Forty days of pure horse racing bliss is less than a month away.
The 154th meet at historic Saratoga Race Course starts on Friday, July 21, through Labor Day and will bring together most of the best horses, trainers, and jockeys in the country.
This year’s meet will need to live up to the expectations that have built up over the past two seasons, though.
The horse-crazed town in upstate New York was turned into “PharoahToga” in 2015 when Triple Crown winner American Pharoah ran in the Travers Stakes, losing to Keen Ice in one of the biggest sports upsets this century.
Last year’s meet featured two-time Eclipse Award-winning champion Songbird dominating two Grade 1 Stakes races (the Coaching Club America Oaks and the Alabama) after shipping in from California to spend most of her summer at “The Spa.” The 2016 summer was punctuated by the break-out performance by Arrogate running the fastest Travers EVER, catapulting him into worldwide superstardom and a record $17 million in earnings.
Even though Songbird and Arrogate may not show up at Saratoga this summer, there are many other top horses, such as the 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and top older horses Gun Runner and Lady Eli, planning to race.
To highlight all of the top horses expected to run at the meet, here’s Part 1 of a “First Look” highlighting the first three weeks of top Stakes racing this summer at Saratoga:
Opening Weekend (July 21 to 24)
Saratoga’s Opening Day features two Graded Stakes headlining the card: the Grade 3 Lake George for 3-year-old fillies on the turf and the Grade 3 Schuylerville for juvenile fillies on the dirt. The famed Saratoga “baby races” will start off with the Schuylerville, which may be a rematch of the top two finishers from the non-graded Astoria Stakes at Belmont on June 8 if winner I Still Miss You faces off against runner-up Best Performance again.
The Jeremiah Engelhart-trained I Still Miss You is a perfect 2-for-2 in her career after winning the Astoria at 5 1/2 furlongs in gate-to-wire fashion. The plan for Engelhart is to stretch out his New York-bred daughter of Majestic Warrior to 6 furlongs in the Schuylerville.
Trainer Christophe Clement has said that Best Performance would either next target the Schuylerville or the Grade 2 Adirondack on August 12 at Saratoga. The Broken Vow filly impressed in her debut win at Belmont on May 17 and was closing late to get second in the Astoria.
The non-graded Kentucky Juvenile Stakes winner Buy Sell Hold is possible for the Schuylerville for Hall-of-Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. The filly beat the boys in that 5-furlong Churchill stakes race on May 4 and has put in two recent works at Churchill.
The biggest star of opening weekend will be Lady Eli if she runs in the Grade 1 Diana on Saturday, July 22, as planned. The Diana’s 1 1/8 mile distance on turf fits perfectly for Lady Eli, who took the Grade 1 Gamely at Santa Anita over the same distance on May 27. Lady Eli’s heartwarming story of being stricken with laminitis after her 2015 Grade 1 Belmont Oaks win, then overcoming that often-fatal illness to continue winning Grade 1 races, has made her a fan favorite and a true inspiration. Lady Eli has won 8 of her 11 career starts for 2016 Saratoga trainer title winner Chad Brown. Lady Eli has shown a liking for this track, breaking her maiden here in 2014, then making her long-awaited return last summer in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa, finishing a game second off of an almost 14 month layoff.
Brown has a slew of top turf fillies and mares, and he may also enter the Grade 1 Just A Game winner Antonoe in the Diana. Since coming to the United States for owners Juddmonte Farms, Antonoe is undefeated in two starts from the Brown barn, including her rail-skimming closing burst to win the Just A Game on the Belmont Stakes undercard on June 10. Antonoe and Lady Eli recently worked in company at Belmont on June 25 as they prepare for a possible stablemate showdown.
Brown won the Diana last year with the Chilean-bred Dacita, who is a perfect two-for-two in her career at Saratoga, including a win over champion turf mare Tepin in the 2015 Ballston Spa. After her recent sixth-place finish in the Grade 2 New York Stakes on June 9 at Belmont, she has yet to put in a workout, and there is no word if she will defend her championship.
The other two major stakes of opening weekend will both be run on the dirt. The Grade 3 Sanford will be held on July 22 for juveniles at 6 furlongs, while the Grade 1 Coaching Club America Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/8 miles will be contested on July 23.
Week 2 (July 26 – July 31)
The non-graded Curlin Stakes for 3-year olds at 1 1/8 miles has been a key prep for Travers runners in recent years, producing the 2014 Travers winner V.E. Day and multiple Grade 1 winner Connect last year.
This year, “Patch Mania” may engulf The Spa if the one-eyed wonder Patch runs in the Curlin on Friday, July 28. Patch became a national story leading up to the Kentucky Derby because he lost his left eye as a foal during an accident. Patch could only muster a 14th-place finish in the Derby but returned to finish a valiant third in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes on June 10. Trainer Todd Pletcher said after that race that he would point Patch to the Curlin.
Another high-profile horse that may target the Curlin Stakes is Emancipation, full brother to 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb. After closing like a rocket to win his debut maiden race at almost 30/1 odds on June 9 at Belmont, trainer Shug McGaughey told Daily Racing Form that he would look for a first-level allowance, then target the Curlin.
Trainer Graham Motion may target his non-graded Sir Barton Stakes winner No Mo Dough to the Curlin, too. No Mo Dough split horses before going six-wide to win the Sir Barton on the Preakness Day undercard at Pimlico on May 20. Motion will target either the Curlin or the Grade 2 Jim Dandy on Saturday, July 29, off of a freshener for No Mo Dough.
Awesome Saturday, for trainer Brett Calhoun, is another that may enter the Curlin, though he may instead opt for the Indiana Derby on July 15 at Indiana Grand. The Indiana Derby would be a 20-day turnaround off of Awesome Saturday’s impressive allowance win on June 25 at Churchill Downs at 1 1/16 miles. Awesome Saturday was previously second to No Mo Dough in an allowance race on the Derby Day undercard.
