While the Ortiz brothers have proven to be a lethal one-two punch in this year’s Belmont spring meet, it was all Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez’s day on the Belmont Independence Day card as he took both the $100,000 Manila Stakes on turf and the $100,000 State Dinner Stakes on the main track as well as two other races on the undercard.

With two entries in the five horse field in the inaugural State Dinner Stakes for older horses on dirt, Todd Pletcher made the predictable move of winning with one of them as Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners’ Comfort rallied from off the pace to win going away. Pacesetters Touchofstarquality and J S Bach made an early argument for the lead, setting early solid fractions of :23.49 and :46.41 with Touchofstarquality eventually taking command of the pace. Rounding the far turn, Comfort made his move from behind the pace and was just a touch behind the leader at the eighth pole. Asked for more, Comfort responded again late, passing Touchofstarquality in the waning moments of the State Dinner.

“He broke well and then half-way down the backstretch he picked it up pretty quickly,” Velasquez said. “I didn’t want to let him fall too far back. I just had to make sure I was close enough within range of the leader to make a good run and he did. At the quarter-pole I was right on him.
“When he started asking me in the stretch, he had something else,” he added. “He’s been good so far and hopefully maybe he can also get two turns [at Saratoga].”
A four-year-old son of Indian Charlie, Comfort returned to the races this year after a long layoff since being fourth in the 2015 running of the Lexington Stakes (III) at Keeneland, a race won by Divining Rod in which he finished fourth. He is now 3-for-3 this year after returning at Gulfstream Park West and then again at Belmont in May. With his first stakes victory now in hand at 1 1/16 miles, it’s not improbable to expect a graded stakes try from Comfort next out, although assistant trainer to Todd Pletcher, Byron Hughes, remains cautious.

“There are no immediate plans for him,” said Hughes. “We’ll see how he comes out of it and go from there.”

Comfort paid $6.40 as the 2-1 second choice, completing the 1 1/16 mile distance in 1:40.76.

Favored Touchofstarquality finished second followed by J S Bach, Elnaawi, and Dontbetwithbruno.

Sitting off the tail pacesetter Too Discreet in the early goings of the Manila Stakes for three-year-olds, Johnny V let Giant Run have his head turning for home, with the son of Giant’s Causeway responding tremendously in the stretch while holding off a rallying Strike Midnight and Rappel. Trainer Tom Albertrani, who has now guided the chestnut colt to a record of 10:3-3-1, saw the major improvement dropping down from a third place in the Penn Mile (III) last out.

“He’s a pretty versatile horse,” Albertrani said. “I know usually he’s broke and been on or near the lead, but today it’s just how the race unfolded. He broke sharp and just kind of ended up mid-pack.
“Johnny settled him great in a perfect spot and things went well from there. I still haven’t figured out what his best distance is – I don’t know if he’ll go further or shorter – but we’ll take a look how he comes out of the race and plan around that.”

Jockey Velazquez had envisioned the trip well in advance. “It was perfect. The other horse [Too Discreet] went to the lead like we anticipated and I sat right off of him. He relaxed well behind that other horse, and when I asked him, he exploded, so it was very nice. I liked the way he did it.”

Never worse than third this year after breaking his maiden at Gulfstream in January, Giant Run was a smart bet returning $16 for a $2 wager. He ran the one-mile length of the Manila Stakes in 1:32.85 on the Widener turf course for owners William Mack and Robert Baker.

Second choice Strike Midnight was second followed by longshot Rappel in third followed by Life Imitates Art, Conquest See Ya, Too Discreet, and Dig Deep.

Photo of John Velazquez courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese