It’s Saratoga opening week!
Living only a short drive from Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York, I dream of this week all year long. When I’m shoveling 18 inches of snow in the middle of January while my fingers and toes freeze, I envision opening day under sunny skies. Now, the dream becomes reality when the biggest names in the industry make their annual pilgrimage to the “Mecca of Horse Racing” at The Spa.
To help you keep track of the happenings in and around Saratoga, we introduce this inaugural edition of “The Saratoga Skinny,” a weekly column (to be released on dark track Tuesdays throughout the meet) previewing what to expect in the coming week.
For week 1 of “The Saratoga Skinny,” there’s no better way to get ready for the country’s premier meet than to tackle some of the biggest questions in horse racing. We’ll address the five biggest entering the 2017 Saratoga meet as we count down to Opening Day on Friday, July 21.
There’s no time to wait for Saratoga, so let’s dive right into the action:
QUESTION #5: Will trainer Bob Baffert steal the show again?
Trainer Bob Baffert shipped into Saratoga last year and took the prized gem of the meet, the Grade 1 Travers Stakes, when Arrogate romped and stomped his way to a track record-breaking performance for the ages. Also on the Travers undercard, Drefong make mincemeat of the Grade 1 King’s Bishop field over a group of 3-year old sprinters. Both races spurred the two colts to Breeders’ Cup wins and year-end honors as Eclipse Award-winning champions.
This year, Baffert will not bring Arrogate back to Saratoga, instead focusing him on races at Del Mar, and Drefong may also stay out west because he’s yet to race this year. That doesn’t mean that Baffert isn’t loaded when he ships in from his California base throughout the Saratoga summer, though.
New Yorkers better be ready to see horses like Abel Tasman, Faypien, Mor Spirit, Cupid, Collected, American Anthem, and West Coast ship east for big performances. To read more about what major graded stakes these horses may enter, read “Baffert’s Barrage on Saratoga.”
QUESTION #4: Can Keen Ice shock Saratoga again by winning the Whitney?
One of the most memorable moments at Saratoga this century was when Triple Crown winner American Pharoah came to upstate New York to run in the 2015 Travers. When Keen Ice won the Travers by running down American Pharoah in the closing stages, it shocked sports world as one of the biggest upsets in recent memory.
Fast forward almost two years, and Keen Ice is expected to run again at Saratoga, this time in the prestigious Grade 1 Whitney on Saturday, August 5. Keen Ice hadn’t won a race since that 2015 Travers until recently when he upset the Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont Park on July 8 over the heavy favorite, Shaman Ghost. Trainer Todd Pletcher had Keen Ice ready to fire for the 1 1/4-mile Suburban and said that the Whitney was the next “logical” spot to run the 5-year old son of Curlin.
The $1.2 million Whitney is a Breeder’s Cup “Win & You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and will bring together some of the best older horses in the country, headlined by multiple Grade 1 winner Gun Runner. The third-ranked horse in the world, Gun Runner is expected to be the betting favorite in the Whitney. He returned from a second-place finish in the Group 1 Dubai World Cup (behind Arrogate) to dominate the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs in mid-June.
Baffert may enter one or two horses in the Whitney, including Mor Spirit, Cupid, and/or Collected. Mor Spirit was ultra-impressive winning the Grade 1 Met Mile on Belmont Stakes Day, but a recent lackluster workout has Baffert questioning if he will ship him to Saratoga. Cupid returned off of a nine-month layoff to surprisingly dominate the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita on May 27, and throughout his career, he has won multiple graded stakes after shipping. Collected is also possible for the Whitney after his dominant Grade 3 Precisionist win at Santa Anita on June 24.
Others probables for the Whitney include the Grade 2 Brooklyn winner War Story, along with his pace-setting “rabbit” stablemate, Cautious Giant, who will likely be entered in the Whitney by owner Loooch Racing to ensure that Gun Runner is kept company on the front end. If Gun Runner is pressed early, though, it could set up for another Keen Ice late run to shock the Saratogians once again!
QUESTION #3: Will Songbird come to Saratoga?
Songbird became a Saratoga favorite last year when she shipped east for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and won two Grade 1s (the Coaching Club America Oaks and the Alabama). She trained the whole summer at Saratoga and NYRA handed out Songbird posters before the Alabama, solidifying her as one of the biggest stories of the meet.
After a nose loss in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff to the top mare Beholder, Songbird lost her undefeated record but gained even more notoriety by showing that she could hang with the top of her division.
Her return in 2017 has been widely criticized, even though she has won two Grade 1 stakes this year (the Ogden Phipps at Belmont on June 10 and the Delaware Handicap on July 15). Songbird was pressed late before winning both races, and visually, some have said that she looks like she has lost a step.
