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Aaron previews the 2023 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes (G1) from Saratoga, then gives his top picks & long shots. Trainer Bob Baffert ships graded stakes winners Arabian Lion & Fort Brag from his southern California base as he attempts to win the race for the 3rd time.
After his dominating Amsterdam Stakes (G2) victory, can the ultra-fast New York Thunder beat both Baffert boys? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert sends out a formidable duo in Grade 1-winner Arabian Lion and Grade 3-winner Fort Bragg to combat the scintillating speed of undefeated New York Thunder in Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial, a seven-furlong sprint for sophomores at Saratoga Race Course.
The H. Allen Jerkens Memorial, slated as Race 9, is one of five Grade 1 events on Saturday’s lucrative 13-race card which also features the $1.25 million Travers in Race 12, the $750,000 Resorts World Casino Sword Dancer, a “Win and You’re In” qualifier to the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf, in Race 11, the $500,000 Forego in Race 7 and the $500,000 Ballerina, which offers a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, in Race 10. First post is 11:40 A.M. Eastern.
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Zedan Racing Stables’ Arabian Lion [post 6, John Velazquez, 124 pounds] enters from a strong score in the seven-furlong Grade 1 Woody Stephens presented by Mohegan Sun on June 10 at Belmont Park.
The chestnut son of Baffert’s 2018 Triple Crown-winner Justify saved ground from fourth position through a half-mile in 45.64. He angled three-wide at the top of the lane to take command and edged clear to a 1 3/4-length score over the previously undefeated returning rival Drew’s Gold in a final time of 1:21.70. The visually-appealing win garnered a 109 Beyer Speed Figure.
That effort marked a second consecutive triple-digit figure  for Arabian Lion, who took the restricted 1 1/16-mile Sir Barton around two turns by four lengths over next-out allowance winner Tapit’s Conquest on the May 20 Preakness Day undercard at Pimlico Race Course.
Arabian Lion, who was second in the Grade 3 Lexington to kick off his sophomore season, has banked $437,600 through a record of 7-3-2-0. The $600,000 OBS Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training purchase is out of the stakes-placed Distorted Humor mare Unbound.
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Baffert said Arabian Lion’s versatility will give Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez plenty of options in a race expected to have swift splits.
“It all depends how fast they go early – pace makes the race,” Baffert said. “He showed the way around at Pimlico and his race in New York was impressive.”
Arabian Lion has breezed back extensively at Santa Anita and most recently at Del Mar where he worked five furlongs handily from the gate in a bullet 59.20 seconds.
“He hasn’t run in a bit and I just wanted to sharpen him up,” said Baffert, who won this race previously with Forestry  and Drefong , who went on to win that year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint and Eclipse Award honors as Champion Male Sprinter.
Fort Bragg [post 4, Joel Rosario, 120 pounds] enters from a game nose score over Saudi Crown in the Grade 3 Dwyer traveling a one-turn mile on July 1 at Belmont.
Owned by SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Robert E. Masterson, Stonestreet Stables, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital and Catherine Donovan, the Tapit bay was initially targeting the Woody Stephens but re-routed to the Dwyer after spiking a temperature.
Fort Bragg added blinkers for the Dwyer and after stumbling at the break he recovered quickly to track from second as the highly-regarded Saudi Crown rocketed through a half-mile in 44.63 and three-quarters in 1:08.84. He was angled four-wide for the stretch run and gained command at the eighth-pole but had to dig in gamely to fend off a resurgent Saudi Crown – the two rivals bumping near the sixteenth-pole – to secure a nose win in a final time of 1:35.37.
The effort earned Fort Bragg a career-best 106 Beyer and the resilient Saudi Crown exited that event to narrowly miss in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy here when a nose back of reigning Champion 2-Year-Old Colt Forte, who is the morning-line favorite in the Travers.
“He shipped and handled everything well that day,” said Baffert, regarding the Dwyer effort. “He’s maturing and getting better with age. He’s working well. We just have to hope the horse shows up.”
Fort Bragg, a maiden winner in November at Santa Anita, was fifth in the nine-furlong Grade 1 Florida Derby in April at Gulfstream Park before turning back in distance to finish a close second in the Grade 2 Pat Day Mile on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs when a neck back of General Jim.
Bred in Kentucky by SF Bloodstock and Henry Field Bloodstock, Fort Bragg is out of the stakes-winning New York-bred Shanghai Bobby mare March X Press. He was purchased for $700,000 at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Yearling Sale.
