Drenched early by steady rains, the 2018 Saratoga meet was bogged down with numerous races taken off the turf. However, the sun came out just in time for the meet’s biggest events on Travers and Woodward Days, providing a glistening background for the stars of the game to shine.
Before the meet, the anticipation of seeing Triple Crown winner Justify at The Spa excited fans and Saratogians, but with his retirement due to an ankle injury, the meet needed to find its highlights without the likely Horse of the Year gracing the upstate New York track.
The meet kicked off with some dazzling performances early, hit a bit of a snag in its middle portion when the skies opened up on the track, but finished strong, leaving us with performances that we’ll remember for years to come.
It’s tough to narrow down the list to only 10 top stars that shone the brightest during Saratoga 2018, but let’s count them down in reverse order as we highlight the horses and performances that have indelibly etched their place in our memories.
10. Imperial Hint
In possibly the most impressive performance of the meet, Imperial Hint absolutely throttled the Grade 1 Vanderbilt Handicap field on July 28, rating perfectly before taking off four-wide without jockey Javier Castellano ever having to ask him to run. The win set up the “little fullback” trained by Luis Carvajal for a return try in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, where he was a gritty runner-up last year.
9. Sippican Harbor
With the weather affecting most of the meet early, one of those off-the-turf races on August 12 led to a performance that meant everything on the big Woodward Day card. After Sippican Harbor romped in gate-to-wire fashion to win by 17 lengths while going 7 furlongs in a race originally carded for the turf, the Gary Contessa trainee returned in the Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes on September 1 using the exact opposite tactics, roaring last to first down to lane as a 16/1 longshot. One of the biggest upsets of the meet, Sippican Harbor qualified as a “Win & You’re In” entry for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, which Contessa has targeted for her next race.
8. Glorious Empire
Another horse with two wins at the Saratoga meet that probably still gets no respect is Glorious Empire. The Grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes dead-heat winner on July 28 parlayed that win into a Travers Day Grade 1 Sword Dancer Stakes win on August 25 in front-running fashion under a smart ride by Julien Leparoux. No matter what you think of the slow paces that he set, if you win two graded stakes at Saratoga, then you deserve a spot in the Top 10.
On July 21, the first Saturday of the meet, Sistercharlie proved that she is the best in the older female turf division after she tracked down Ultra Brat late to take the Grade 1 Diana Stakes in late-closing fashion. Her devastating turn-of-foot was on display again only three weeks later when she returned to win the Grade 1 Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park, cementing herself at the top of her class. She will be the likely favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
6. Abel Tasman
The meet’s most controversial race and its best stretch duel both came in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes on Travers Day. After bumping late in the stretch and a jockey’s objection, Abel Tasman was deemed the victor over her classy foe Elate. If Elate had kept a straight path, then it’s likely that Abel Tasman would’ve been disqualified, but that wasn’t the case, and Abel Tasman proved that she could grind out another win after making her patented middle move. We’ll see if she makes that move again as the likely favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
5. Monomoy Girl
July 22, opening Sunday of the meet, was all about the showdown between the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks winner Midnight Bisou in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. In the end, though, it wasn’t even a contest, as Monomoy Girl put a stranglehold on the 3-Year-Old Filly Eclipse Award while pulling away under jockey Florent Geroux with ease. It was Monomoy Girl’s fourth straight Grade 1 win for trainer Brad Cox, setting her up for a Breeders’ Cup Distaff try against elders after she preps one more time in the Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes at Parx on September 22.
Yoshida has been busy this year. After his Grade 1 Old Forester Turf Classic Stakes win on Kentucky Derby Day, he traveled to Royal Ascot in England to run a respectable fifth in the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes. A troubled trip here in the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap resulted in a disappointing fifth-place finish and a clod of grass in his eye over a yielding bog of a Saratoga turf. All of that led to a move to the dirt, and the dirt is where he’ll be running for a while. A perfect ride under Joel Rosario helped him close like a rocket while going wide to win the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes on September 1. He will now train up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, according to his Hall-of-Fame trainer Bill Mott.
The deluge that was the 2018 Grade 1 Whitney Stakes will be remembered for years to come. After a thunderstorm ravaged Saratoga, the Whitney was delayed 45 minutes before being run over a sloppy surface that looked more like chocolate soup than a racetrack. It served front-running Diversify perfectly, as he set a fast pace and kept going faster and faster while never looking back. The New York-bred was clean as a whistle at the end of the Whitney, ready for his photo in the winner’s circle. Now on his way to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Diversify will have one more prep in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes at Belmont on September 29 for trainer Rick Violette.
2. Promises Fulfilled
A sprint star may have been born at Saratoga this summer. Promises Fulfilled didn’t just crush the Grade 3 Amsterdam Stakes on July 28, he then returned four weeks later to equally dismiss all foes in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens on Travers Day. One of the fastest horses in training out of the gate, the cut-back from the Kentucky Derby trail has done wonders for this speedball trained by Dale Romans, who will need to decide if the Breeders’ Cup Sprint or Dirt Mile will be a better fit as the year-end target for his gifted 3-year-old.
1. Catholic Boy
And our #1 star of Saratoga 2018 is… Catholic Boy! Dismissed as only a turf horse after his never-give-up wins in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge Stakes and the Grade 1 Belmont Derby, Catholic Boy proved the skeptics wrong by pressing the early pace and leaving the field in his dust to win the 149th running of the Grade 1 Travers Stakes. His new running style of showing speed early has changed the complexion of what this horse is capable of accomplishing for trainer Jonathan Thomas. He may find himself in a similar stalking position in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, his ultimate year-end goal.
It’s been a blast! In the end, Saratoga never disappoints, and it’ll be a long winter spent waiting for all of my friends and favorite horses to come back upstate to visit again. It’s back to raking leaves and then snowblowing during the winter for me, but I’ll always have the memories of this summer and the visions of Saratoga 2019 to get me through the doldrums.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim, but the fun is just getting started as we get ready for the biggest day of the year, Breeders’ Cup!