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2023 Saratoga Derby Preview & FREE Picks | Belmont Oaks Winner Aspen Grove Takes On The Boys
Aspen Grove (Jason Moran/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM)

2023 Saratoga Derby Preview & FREE Picks | Belmont Oaks Winner Aspen Grove Takes On The Boys

The Magic Mike Show guys preview the 2023 Saratoga Derby (G1) from Saratoga, then give their top picks & long shots. The Belmont Oaks (G1) winner Aspen Grove crosses over to face the boys after defeating her fellow 3-year-old fillies in her 1st North American racing test.

Will the deeper waters prove too tough for the daughter of Justify to traverse? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!

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The press release:

Saturday’s fifth edition of the Grade 1, $600,000 Saratoga Derby Invitational at Saratoga Race Course drew a field of nine 3-year-olds representing three nations to tackle 1 3/16 miles on the Mellon turf.

The Saratoga Derby is slated as Race 9 on Saturday’s stacked 12-race Whitney Day card. First post is 12:35 p.m. Eastern.

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LSU Stables’ Belmont Derby winner Far Bridge has boasted talent and trajectory for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who also conditioned his Champion sire English Channel. In five runs, he has three wins and a pair of seconds.

A maternal grandson of another Champion turf horse, Kitten’s Joy, he will be piloted from post 5 by Jose Ortiz, who is perfect in two trips aboard Far Bridge, including the Belmont Derby coup.

“He seems to improve a little each time he runs,” Pletcher said. “All of his races have been good so far and he worked out a good trip last time in the Belmont Derby. He will definitely appreciate more distance going forward.

“English Channels can be a little tricky to ride sometimes and he has that high head carriage in common with his father,” Pletcher continued. “One thing about them is they get better as they age and mature. I think he’s a horse we could see in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in the long run. He’s that kind of quality.”

Glen Hill Farm and Mrs. John Magnier’s Belmont Oaks heroine Aspen Grove [post 3, John Velazquez, 119 pounds], who cross-entered in Friday’s Grade 3 Saratoga Oaks Invitational, takes on the boys on the strength of her first top-level win.

A Group 3-winner at two, who was last-of-10 in May’s Group 1 Irish 1000 Guineas, she is trained by Fozzy Stack and is a daughter of Coolmore-based Triple Crown winner Justify.

“She seems to be doing really well and is already a Grade 1 winner, so we thought we would go for another Grade 1 that was worth more money,” said Craig Bernick, principal of Glen Hill Farm. “She was drawn wide in a bigger field in the Oaks and also gets some weight against the boys, so we thought it was worth a chance. The speed figures are going to say that the Belmont Derby was a faster race than the Belmont Oaks, but I thought she ran really well considering how slow the pace was and how she closed. We’ll line up and see.”

A second Irish raider comes in the form of Lindy Farms’ The Franchise [post 4, Luis Saez], who is trained by State of Rest’s conditioner, Joseph O’Brien. Graduating at fifth asking in a nine-furlong handicap last out on June 30, he is a son of Siyouni, sire of Wednesday’s Group 1 Sussex Stakes winner Paddington. The Franchise hails from a deep Daniel Wildenstein female family and is related to a pack of Group 1 horses, including Loup Sauvage, Loup Solitaire and Loup Breton.

“He’s a talented colt and he comes off the back of a good run at The Curragh,” O’Brien said. “I think he’ll like the firm track and he really likes a good pace to run at. If he gets the right setup, we are hoping he can get a share of the money.”

Another European of high regard and solid connections entering the fray is Qatar Racing’s Lion of War, a son of his ownership’s European Horse of the Year of 2018, Roaring Lion. From his late sire’s only North American crop, the emblazoned bay has three wins from nine starts and exits a strong second in the Golden Gate at Ascot over 10 furlongs, where he was a bit unlucky for running room when it mattered most. Two races back, he was a green, but successful victor in Musselburgh’s Edinburgh Cup over nine furlongs, carrying 131 pounds.

Oisin Murphy, who rode his brilliant sire, takes the reins from post 8.

Cheyenne Stable’s Christophe Clement-trained Mondego finished third after setting the pace in the Belmont Derby. The promising colt was making his stakes debut in the Grade 1 affair and returns to top-tier action in what will be his sixth start. Joel Rosario, aboard for his past four runs, including two victories, rides from the inside post.