After the Delaware Handicap, Hollendorfer said that “Saratoga is definitely a target,” so the Grade 1 Personal Ensign on Travers Day undercard on Saturday, August 26, is her most likely next race.
If Songbird ships to Saratoga, there will be plenty of fanfare, but she will face a strong field headed by the Grade 1 Apple Blossom winner Forever Unbridled. The Grade 3 Shuvee on Sunday, July 30, is the local prep for the Personal Ensign and is expected to draw top mares Terra Promessa and Paid Up Subscriber, who ran second to Songbird in the Ogden Phipps. If both come out of the Shuvee in fine fettle, they could join the expected Personal Ensign field and provide a stiff test for Songbird, especially if she doesn’t bring her “A” game.
QUESTION #2: Who will win the Travers?
The $1.25 million Grade 1 Travers, run at 1 1/4 miles on August 26, may decide who wins the 3-year old Horse of the Year championship. The fallout from both the Grade 2 Jim Dandy (run at Saratoga on Saturday, July 29) and the Grade 1 Haskell (run at Monmouth Park on Sunday, July 30) will determine who will enter the “Mid-Summer Derby” along with the others.
Right now, Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and Preakness champ Cloud Computing are the only two horses targeting the Jim Dandy. Trainer Todd Pletcher recently confirmed that Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit will skip the Jim Dandy and train directly to the Travers without running in a race after his grueling 12-furlong win in the “Test of the Champion” on June 10.
The Grade 2 Fountain of Youth winner Gunnevera will also skip the Jim Dandy in favor of a prep at Gulfstream Park to get ready for the Travers and a return to Saratoga, where he won the Grade 2 Saratoga Special as a juvenile last year.
Horses targeting the Haskell include the Grade 2 Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry, Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Battle of Midway, the Grade 3 Matt Winn victor McCraken, the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby winner Girvin, the Grade 3 Iowa Derby winner Hence, and Impressive Edge, who was third in the Iowa Derby.
Trainer Chad Brown will target the Haskell with Timeline, who won the local Haskell prep (the Grade 3 Pegasus) in mid-June, along with multiple Grade 1 winner Practical Joke, who dominated around one turn in the Grade 3 Dwyer on July 8 at Belmont after running fifth in the Kentucky Derby.
The 2016 juvenile champ and Grade 1 Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire was expected to run in the Haskell but will skip that race, as he has not recovered quickly from foot issues, and will train up directly to the Travers off of a three-month lay-off from his runner-up finish in the Preakness.
Trainer Steve Asmussen is weighing his options with Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee, with his options including the Jim Dandy, the Haskell, and the non-graded Curlin Stakes at Saratoga on Friday, July 28. Others targeting the Curlin are fan favorite and Belmont Stakes third-place finisher Patch, non-graded Sir Barton winner No Mo Dough, impressive Churchill allowance winner Awesome Saturday, and Emancipation, who is a full brother to 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb.
After winning both the Grade 3 Ohio and Indiana Derbies, Irap also may come to Saratoga for the Travers shipping in for trainer Doug O’Neill.
Baffert’s late-developing West Coast may be the one to steal the show again for the Triple Crown winning trainer. Baffert is pointing the recent Grade 3 Los Alamitos Derby winner to The Spa for the Travers.
We just rattled off a total of 20 three-year-olds that may be pointed to the Travers, so it’s definitely a wide-open race right now. We’ll be tracking “The Road to the Travers” weekly in “The Saratoga Skinny,” so stay tuned for updates!
QUESTION #1: Can Todd Pletcher win back the trainers’ title from Chad Brown?
The number one question heading into 2017 Saratoga is, “Who will win the trainers’ title?”
The loaded answer is that it’s a proverbial “two-horse race” between Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher. Brown set a Saratoga meet record with 40 wins in securing his first Saratoga trainers’ title in 2016. The previous record was held by Pletcher, with 38 wins. Pletcher has won the Saratoga trainers’ title a total of 12 times and finished second in the 2016 rankings to Brown with 31 wins.
The mass quantity of horses that these two horsemen bring to Saratoga make it virtually impossible for any other trainer to compete with their large barns for the title of most wins by a trainer at the meet. Reportedly, Brown has an astounding 160 horses stabled at Saratoga, while Pletcher has upwards of 120 horses at the track. Both have been consistently working horses over the Oklahoma Training Track since May in preparation for the meet.
Pletcher’s advantage in past years was that he was able to dominate the juvenile dirt races at the meet, but Brown is continuously adding strong 2-year old stock to his barn to close the gap in that division. Whoever gets hot early may be able to maintain that edge throughout the meet, so it will be a fun race to watch at Saratoga all summer long.
To end this first edition of “The Saratoga Skinny,” take a look at the below table that details the probable and possible Stakes horses for Pletcher and Brown at the meet.
Keep up to date on all the Saratoga news by following me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim and on Instagram and Facebook, too!