by Sean Morris
Virtually mirroring a race run a month earlier over the same course, Catholic Boy and Analyze It captivated the crowd in the Grade 1, $1.2 million Belmont Derby Invitational - the Stars & Stripes Day main event at Belmont Park - with a suspenseful stretch-long duel that saw Catholic Boy hit the wire first to cap the last of five graded stakes on a stacked card.
The two sophomore turf specialists reignited a budding rivalry that began in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge on June 2 at Belmont, the local prep for the Belmont Derby, in which a resurgent Catholic Boy bested Analyze It after looking destined to finish second at the top of stretch, and the story was much the same on Saturday.
After Analyze It broke on the lead, Catholic Boy and Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano threw down the gauntlet, taking charge of the top spot heading into the clubhouse turn and pacing the field through splits of 24.47 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 49.20 for the half, and 1:13.38 for three-quarters with Analyze It waiting to pounce in second.
Making a nearly identical move to the one he launched in the Pennine Ridge, Analyze It, under Jose Ortiz, struck the front at the top of the stretch, but Catholic Boy was not to be denied. Although Analyze It led nearly every step of the Belmont inner turf course's stretch, a plucky Catholic Boy rallied back along the inside and stuck his head in front for good just a few jumps before the finish.
"What a stretch drive. My hats off to Analyze It, he ran super. It was a hell of a horse race," said Catholic Boy's trainer Jonathan Thomas. "He really has an awful lot of heart. I didn't expect him to fight back this time. I thought we were going to finish a really good second, somehow he got it done. He's always been a real generous training horse. You never know how they will respond in that scenario because we never put them in that situation in the mornings. Between his heart and Javier's ride what can you say? We had no instructions before the race. We just wanted him to ride him by gut instinct and do what he thought was best."
"It's the pinnacle," added Thomas, who picked up his first Grade 1 victory since striking out on his own in 2015. "It's one of those dreams you don't really think about until it happens. I'm happier for him because he's a deserving Grade 1 winner. He deserves it. I'm like a proud parent."
Chad Brown, trainer of runner-up Analyze It, who finished a head behind Catholic Boy, was equally magnanimous in defeat.
"This horse that won earned it," said Brown. "He came back and beat him [Analyze It], I don't have any excuse. It sure seems that [Analyze It idles], but I don't want to take anything away from the winner, because he still fought back and most horses wouldn't. I thought he ran a great race, the winner, but so did our horse. He just wasn't good enough."
Catholic Boy stopped the clock in 1:59.28 going 1 ¼ miles over the firm turf course. The winner's share of the purse bumped his bankroll to a robust $1.17 million for owners Robert LaPenta, Madaket Stables, Siena Farm and Twin Creeks Racing Stables.
Finishing third, 1 ¾ lengths behind Analyze It, was European shipper Hunting Horn for trainer Aidan O'Brien, who earlier on the card won the Belmont Derby's counterpart, the Belmont Oaks, with Athena. Following Hunting Horn, it was another four lengths back to Channel Cat in fourth, with Kingstar, Maraud, Hawkish, My Boy Jack and Encumbered completing the order of finish.
As for a possible revival of the nascent rivalry, Thomas kept it brief when discussing future plans for Catholic Boy.
"I don't know what's next. Definitely a bath and dinner. And a couple of pats," he said.