First Look: 2016 Saratoga Meet

songbird summertime Benoit Photo
Benoit Photo

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith perched upon undefeated champion filly Songbird wearing the Fox Hill Farm red-and-white silks set against the backdrop of the red-and-white awnings of Saratoga Race Course may be a serene way to kick off 40 days of pure horse racing bliss this summer in upstate New York.

With the announcement from trainer Jerry Hollendorfer that Songbird may point to a summer campaign at Saratoga that could start with the Grade-1 Coaching Club American Oaks (CCAO) on July 24, the anticipation for the start of the country’s premiere horse racing meet has started to grow to a fevered pitch.

With the opening weekend headliner possibly being Songbird, the opening day card on Friday, July 22, cannot get her quick enough, but there’s more to look forward to on opening weekend and throughout the summer meet.

Here’s a week-by-week “first look” of the top horses expected in some of the sixteen Grade-1 stakes to be run this summer at Saratoga. The obvious disclaimer is that “anything can happen in horse racing” and some of the prospective horses for the races described below may not enter these races due to unforeseen issues, but here’s what we can possibly expect to see this summer at “The Spa.”

Opening Weekend (July 22 – 25)

Opening day Friday, July 22, will feature the Grade-2 Lake George for three-year old fillies on the turf and Grade-3 Schuylerville for the juvenile fillies on the dirt. The Lake George will feature fillies that may by-pass the Belmont Oaks on July 9th and undoubtedly will feature a few entries from trainer Chad Brown, who was second in the overall trainer standings at Saratoga in 2015. The Schuylerville may feature recent non-graded Astoria winner Bode’s Dream, for 2015 leading trainer Todd Pletcher.

The card on Saturday, July 23, will feature the Grade-1 Diana and the Brown-trained Dacita will point to the top turf race for older fillies and mares at the meet. After nipping champion mare Tepin last year by a head to win the Grade-2 Ballston Spa last summer at Saratoga in her U.S. debut, Dacita went on a three-race losing streak, but scored at Belmont on June 10 winning the Grade-2 New York Stakes.

Other fillies and mares that top trainer Chad Brown may look to enter in the Diana include Mrs. McDougal and Rainha da Bateria, who ran third and seventh, respectively, in the recent Grade-1 Just a Game at Belmont on June 11. The impressive winner of the Just a Game, Celestine, will most likely try to add another Grade-1 win to her resume for Bill Mott in this spot.

As mentioned above, the Sunday, July 24 card may be headlined by Songbird in the CCAO. She returned to impressively win the Grade-2 Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita on June 18 after having to skip the Grade-1 Kentucky Oaks due to a fever. The winner of the Kentucky Oaks, Cathryn Sophia, may be looking for a much-anticipated showdown with Songbird, but some of the luster may be off the matchup after Cathryn Sophia finished third in the Grade-1 Acorn on June 11 at Belmont.

With Songbird pointed to the CCAO, trainers will need to determine if they want to challenge the champ at 1 & 1/8 mile in that race or look at the seven-furlong Grade-1 Test two weeks later on August 6. Trainers with top fillies that will need to make that decision include Bill Mott with Acorn winner Carina Mia and Pletcher with second-place Acorn finisher Off the Tracks (2015 Schuylerville winner as a two-year old at Saratoga). Other top three-year old fillies pointed to Saratoga include Land Over Sea, Weep No More and Go Maggie Go.

Saratoga Week #2 (July 27 – August 1)

With the three-year old fillies headlining opening weekend, the three-year old males will get their chance to steal the spotlight in week 2 of the Saratoga meet. The non-graded Curlin Stakes on July 29 may feature promising star and Preakness fourth place finisher Stradivari for Pletcher.

The big guns in the three-year old male division will be out in force, though, on the next day in the Grade-2 Jim Dandy Stakes. After showing the wear of the Triple Crown trail, Preakness winner Exaggerator was flat finishing eleventh in the Grade-1 Belmont Stakes and will look to bounce back to start his summer campaign. Exaggerator’s last win on a fast track was at Saratoga last year as a two-year old in the Grade-2 Saratoga Special, so he may be getting back to one of his favorite surfaces.

