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Mike previews the 2022 Birdstone Stakes at Saratoga, then gives his top picks and longshots. The rivalry between the 2022 Brooklyn Stakes (G2) winner Fearless and third-place finisher Lone Rock (the defending Birdstone champion) creates a fun handicapping puzzle. Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
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The track press release:
Flying P Stable, R.A. Hill Stable and Flying Partners’ leading marathoner Lone Rock will vie for a repeat victory in Thursday’s $200,000 Birdstone, a 1 3/4-mile test for older horses over the main track at Saratoga Race Course.
Trained by Robertino Diodoro, the evergreen Lone Rock arrives from a third-place finish behind returning rival Fearless in the Grade 2 Brooklyn on June 11 at Belmont Park where he bobbled at the start and ran evenly throughout the 12 furlongs to be bested a neck out of place honors by Warrant.
“I thought he came up just a little bit flat, but you can’t be perfect every day,” said Diodoro. “It’s hard to knock this horse. He’s been great for us and I really think the real Lone Rock is going to show up on Thursday. We’re looking forward to another chance against Fearless, who is a nice and very solid horse. We’re really excited.”
The 7-year-old son of Majestic Warrior will be making his 42nd start when he emerges from post 2 on Thursday with Irad Ortiz, Jr. in the irons for the first time. He began his career in July 2017 with trainer William VanMeter and broke his maiden at third asking by an impressive 10 1/2 lengths going one-mile at Indiana Grand. He would make his next 13 outings for VanMeter, including his first stakes win in the Jeffrey A. Hawk Memorial at Remington Park, before moving to the care of Hall of Famer Bill Mott.
Eventually, Lone Rock was haltered by Diodoro out of a winning effort in November 2020 at Churchill Downs. He has remained with Diodoro since and found rejuvenated form as a marathoner, boasting a 10-7-2-1 record when racing at distances of 12 furlongs or longer.
Diodoro said it has been gratifying to see Lone Rock take to longer races.
“Horses are athletes and some take longer to bloom. He was always meant to be a good horse – he’s not a badly-bred horse or a cheap horse,” said Diodoro. “It just took him a while to put it all together and for us and other connections to find the niche of him wanting to run long. He trains like a horse that wants to run all day and obviously now he’s showing it in the afternoons.”
Lone Rock picked up wins early last year going 1 1/2 miles in an Oaklawn allowance and in the Isaac Murphy Marathon at Churchill before establishing himself as the clear leader of the marathon division with a sublime victory in the Grade 2 Brooklyn. Regular rider Ramon Vazquez expertly piloted the bay gelding from just off the pace to take command at the three-quarters call and romp to an 11 1/4-length triumph in the first graded score of Lone Rock’s career.
He followed with his four-length Birdstone win, making easy work of the farthest test of his career before closing out his campaign with a runner-up finish in the Grand Prix American Jockey Club at Belmont and wins in the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance at Del Mar and Tinsel at Oaklawn.
This year, Lone Rock continues to show his affinity for more ground with a win in the Temperence Hill and a repeat victory in the Isaac Murphy.
Diodoro said bringing a top contender to a stakes at Saratoga is special.
“It would be an honor to win this race again. It’s a credit to the crew to keep him on top of his game as long as we have,” said Diodoro. “It’s hard not to like Saratoga. Lone Rock looks great right now – he’s a big strong horse and loves his job. He likes going out there and doing it.”
Lone Rock will once again face Repole Stable’s Fearless, who relished a stretch out last time in his 2 3/4-length Brooklyn score. Trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, the 6-year-old son of Ghostzapper closed from fifth-of-7 under Luis Saez to score the fourth graded stakes victory of his career.
Pletcher said the gamble of stretching Fearless out paid off in the Brooklyn.
“We were a little frustrated with the limited options for him,” said Pletcher. “It was Belmont Day, the Brooklyn – Repole wanted some action. It all made sense.”
Fearless kicked off his career with a pair of wins at Gulfstream Park, including an 8 1/2-length allowance coup travelling 1 1/16 miles in February 2020. He picked up another allowance victory en route to his first graded win last year in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Mile before posting on-the-board efforts in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap and Grade 3 Pimlico Special that spring. He capped his strong campaign with a four-length score in the Grade 3 Harlan’s Holiday.
Fearless’ run of good form has continued this year with a pair of runner-up finishes behind Speaker’s Corner at Gulfstream in the Grade 3 Fred W. Hooper and the Gulfstream Park Mile. He went on to capture the Grade 3 event named for his sire by six lengths at Oaklawn two starts before the Brooklyn.
Pletcher said Fearless will face a challenge in stretching out an extra two furlongs from the Brooklyn.
“We were exploring some options there and he gave us the impression that he would stay on,” said Pletcher. “There’s a big difference between a mile and a half and a mile and three quarters, but I thought he did it well enough to give it another try.”
Saez retains the mount from the inner post.
Pletcher will also be represented by the graded stakes-placed Portos, who finished fourth behind Fearless and Lone Rock in the Brooklyn. A homebred for Wertheimer and Frere, the Tapit grey was runner-up to stablemate First Constitution in the 1 3/8-mile Flat Out in May at Belmont and was third in the Isaac Murphy last year. He earned his lone graded placing in the 2020 Grade 3 Withers behind Max Player.
Portos will emerge from post 4 with Flavien Prat aboard for the first time.
Ten Strike Racing’s veteran 7-year-old Original Intent suffered a tough loss last outing going 1 1/2-miles on June 11 at Parx Racing. The son of Creative Cause stalked in seventh in the field of 8 before unleashing a strong run under Silvestre Gonzalez and coming up a nose shy of the victorious Exit Right.
Trained by Bentley Combs, Original Intent is undefeated in two starts at the Birdstone distance, scoring an allowance victory in May 2021 at Oaklawn Park and another one almost a year to the day later at the Hot Springs, Arkansas oval. Original Intent is in search of his first stakes triumph in his third attempt.
Joel Rosario gets the call from post 3.
Completing the field is the Tyler Servis-trained Shooger Ray Too, who finished second behind Lone Rock in this event last year. He arrives from a distant off-the-board finish travelling one mile and 70 yards on June 28 at Parx and will look for his first win since a one-mile allowance coup in January. The Wicked Strong gelding will exit post 5 with Ricardo Santana, Jr. in the irons.
The Birdstone, named in honor of Marylou Whitney Stables’ homebred winner of the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes and Grade 1 Travers in 2004, is slated as Race 5 on Thursday’s 10-race card. First post is 1:05 p.m. Eastern.
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