Dubai Sheema Classic where they finished fourth and fifth. I imagine O’Brien will have been quietly disappointed that neither of his charges came out on top in Meydan as it was a reasonably winnable race.

Before Meydan, Magic Wand was last seen putting in arguably the performance of her career as she finished runner-up to Bricks And Mortar in the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational at Gulfstream Park. This is particularly impressive as Bricks And Mortar has since recorded victories in the Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial at Fair Grounds before comfortably winning the Churchill Downs Turf Classic on Kentucky Derby day to assert himself as one of America’s top middle distance horses.

O’Brien’s horses arrived in America on Tuesday and connections are positive about their chances. Magic Wand has the ability in her to go close but I feel she may be pipped by one of the locals.

6. Focus Group

Trainer: Chad Brown Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.

As mentioned earlier, Focus Group already has pre-existing form with a few horses in this race; namely Channel Maker and Village King. It is fairly safe to ascertain that the son of Kitten’s Joy has the beating of those two but can he topple the O’Brien horses and Zulu Alpha?

There is little to separate the two fancied American horses in terms of horses they have beaten and speed figures recorded. Zulu Alpha is the more experienced of the two with Focus Group having only contested in two graded races, but he won the Pan America Stakes and came third in the Canadian International held at Woodbine.

Something Focus Group does have going for him that Zulu Alpha does not is his experience at Belmont Park. While Chad Brown’s five-year-old has four career starts at the New York racecourse, Zulu Alpha has none - having said that, the Kitten’s Joy horse has yet to record a victory there.

Focus Group is a consistent sort and has five wins and three thirds in his twelve career starts. Whether he has the class to compete in a field like this a as yet undetermined but it would be a brave punter to bet against him grabbing himself some place money.

7. Epical

Trainer: James Cassidy Jockey; Tyler Baze

Epical comes into this race a little under the radar despite his recent gate-to-wire victory in the San Luis Rey Stakes at Santa Anita. Before that he finished second in the San Marcos Stakes recording an impressive Equibase Speed Figure of 113.

The Uncle Mo colt in relatively lightly raced for a five-year-old having only had 11 career starts. Four of those have been victories however accompanied by two seconds and a third meaning he has only missed the board on four occasions.

James Cassidy’s four-year-old has speed figures to rival anyone in this race and if things go his way he could cause something of an upset. He is currently priced at double figures and that could be worth a bit of an each way punt.

8. Channel Maker

Trainer: William Mott Jockey: Joel Rosario

Over $1.5m is the current career earnings of this English Channel gelding. Channel maker’s CV is packed full of grade one events against the likes of Enable, Bricks And Mortar, Oscar performance, and so on. No doubt this is a horse of high stature.

The thing that is missing from his CV however is a collection of first places. For all his 23 starts against some of the world’s greatest horses, he has only ever managed four victories. He also only has four runner-up finishes to his name.

This race is not at the level of the Pegasus Turf Invitational or the Breeders’ Cup Turf – both of which he finished out of the placings – but this is still a field full of top horses and if Channel maker is going to add another win to his resume, he is going to have to put in a career best performance.

9. Kulin Rock

Trainer: Michael Maker Jockey: Kendrick Carmouche

Kulin Rock is the second Michael Maker horse in this contest and is likely second string to the well-fancied Zulu Alpha. The son of Lonhro is looking for his first stakes win after a mediocre carrer of place finished in allowance races.

On the face of it it would be quite easy to dismiss this horse as he has shown little in way of grade one winning ability in his career thus far. However, his third place finish to Zulu Alpha in the Grade Two Mac Diarmida Stakes makes you sit up and take notice. He had a nice run on the inside but he cantered to the front like a proper horse. He was eventually passed by his stablemate and the fast finishing Melmich but nonetheless he certainly outran his odds of 40/1.

He has since followed that performance up with a narrow victory in a Keeneland allowance race.

He will probably start the race as rank outsider and probably with good reason but purely based on his Mac Diarmida run there is some ability in there.

VERDICT

It would be a fool’s errand to dismiss either of the Aidan O’Brien invaders, especially considering the marvellous season he is having on home turf. However, Magic Wand is likely to go off a short priced favourite and she does not have enough in the bank to quite justify that for me. If you are partial to a Coolmore runner then Hunting Horn probably represents a little more value for money.

It is often seen though that foreign invaders fall short on occasions such as these and with $130,000 and $70,000 on offer for second and third place finishes respectively, it would not be deemed a failure should neither Irish horse come out on top.

The top two American horses are undoubtedly Zulu Alpha and Focus Group with a case for Arklow close behind. Choosing between these is difficult but I feel Zulu Alpha’s extra bit of experience will see him through. He is ever improving and could take the Man O’ War Stakes with some authority.


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