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When I was a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s, I remember coming to Saratoga Race Course every summer with my parents. My father loves the track and taught me how to construct wagers as I honed my game.
I learned quickly that one horse was always a sure thing when we’d go to the track. His name was Fourstardave. “The Sultan of Saratoga” won at least one race at Saratoga Race Course each year from 1987 to 1994, my formative years.
Some summers, I would try to beat Fourstardave, thinking, “There’s no way this horse can keep winning after all these years.” I thought for sure that this was the year he wouldn’t do it. Being a youngster, I didn’t fully grasp the premise of the “horse for course” angle yet. Fourstardave made me look bad a couple of times before I jumped on his bandwagon.
I hadn’t had those Fourstardave feelings about a horse at Saratoga again until Voodoo Song stormed onto the scene in 2017.
That year, the Linda Rice trainee won on opening weekend on July 22 in a $40,000 claimer as the second betting choice. He returned just four days later as the odds-on favorite in allowance company and won again.
After winning yet another allowance optional claimer on August 23 to bring his meet win streak to three, I thought that there was no way he could win again when he entered the closing weekend’s Saranac Stakes (G3). I was proven wrong when he used his front-running tactics to defeat future G1 winners Yoshida and Bricks and Mortar.
Voodoo Song became the first horse to win four races at the meet since the legendary Native Dancer did it as a juvenile in 1952, when the meet lasted 24 days instead of its current 40.
My respect for Voodoo Song skyrocketed. He returned to Saratoga last year and won the Fourstardave Handicap (G1) over a turf course listed good on a rainy day to take his streak at Saratoga to five, but he would next run last of five in the Bernard Baruch Handicap (G2) to end the 2018 meet.
This Friday, Voodoo Song makes his return to racing after a nine-month layoff on the track that he loves the most in the Forbidden Apple Stakes (G3), going a mile on Saratoga’s inner turf. Will Voodoo Song win at Saratoga for a third year in a row and keep a streak going to rival the Sultan of Saratoga?
Last year, Voodoo Song won this race on July 14, but it was run at Belmont Park. With the extension of the Saratoga meet to eight weekends this year, the Forbidden Apple has been moved upstate to Saratoga and naturally becomes the local prep for the Fourstardave, which is also run at a mile on the turf.
Even though he’s the defending champion and he won the Fourstardave at this configuration last year, there are a few reasons to doubt Voodoo Song here:
Reason 1: Maybe he’s lost it. After losing in the Bernard Baruch, Voodoo Song went to Keeneland on October 6 to run in the Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes (G1) and faded badly to finish 12th.
Reason 2: He’s been off for a long time. After that race, Voodoo Song took the rest of 2018 off and hasn’t raced at all in 2019. It’ll be 279 days between races when he shows up in the Saratoga paddock on Friday. Still, Rice has a good win percentage (22%) with horses returning from 90-day layoffs or longer.
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Reason 3: He may not be fully fit. Rice has been concerned for a few weeks that his weight would prevent him from being ready for this race. After his 5-furlong work in 1:00.80 over the Belmont inner turf on Sunday, Rice said in a NYRA press release, “I was pleased with his work. We have been trying to have him ready for this race but I was concerned because he was a little heavy, but his work was very encouraging.”
Reason 4: He may not get an easy lead. When Voodoo Song is able to get alone on the lead, he’s very tough to pass. This may not be the case Friday, as the ultra-fast Gidu has drawn the rail and may sprint to the lead for trainer Todd Pletcher. Off for over five months, Gidu returned at Belmont in a salty allowance on June 7 and went gate-to-wire, setting solid fractions and never looking back. If Voodoo Song – leaving from the 7-post – is forced to rate on Gidu’s outside, will he be as successful?
Reason 5: This is a very tough field. There are a whopping six other graded stakes winners in this field, starting with the horse that beat Voodoo Song in last year’s Bernard Baruch, Qurbaan for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. March to the Arch comes out of a win in the Wise Dan Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs four weeks ago for trainer Mark Casse, who also has entered First Premio, a stakes winner at Fair Grounds to start the year. It’s turf and it’s New York, so trainer Chad Brown has two entered: the tough New-York-bred Offering Plan and the Dania Beach Stakes (G3) winner Made You Look (who’s returning from a 335-day layoff). Mr. Havercamp won the Play the King Stakes (G2) and the Autumn Stakes (G2) last year at Woodbine and returns from a 209 day layoff here. Finally, Hembree and Doctor Mounty are both in-form veterans that will be running late in this well-matched 10-horse field.
I feel like I’m 13 years old again, trying to come up with ways to beat Fourstardave, when I know he’s just gonna get it done again at Saratoga. People may call it blasphemous to even compare Voodoo Song to Fourstardave, but if he wins this race on Friday, then who knows how many more times he can win at Saratoga in his career?
In the end, win or lose, this may just be a prep to tighten up Voodoo Song so that he can defend his Fourstardave title on August 10.
Due to his name recognition at Saratoga, Voodoo Song will be a short price in the Forbidden Apple, and this is a good time to take a stand against him with one or two of the other high-caliber runners in this group.
But don’t take it from me. I used to try to beat Fourstardave all the time, too.
I’ll be at the track on Friday to see (and hopefully interview) Yankees legend Mariano Rivera, who is being honored at the track, so please follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim for all of the opening Friday action.
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