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Saratoga Picks | Diana Stakes 2024
Didia (Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM)

Saratoga Picks | Diana Stakes 2024

Aaron previews the 2024 Diana Stakes (G1) from Saratoga & gives his top win pick from the 1st top-level horse race of the meet.

Can Didia win back-to-back Grade 1 events while taking on a strong field of turf runners, including 5 from the vaunted Chad Brown barn?

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The press release:

Merriebelle Stables and Resolute Racing’s Didia looks for back-to-back victories at the top-level versus a classy field of 10 in Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Diana, a nine-furlong inner turf test for older fillies and mares, at Saratoga Race Course. 

The Diana is slated as Race 10 on Saturday’s 12-race program that also features a pair of Grade 3, $175,000 events in the one-mile Kelso [Race 2] for older turf routers and the six-furlong Sanford [Race 11] for juveniles on the main track. First post is 12:35 p.m. Eastern.

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Trained by Ignacio Correas, IV, the 6-year-old Orpen bay, a Group 1-winner in her native Argentina, earned an elusive Grade 1 in the states last-out in the 1 3/16-mile New York presented by Rivers Casino, on June 7 at Saratoga.

“The Diana is one of the most prestigious races in America,” said Correas, IV. “We love to be able to run. She’s run a lot of good races so we always try to pick one at the right time.” 

Expertly piloted by 2017 Eclipse Award-winning jockey Jose Ortiz, Didia traveled in fourth position of the 13-horse New York field that included multiple Grade 1-winners War Like Goddess, Fev Rover, and McKulick, before showing a strong turn-of-foot to notch a 1 1/2-length score over returning rival Neecie Marie in a final time of 1:52.29. 

“She never is way back. She is always stalking the pace,” Correas, IV, said. “She can do whatever she needs to do. We are happy that she is good enough to be able to enter here.”

In the 9-1 victory, Didia avenged a third in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley on April 13 at Keeneland, where she finished 3 1/4-lengths back of the pacesetting Beautee Cachee and runner-up English Rose, who was the beaten favorite in the New York.

Regarding facing some familiar rivals and talented newcomers, including five from the barn of Diana record-winning trainer Chad Brown, Correas, IV, said that all he can do is make sure his own mare is well-prepared. 

“I can only train one horse and it is mine, so I need to focus on our horse,” said Correas, IV. “Hopefully, she keeps doing it the way she has been doing it.”  

While the topflight coup wasn’t achieved until her last-out fourth attempt, Didia holds a 7-for-10 overall record in the states, including triumphs in the Grade 2 Pegasus World Cup Filly and Mare Turf Invitational in January at Gulfstream Park, the Grade 2 Rodeo Drive in October at Santa Anita Park, and the Grade 3 Modesty last May at Churchill Downs. 

Ortiz will be back aboard from post 4. 

A quintet saddled by four-time Eclipse Award-winner Chad Brown will not make it easy for the other five competitors, as Brown seeks a record-extending ninth Grade 1 Diana score. 

The Mechanicville, N.Y.-native has won seven of the last eight editions with Dacita [2016], Lady Eli [2017], Sistercharlie [2018-19], Rushing Fall [2020], In Italian [2022] and Whitebeam [2023]. He also won in 2011 with Zagora. 

Madaket Stables, Michael Dubb and Michael Kisber’s French-bred Chili Flag [post 10, Irad Ortiz, Jr.] headlines the group after a closing score from last-of-7 in the one-mile Grade 1 Just a Game on June 7 at Saratoga.

The 5-year-old Cityscape chestnut rallied to finish a half-length over stablemate Whitebeam, with Mission of Joy and Evvie Jets close behind– all returning rivals, along with Gina Romantica [fifth] and Coppice [sixth]. 

Conquering the Just a Game marked the third consecutive victory at one-mile for Chili Flag, building upon closing scores in the Grade 3 Honey Fox on March 2 at Gulfstream Park and Grade 2 Distaff Turf Mile on May 4 at Churchill.

While stretching out one furlong at this level is a question mark for Chili Flag, Juddmonte’s British-homebred Whitebeam [post 6, Flavien Prat] proved herself at the nine-furlong mark in last year’s Diana.

There, she dueled the length of the stretch with the pacesetting Brown-trainee and then-reigning Diana-winner In Italian to prevail by a nose. 

Whitebeam exited to run fourth in both the Grade 1 First Lady in October at Keeneland and Grade 1 Matriarch in December at Del Mar to close out her past campaign– also her first season for Brown after previously being campaigned by Harry and Roger Charlton in Europe.

The Caravaggio gray has finished second by a half-length or less in her two starts as a 5-year-old, the first was when a neck back of Neecie Marie in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Beaugay on May 11 at Belmont at the Big A. 