Resting on the sidelines since a strong fourth in the Kentucky Derby, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin will have Mohaymen ready to fire in the Jim Dandy in his return, as Mohaymen has been training already in Saratoga at the Greentree Training Facility.

The Pletcher-trained Destin may either point for the Jim Dandy or the Grade-1 Haskell at Monmouth Park on July 31 after his tough luck loss by a nose in the Belmont Stakes.

Trainer Christophe Clement has said that the Jim Dandy will be the “most logical choice” for Governor Malibu, after his traffic-troubled fourth in the Belmont Stakes.

Another pointing to the Jim Dandy is impressive allowance winner Connect, who beat elders on the Belmont Stakes undercard for Chad Brown and can be a possible “value play.”

The Grade-3 Shuvee on Sunday, July 31, for older routing females on the dirt may feature two Pletcher trainees looking to bounce back in Curalina and Stopchargingmaria. The Grade-1 Ogden Phipps on June 11 at Belmont Park was disappointing for both, as Curalina and Stopchargingmaria finished fourth and sixth, respectively. Both have past wins at Saratoga and Stopchargingmaria will be looking to win for the fourth year in a row at Saratoga. Curalina’s win in the CCAO last year via disqualification was one of the most controversial moments of the meet.

Saratoga Week #3 (August 3 – 8) – Whitney Festival

A highlight of the Saratoga meet will be the induction of fan favorites Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame on August 5, but tickets will be tough to come by for the event.

The next day, August 6, is Whitney Festival and will bring together the top older dirt males on the East Coast for the Grade-1 Whitney. After demolishing the Grade-1 Metropolitan Handicap (“Met Mile”) at Belmont on June 11, Frosted will most likely headline the Whitney off a 56-day lay-off and see if he can stretch back out to the two-turn, 1 & 1/8 mile distance. Frosted ran second in the Jim Dandy and an early pressing third in the Grade-1 Travers last year, so he has shown the ability to run well over the Saratoga oval.

The other Grade-1 stakes on Whitney Day will be the Test for three-year old fillies. As mentioned above, some of the fillies looking to “duck” Songbird may opt for this spot with a $500,000 purse, which is considerably more than the $300,000 offered in the CCAO. Anyone looking to duck Songbird, though, may get a stiff Test from super-fast filly Kareena, who ran “off the page” winning the ungraded Jersey Girl at 6 furlongs at Belmont Park on June 10 in near track record time. The stretch-out back to 7 furlongs in the Test will be the main question for the McLaughlin trainee.

Saratoga Week #4 (August 10 – 15)

The newly upgraded Grade-1 Fourstardave on August 13 highlights one of the lighter weeks of the Saratoga meet in Graded Stakes. The weekend could get a major boost, though, if 2015 champion turf female Tepin returns to the U.S. from her Group-1 Queen Anne win at Royal Ascot on June 14 to contest the turf mile Fourstardave. As arguably the world’s top turf miler in training (male or female), a trip back to Saratoga would make sense for the Mark Casse barn, but it should be noted that Tepin’s two losses at Saratoga last year were her only losses in her last 12 races. A nose loss in the Diana and head loss in the Ballston Spa in 2015 are Tepin’s only blemishes since March 2015. During that span, Tepin has won five Grade/Group-1 races including the aforementioned Queen Anne and Breeder’s Cup Mile, both against her male contemporaries. Early word from the Casse barn is that Tepin will target the Woodbine Mile on September 17, but we can hold out hope that plans change and she pops up at Saratoga.

If Tepin skips the Fourstardave, Ironicus may be the top choice for Hall-of-Fame trainer Shug McGaughey who has said he will point his Grade-1 Manhattan second-place finisher to the Fourstardave. After running second in the Fourstardave in 2015, Ironicus closed out the Saratoga meet last year by winning the Grade-2 Bernard Baruch, so there is no doubt that his affinity for the Saratoga grass will make him a tough beat at “The Spa” in 2016.