Dandiest of Them All
The Grade 2 Jim Dandy may be a real doozy and could be one of the meet’s most memorable races.
At 1 1/8 miles, the Jim Dandy is the main local prep for the Travers each year. This edition may bring together one of the best fields in the history of the race, as all three Triple Crown race winners are targeting the race. Pletcher has said that he may point both his Kentucky Derby winner, Always Dreaming, and his Belmont Stakes winner, Tapwrit, to the Jim Dandy. Brown’s Preakness winner, Cloud Computing, is also targeting the Jim Dandy.
If each runs in the Jim Dandy, it will be the first time in the history of the 54-year-old race that three separate Triple Crown race winners all run in the Jim Dandy.
Always Dreaming will need to bounce back after a disappointing eighth-place finish in the Preakness after he was pressed early by eventual runner-up Classic Empire. Was it the two-week layoff from his Derby win that caused him to get tired late, or did he peak along the “Pletcher Progression” in the Derby and now may not be able to regain his top form? Either way, Pletcher will need to perform another masterful training job to get Always Dreaming back to his dominant Derby performance.
On the other hand, the lightly-raced Cloud Computing may still be progressing, and we may not have yet seen his peak performance, as he won the Preakness in only his fourth career start. Brown has handled Cloud Computing with care, announcing almost immediately after the Preakness that he would skip the Belmont Stakes to focus on this Jim Dandy try.
Pletcher may look to run Tapwrit in the Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth on July 30 in order to split up his top 3-year old colts, but right now, Tapwrit looks like he’s Dandy-bound. Tapwrit looked like he could run all day in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont and will make a big cutback to 1 1/8 miles here. He was much closer to the early pace in the Belmont than he was in many of his previous starts, so regular rider Jose Ortiz may need to use similar tactics with the shorter distance. Of note, the $1.2 million Tapit colt flopped at Saratoga in his debut last September, finishing 10th, but that was a long time ago, and he’s improved significantly since then.
A colt that was successful at Saratoga last summer is Gunnevera, who won the Grade 2 Saratoga Special last August. Gunnevera used that race to spring board himself into two more Graded Stakes wins, including the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth this year. After a seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, he returned to finish 5th in the Preakness, but he bled that race, so who knows how he will bounce back. Trainer Antonio Sano freshened him and is looking for big performances in the Jim Dandy and Travers this summer.
Also on the Jim Dandy card is the Grade 1 Vanderbilt at 6 furlongs for the top sprinters in the country. The Grade 1 Belmont Sprint Championship on July 8 will be a key race to watch for horses that may turn around quickly for the Vanderbilt.
Week 3 (August 2 to 7)
The $1.2 million Grade 1 Whitney on August 5 is a Breeder’s Cup “Win & You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and will bring together some of the best older horses in the country, headlined by multiple Grade 1 winner Gun Runner. Finishing second behind Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup cemented Gun Runner as the unanimous #2 older dirt male in training. He supported that case with a dominant win in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 17. Asmussen shipped Gun Runner to Saratoga on June 27 to get him settled early at a track where he ran a very tough third in last year’s Travers.
Gun Runner’s biggest challenge will most likely come from fellow Grade 1 winners Shaman Ghost, Cupid, and Mor Spirit.
Both Shaman Ghost and Cupid are first targeting the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap on July 8 at Belmont, so the fallout from that race will determine if they return from a four-week layoff for the Whitney. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens has been pointing Shaman Ghost towards the Whitney for most of the year after he finished second to Arrogate in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup back in January. Since then, Shaman Ghost flew out to California to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap in March and the Grade 3 Pimlico Special in a tight finish in mid-May. His win in last year’s Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga was his first career Grade 1 win and showed that he may have a liking for the Saratoga strip.
The Bob Baffert-trained Cupid returned off of a nine-month layoff to surprisingly dominate the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita on May 27. Baffert is not afraid to ship Cupid, whose resume includes wins in the West Virginia Derby, the Indiana Derby, and the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. The key with Cupid is to see how he runs in the Suburban and if Baffert will be willing to run both he and Mor Spirit in the Whitney. Baffert is loaded with top older male horses, including Arrogate, Danzing Candy, and Collected (who is also possible for the Whitney after his Grade 3 Precisionist win at Santa Anita on June 24), so the Triple Crown-winning trainer will try to find the best spots to keep them separated.
Baffert will look to stretch Mor Spirit back out to two turns after his ultra-impressive win in the Grade 1 Met Mile on Belmont Stakes Day. Mor Spirit sat off of the moderate pace set by Sharp Azteca and pounced in the stretch, drawing off to win by over 6 lengths. Even though the Met Mile brought together a good group of older males, the Whitney may be a class test for Mor Spirit, who was a step below the top competition at longer distances and two turns last year.
Baffert will also have a good shot in the other Grade 1 on Whitney Day, The Test, for 3-year-old fillies at 7 furlongs. He’s expected to ship the Grade 2 Summertime Oaks winner Faypien to Saratoga. Faypien has won three out of her four lifetime starts, but all have been at Santa Anita Park.
The Rest of the Summer
Grade 1s such as the Fourstardave, the Alabama, the Travers, the Personal Ensign, and the Woodward are just a few of the races that will fill out the rest of the summer at Saratoga.
Part 2 of this series will preview top horses like Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman (targeting the Alabama), Forever Unbridled (targeting the Personal Ensign) and Mind Your Biscuits (targeting the Forego).
Keep up-to-date with all of the Saratoga news by following me @SaratogaSlim on Twitter.