Coppice [post 2, Frankie Dettori], another British-homebred for Juddmonte, looks to rebound from the Just a Game and earn her first stateside victory. The 4-year-old Kingman bay was previously defeated a neck by Chili Flag in the Grade 2 Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill. Prior, she was trained by John and Thady Gosden in Great Britain, featuring a win in the one-mile Rosemary in September at Newmarket. 

Head of Plains Partners’ Fluffy Socks [post 7, Joel Rosario] was a dominant 7 3/4-length winner of the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Galorette last-out on May 18 at Pimlico Race Course. The 6-year-old Slumber bay seeks her first Grade 1 win with a 6-0-1-2 record at the level, as well as her first score at The Spa in her sixth attempt, with three close seconds. 

Peter Brant’s Gina Romantica [post 5, Manny Franco] has missed the board in the two efforts of her current campaign, including the aforementioned Just a Game and Jenny Wiley.

The 5-year-old Into Mischief bay captured the one-mile Grade 1 First Lady in October at Keeneland and the nine-furlong Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup almost one calendar year prior there. 

After a head victory over In Italian in the First Lady that garnered a career and field-best 105 Beyer Speed Figure, Gina Romantica ran a strong fourth against males in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Mile in November at Santa Anita Park, one-length back of the victorious Master of The Seas. 

Also seen at the past Breeders’ Cup was the Kevin Attard-conditioned Moira [post 1, Tyler Gaffalione], a last-out third there in the ten-furlong Grade 1 Filly and Mare Turf after achieving that result traveling the same distance in the Grade 1 E.P. Taylor in October at Woodbine Racetrack. 

The 5-year-old Ontario-bred daughter of Ghostzapper, who is owned by Lanni Bloodstock, Madaket Stables, and SF Racing, boasts a storied resume that also features Woodbine’s 2022 Queen’s Plate against males and Woodbine Oaks en route to 2022 Canadian Horse of the Year honors. 

Moira has worked extensively at Woodbine to prepare for her return, including a bullet five-eighths in 59.80 seconds over the Tapeta on June 29 before a half-mile move in 50.20 Saturday. 

“I think this is a bigger, stronger version of her right now. Physically, this is the best she’s looked. She’s matured from 4-to-5 and she’s worked very well heading into this race,” said Attard. “Going nine furlongs against Grade 1 company, coming off of a seven-month layoff is not going to be easy, but she’s a good horse and I think she deserves a chance.”

Another Ontario-bred in the field is RyZan Sun Racing and Madaket Stables’ dual Grade 3-winner Mission of Joy [post 3, John Velazquez], who looks to improve upon a close third in the Just a Game for conditioner Graham Motion. 

The 4-year-old Kitten’s Joy chestnut finished a head back of Whitebeam for place-honors after being nudged out to rally widest of all during a compact seven-horse stretch drive. 

“She got carried wide on the last turn. A couple more jumps and she is there,” said Motion. “Maybe she will appreciate the mile and an eighth. To me, she seems like she is in great form, probably better than she’s been in, and I think she is a legitimate Grade 1 horse.”

The veteran conditioner, who has five stakes wins since the beginning of May including the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational on July 6, looks to continue his run of success in the Diana. 

Diana glory would be a first for Motion after saddling 14 horses in the race over the years and finishing second on six occasions, including with Mean Mary [neck, 2020], Ultra Brat [nose, 2018], Quidura [head, 2017], Aruna [1 1/2-lengths, 2011], Shared Account [head, 2010], and Sweet Talker [head, 2006].

Michael Milam’s late-running Neecie Marie [post 8, Luis Saez] finished second in a pair of events in the fall at Belmont at the Big A, including the 11-furlong Grade 3 Jockey Club Oaks Invitational and the nine-furlong Grade 2 Sands Point. Trained by Butch Reid, Jr., the Cross Traffic bay would not be denied there in her first start as a 4-year-old, closing to win the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Beaugay by a neck over Whitebeam. 

Neecie Marie subsequently made her first Grade 1 attempt when a rallying second at odds of 25-1 in the New York, an attempt Reid, Jr. said was certainly worthwhile. 

“She proved she belongs with those kind of horses, and that is what we were looking for,” said Reid. Jr. “She did have trouble a couple of times, too. I don’t know if it would’ve changed the outcome, but she certainly would’ve been closer [to Didia]. It was a big effort.” 

Rounding out the field is multiple graded stakes-winner Evvie Jets [post 9, Dylan Davis], for trainer Mertkan Kantarmaci.

The rallying Grade 2 Ballston Spa winner in August at the Spa was a pacesetting fourth last-out in the Just a Game, within three-quarter-lengths of the victorious Chili Flag and a neck back of Mission of Joy for show-honors. 

Venti Valentine is entered for the main track-only.