Klaravich Stables and trainer Chad Brown, who teamed up to win this event in 2020 with Domestic Spending in just his fourth career start, will try to do one better with Program Trading [post 2, Flavien Prat], who races for the third time on Saturday. The bay ridgling won impressively on debut in May at Monmouth and then appeared to improve again when winning in Belmont optional-claiming company on June 25.

“He’s done everything right and keeps improving,” Brown said. “I believe more distance should be to his liking, as well.”

Both Mondego [$328,635] and Program Trading [$365,551] are sons of champion Lope de Vega who were purchased out of Book 1 of Tattersalls’ 2021 October Yearling Sale by bloodstock agent Mike Ryan.

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On the opposite side of the experience spectrum is D. J. Stable’s Mark Casse-trained Webslinger [post 6, Javier Castellano], a four-time winner from 10 starts, including Churchill Downs’ Grade 2 American Turf. The son of Constitution seeks to become a millionaire with a top-two finish in this spot, having earned more than 18 times his $50,000 auction price thus far. Last out, he was an unlucky fourth when closing wide in the Belmont Derby, beaten a dwindling 1 1/2-lengths.

“I thought his race in the Belmont Derby was good,” the Hall of Fame conditioner said. “He got shuffled back pretty good and had to come very wide and wound up getting the best number in the race. He kept trying, but has to get a better trip. These are tighter turns, but he did win at Churchill and those turns are sharper. The key is pace and a good trip and if he gets those, I believe he can win. He’s quite a nice, interesting horse. He doesn’t train great usually, but he’s training very well right now and he always comes to play.”

Another with ample graded form from the stateside team is West Point Thoroughbreds and Woodford Racing’s Battle of Normandy [post 7, Tyler Gaffalione], who conquered his debut maiden over the Saratoga turf one year ago. Subsequently second in Saratoga’s Grade 3 With Anticipation and fifth in Keeneland’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, he has a pair of rallying seconds in allowance company under Irad Ortiz, Jr. at Keeneland and Pimlico this season for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey.

“He’s a closer and I think distance is going to help him,” McGaughey said. “At Keeneland, Irad said he couldn’t get him to where he wanted to get him until late, and then he finished up good. Down at Pimlico, that horse [Evan Harlan, finished third] was in front the whole way and we just couldn’t catch him. He broke his maiden here and he just got beat in the 2-year-old stakes. I think the turf here and quick turns suit him.”

The field is completed by Augustin Stable’s lightly raced blueblood Truly Quality [post 9, Irad Ortiz, Jr.], a son of Quality Road and grandson of Breeders’ Cup champion Forever Together, a dual Grade 1 Diana-winner over the Saratoga sod. The Jonathan Thomas-trained dark bay gelding exits a 2 3/4-length Belmont maiden turf win over 10 furlongs—course and distance of the Belmont Derby, one day later. That effort followed a pair of eye-catching runner-up efforts.

“He’s a horse that has done little wrong,” Thomas said. “I know it is a completely different pace dynamic, but his maiden win was almost two seconds faster than the Belmont Derby. Obviously, very, very different dynamics, but had he won an allowance race as impressively around the same number, I’d be thinking the same thing. He’s had three starts under his belt around two turns and just missed those first two. We were letting him kind of find his feet, not pushing him into anything just thinking that he would learn through racing. I would call him more just quality compromised in the sense that he hasn’t faced anything like this.”

The dynamic affair offers an opportunity for either the American-based runners or invading Europeans to break a 2-2 tie from previous runnings, while also feature a unique clash of the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational and Grade 1 Fasig-Tipton Belmont Oaks Invitational winners, who happen to represent each faction.

In its brief existence, the Saratoga Derby has been won by the likes of New York-based Domestic Spending, who reeled off three immediately subsequent consecutive Grade 1 wins; Irish invader State of Rest, who won three subsequent Group 1s in three countries – including Australia’s prestigious Cox Plate – following his Spa upset at 21-1; and last year’s UK-based victor Nations Pride, who added another Group 1 to his CV earlier this week in Germany’s Grosser Dallmayr-Preis.

International implications have further intensified, as the Saratoga Derby now provides an automatic berth into the Group 1, $AUD 5 million Cox Plate, slated for October 28 at Moonee Valley Racing Club in Victoria.

The Saratoga Derby is the second leg of an important three-race turf invitational series for sophomores on the NYRA circuit, following the Grade 1, $750,000 Belmont Derby over 1 1/4-miles on July 8 (Belmont Park) and preceding the 11-furlong Grade 3, $500,000 Jockey Club Derby on October 7 (Belmont at the Big A).