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The Grade 1 Hopeful has a long history for launching great careers throughout its running at Saratoga Race Course. Since 1903, the winners’ list shows notables such as Regret, Man o’ War, Native Dancer, Nashua, and Foolish Pleasure, not to mention Triple Crown winners Whirlaway, Secretariat, and Affirmed.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, a three-time winner of the Hopeful, sends a strong pair in Mojovation and National Flag to the gate. The former, a son of Quality Road, rated nicely in his sole start to win by 2 lengths for Triple Crown-winning owner Zayat Stables. National Flag brings an extra race in his career, with a tiring seventh place finish in his debut at Belmont on the Stars & Stripes undercard after he dueled with the winner, Shangroyal, for the first 1/2-mile. The Speightstown colt returned on August 5 to best eight others by 1 1/4 lengths after a bump-filled 6-furlong run.
Mojovation will break from the rail and will be ridden by Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez, while stablemate National Flag will start from post 5 under Jose Ortiz.
While Pletcher may hold a strong hand in the race, you can’t forget about his “coach.” The Coach himself, D. Wayne Lukas, has his own 2-year-old colt entered, Sporting Chance, as he tries to win this race for the third time in the last nine years. As always, Lukas was “hopeful” about his colt’s chances.
“I feel good; I feel like my horse is a very, very solid horse,” Lukas said. “But it is a contentious field. At this stage of my career, I am not so naïve to think I can overpower them in a Grade 1 at Saratoga. On the other hand, we have grandiose ideas that we have a pretty good horse.
“Every trainer will tell you, ‘mine will rate, mine will rate.’ Mine will. One thing about him, he is very easy to train. A caveman could train him. He is very manageable; very professional. He really does everything right, almost to the point of a fault. You wonder if he is even interested in a lot of mornings. I trained him behind horses and then let the exercise girl just split ’em, and he did it so methodically that you wonder if he got anything out of it… he is very laid back, he’s pretty good.”
The eight entrants in the 113th edition will look to capture the winner’s share of the $350,000 purse and add their name to the prestigious list on Monday, Closing Day, at the Spa.
#1 Mojovation – For my money, this horse had the most impressive maiden special weight win of the Saratoga meeting, and it looks to me like he is Todd Pletcher’s number-one 2-year-old. He basically toyed with the field on debut, and his Timeform speed figure is the highest out of anyone in the field. His natural ability looks to be very high and should get better with longer distances. The only negative is his rail draw, which is not ideal, but if Velazquez can work out a trip for him, then he’s talented enough to get the job done.
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#3 Firenze Fire – After winning nicely on debut at Monmouth Park, trainer Jason Servis brought this horse to Saratoga for the Grade 3 Sanford, which he won by a length over Free Drop Billy. He has a solid shot at returning to the winner’s circle here, but I just like what I saw from Mojovation too much to put Firenze Fire on top. His experience edge is a positive, though, and he definitely did draw better than Mojovation. He’s in with a shot once again.
#5 National Flag – This is the “other” Pletcher entry, as National Flag was stomped on debut at Belmont Park but bounced back with a nice maiden special weight win last time out. It’s hard to get a read on this horse because of the two very different performances he’s shown, but if he runs back to his most recent race, then he’ll be in with a big shot. This is a horse that you must play defensively on all tickets. You can’t key around him and rely on him, yet you can’t let him beat you, either.
#6 Sporting Chance – It wouldn’t be The Hopeful without a D. Wayne Lukas entrant! The Coach has won his fair share of Hopefuls, including recent wins with Dublin and Strong Mandate. Last year, he was second with Royal Copy when he was just narrowly defeated by Practical Joke. Sporting Chance is his main threat this year, and he’s in with a big shot after a dominating maiden special weight win on opening weekend. Lukas has been patient with this colt, which is a surprise, and seems to have him tuned up and ready to fire a big one. You can never count out D. Wayne.
#8 Free Drop Billy – There was nothing wrong with his race last time in the Sanford as he kept to task and tried to make progress on the winner throughout the entire stretch. In the end, he just couldn’t catch him, and this field might be a little deeper than that one. It doesn’t mean I don’t think think that this horse has a shot, but it’s more likely that he’ll finish underneath again. Keep an eye on this horse for the future, though, as he should stretch out very well.
#2 Oskar Blues – He pulled off a shocker in his debut, barely outlasting a solid Todd Pletcher runner in Airtouch to win a maiden special weight over this track at 33-1. Trainer Kenny McPeek has been known to do that over the years, but can Oskar Blues repeat that effort again? The time and speed figure for that win came back very strong and suggest that this horse can certainly compete with these horses. I’ll play defensively underneath, but I’m skeptical that he can match that huge debut effort.
#4 Psychoanalyze – This guy seems a little sneaky in here and could surprise some people. He had a lot of hype coming into the Sanford last time out but could never get rolling and and finished a distant third. His maiden-breaking win was a lot better than his stakes effort, and if he can somehow return to that type of race, then he could be a major player. Hopefully, his price is solid, as he is one that I’d be willing to take a chance on if the odds are right.
#7 Givemeamint – It’s hard to throw out 2-year-olds because they all have untapped potential at this point in their careers. This one does look overmatched, though, as he finished second to Sporting Chance in his last race. It’s hard to see a maiden beating this field.
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