AMO Racing USA’s New York Thunder [post 5, Tyler Gaffalione, 122 pounds] missed the Woody Stephens with a bruised foot but was no worse for wear on his return with a powerful performance on July 28 in the Spa’s 6 1/2-furlong Grade 2 Amsterdam.
Trained by Jorge Delgado, the Nyquist colt made every pole a winning one under Tyler Gaffalione, blitzing through splits of 21.48 seconds and 43.56 over the fast main track.
New York Thunder opened up by three lengths at the stretch call, putting away odds-on favorite Drew’s Gold and romping to the wire a 7 1/2-length winner in a final time of 1:14.65. His six-furlong split of 1:07.77 is faster than Saratoga’s six-furlong track record of 1:07.92 set by Imperial Hint in the 2019 Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt, and the colt’s geared down final time was not far off of Quality Road’s track record of 1:13.74 set in the 2009 Amsterdam.
Delgado, the 33-year-old nephew of Grade 1 Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Gustavo Delgado, said the performance, which earned a field-best 110 Beyer, was one he will never forget.
“We had such high expectations for the race and you run all the scenarios in your mind of how the race will happen but, so far, that has been the most perfect race in my career,” Delgado said. “It was everything you want in a race in the same race – beating stakes-winning horses and winning in that fashion, it doesn’t happen every day.”
New York Thunder won his first two starts sprinting five furlongs at Gulfstream Park this winter – one on synthetic and the other on turf – before shipping to Woodbine in April to capture the Woodstock by 7 1/2-lengths over the Tapeta footing under Ricardo Santana, Jr.
Delgado said he is confident the talented bay will handle stretching out to seven furlongs for the first time.
“The riders that have been on him the last two times are experienced riders. Both Ricardo and Tyler told me that he could definitely go to a distance. I believe the same,” Delgado said. “He works like he can get to a mile, but that remains to be seen. Right now, we’re focusing on the seven-furlong race.”
New York Thunder was purchased for $130,000 at the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Bred in Kentucky by Gatewood Bell and Forgotten Land, New York Thunder is out of the Midshipman mare Start Over, who is a half-sister to graded stakes-placed Degree of Risk. His third dam, Surf Club, produced 2012 Grade 1 Forego-winner Emcee.
The regally-bred Verifying [post 3, Flavien Prat, 120 pounds] narrowly missed a Grade 1 score when second by a neck to Travers contender Tapit Trice in the nine-furlong Blue Grass in April at Keeneland for trainer Brad Cox.
Owned by Westerberg, Mrs. John Magnier, Jonathan Poulin, Derrick Smith and Michael B. Tabor, the Justify bay, out of the graded stakes-winning Repent mare Diva Delite, is a half-brother to 2019 Champion Older Dirt Female Midnight Bisou.
“The Blue Grass was very tough. I loved him that day and I honestly probably said too much – I told Coolmore I didn’t think he could be beat,” Cox said. “I told them I thought he had a Grade 1 in him. Hopefully, his Grade 1 will be Saturday. It would be big for the whole team and for the horse; he’s got a big pedigree.”
The $775,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase finished a pacesetting 16th in the Kentucky Derby in May at Churchill Downs and followed with a game second to Travers-contender Disarm in the nine-furlong Grade 3 Matt Winn on June 11 at Ellis Park.
Verifying enters from a prominent score engineered by Marcelino Pedroza, Jr. in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Indiana Derby on July 8 at Horseshoe Indianapolis when a nose better than graded stakes-winner Raise Cain.
“Marcelino Pedroza does a lot of work for us throughout the winter and I was glad to get a graded stake win with him,” Cox said. “He came back from the race and said, ‘I’m not sure this horse wants to go that far.’ I said, ‘I’m glad you said that because I’m not either.’”
Verifying, who graduated at first asking here on Travers Day last year, has breezed back four times over the Oklahoma training track, including a five-eighths effort in 1:00.60 Saturday.
“He’s been great and his works here over the Oklahoma have been phenomenal,” Cox said. “I’m really happy with the way he looks leading up to this. It’s a cutback, but I think he’s been asking for that for a little while. He’s going to get his opportunity and if he gets a good trip, I think he’s going to be tough. I’m excited.”
Rounding out a competitive field are dual graded stakes-placed Drew’s Gold [post 1, Jose Gomez, 118 pounds] for trainer and co-owner James Chapman; and Jonathan Kalman’s graded stakes-placed California-bred One in Vermillion [post 2, Luis Saez, 118 pounds] for conditioner Esteban Martinez.
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