Saratoga Week #5 (August 17 – 22)

The August 20 card will be highlighted by another huge Grade-1 for the three year old fillies in one of the top races of the meet in the Alabama. Songbird is being targeted for the Alabama, so if she performs well in the CCAO, this will be another big day at the track.

The non-graded Troy on Alabama Day will bring together a field of the top turf sprinters in the game including possibly Grade-3 Jaipur winner Pure Sensation. Trainer Christophe Clement may target the non-graded Lucky Coin on July 25 and/or the Troy for his top turf sprinters from a barn with some of the top turf horses in the game.

Saratoga Week #6 (August 24 – 29) – Travers Weekend

Songbird may be looking to steal some of the spotlight during the Saratoga meet, but the highlight of the meet will always be the Grade-1 Travers Stakes, nicknamed “The Mid-Summer Derby.” With NYRA recently “super-sizing” the Travers Day card (to be held this year on August 27), it has become one of the biggest days in racing across the country during the whole summer. With six Grade-1 stakes and one Grade-2, the day will bring together the top horses across almost all the major divisions in horse racing.

Belmont Stakes winner Creator is targeting the Travers after he takes a short break. He will join the fray of three-year olds coming out of the Jim Dandy and Haskell. Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist may be pointing to the Haskell first and then the Travers would be a logical target race for him, if all goes well during his return from a high-temperature that forced him to miss the Belmont Stakes. In a tight three-year old male division, the Travers winner may decide who is the year-end division Eclipse award champion.

The Grade-1 Sword Dancer on Travers Day may be the next landing spot for disputably the best long distance turf horse in the world in Flintshire. After professionally taking the Grade-1 Manhattan on June 11, trainer Chad Brown will pick his spots for Flintshire and may also be looking at the Grade-1 Arlington Million. Flintshire completely crushed the 2015 Sword Dancer field, so there is no doubt that he can dominate again over the Saratoga turf, especially if he gets firm footing.

Recent Grade-1 Ogden Phipps winner Cavorting will target the Grade-1 Personal Ensign on Travers Day, according to trainer McLaughlin. She dominated at shorter distances at Saratoga in 2015 winning twice in the Test and Grade-2 Prioress as a three-year old. With her recent success stretching out, the Personal Ensign will be an interesting exam against some of the top fillies and mares in racing.

Trainer Simon Callaghan has said that he will target the Grade-1 Ballerina on Travers Day for his top female sprinter Taris. After drawing off to win the Grade-1 Humana Distaff on May 7 at Churchill Downs, the next start for Taris was planned as a shot against her male competition in the Grade-1 Triple Bend at Santa Anita on June 25. She will be forced to miss that race with a sore foot, though, but should be ready for a summer campaign on the East Coast.

Other stakes on Travers’ Day will include the Grade-1 King’s Bishop for three-year old sprinters on the dirt, the Grade-1 Forego for older male sprinters on the dirt and the Grade-2 Ballston Spa for fillies and mares on the turf.

Closing Week (August 31 – September 5)

Closing week at Saratoga ending on Labor Day will feature three Grade-1, three Grade-2 and two Grade-3 stakes races, so there is plenty to look forward to even in the dawning hours of the meet.

The Grade-1 Woodward on September 3 will undoubtedly bring together some of the top older male horses that come out of the Whitney. One older male horse to watch this summer will be Mubtaahij starting a U.S. campaign for new trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Mubtaahij ran second to 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome in the Group-1 Dubai World Cup in March of this year. He will be targeting the Grade-2 Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park on July 9. If he runs well there and his connections look for a longer lay-off, the Woodward may be a possible landing destination.

“The Summer Place to Be”

This “first look” is just scratching the surface of what will undoubtedly be another fun and competitive horse racing meet at Saratoga. Two-year old racing is always a great part of the meet and the stars of tomorrow will shine in races like the Grade-1 Spinaway and Grade-1 Hopeful on closing weekend.

Saratoga is definitely the “summer place to be” and will have all your coverage, so if you’re unable to make it to the track, then keep your eyes open for updates throughout the summer. Also, feel free to follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim for updates and additional previews in the coming weeks.

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