Zhukova, by Fastnet Rock out of a daughter of the mighty Galileo, will try to beat the boys in Saturday’s G1 Man o’War Stakes
John D. Murrell’s European invader Zhukova is calm, cool, and collected – and ready to take on the boys in Saturday’s Grade 1, $ 400,000 Man o’ War at Belmont Park, said Mark Weld on Friday morning at Belmont Park.
Despite making her first start outside of the United Kingdom, Weld, the assistant trainer to his father Dermot, said it’s familiar territory for the 5-year-old Irish-bred mare by Fastnet Rock. She’s won six of her nine career starts, including two in 2016 against males, and has already faced many of Europe’s top turf stars, most notably with a victory over 2015 Breeders’ Cup Turf and 2016 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Found in the open-company Alleged Stakes in 2016 at the Curragh.
Zhukova closed out her 4-year-old season in the Group 1 British Champions at Ascot in October, where the ground came up too firm for her liking, Dermot said, and she faded to seventh. She made her first start of the year in the Noblesse Stakes at Cork on April 15, where she drew off to a two-length win for Weld, who won the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes with Go and Go in 1990 and the Grade 1 Flower Bowl in 2003 with Dimitrova.
“Last year was a very strong year for her,” he said. “She started the year beating Found at the Curragh. She went on and subsequently beat other European Group 1 winners in a Group 3 after that at Naas in an Oaks trial. She’s off to a nice start this year, and a trip to the States was very much in the cards after that. I think it’s no secret that my father has always had a soft spot for Belmont. It’s a track that’s very suited to the Europeans and it’s a track that only good horses tend to win on as well.
“From Ascot, Cork, Naas, Leopardstown, and the Curragh, they’re like Belmont; they’re all very open-running, galloping tracks,” he added. “She really gallops and stays, that’s what she does, and she has a nice turn of foot as well when she needs it.”
Zhukova has been primarily under the care of her groom, Caroline Cashman, since her arrival last week. She cleared quarantine without incident, Weld said, and has adjusted to her new surroundings, taking a particular liking to “Lucky,” a 14-year-old retired Thoroughbred gelding owned by Juan Galvez, who was brought in to keep the mare company. The pair have been inseparable since, said Weld.
“She traveled over well on the plane, but when she got here, she got a little bit upset,” he said. “It was very new for her and she missed her companions, so getting the pony in was a master stroke, it was key. Some European horses don’t take to them because they’re not used to them, but she’s taken to him like a duck to water. It’s helped her unbelievably; it’s been a huge thing for her.
“We might have to bring him home,” he joked.
Weld noted that if all goes to plan, Zhukova, who was bred by Dermot’s late mother, would likely be pointed toward the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France at the end of the year, but the connections haven’t ruled out another start in North America, or even a try on dirt, following the positive reviews she’s received for her training over Belmont’s main dirt course.
“As a homebred, it’s very important to us to get the Grade 1 if we can,” he said. “It would be a huge achievement. This is a stepping stone for her. She’s got big targets in Europe for the second part of the year. The European racing season is weighted more towards the second part of the year, particularly in the fall. First things first, though, we’ve got to get over the Man o’ War.
“I imagine she’s going to have a holiday when she gets home,” he added. “I think she’ll get the month of June back at the farm and come back into training in July and then run at York in August. Then we’ll see from there where she goes, whether she goes to Paris, or comes back to the States or goes north to Canada for something. I’m intrigued with what Caroline and Juan saying about her on the dirt, so there could be another race here, who knows?”
Zhukova, 5-1 on the morning line, has drawn post 4 and will run on Lasix for the first time in the Man o’ War. Installed with the field’s low weight of 112 pounds, Hall of Famer John Velazquez has been named to ride.
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