By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Are you ready for a terrific day of racing?
On August 2nd, racing fans will be treated to so many top-notch races across the country that watching—let alone handicapping!—each one might be a bit of a challenge. All told, four grade I races are on schedule, including the historic Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, in which Palace Malice—the current favorite for Horse of the Year honors—is the even-money morning line favorite.
So without further ado, let’s start handicapping!
Whitney Handicap (gr. I)
The nine-furlong Whitney, long a major summer target for the best older horses on the east coast, has grown even more prestigious this year thanks to a major purse boost that has brought the value of the race to $1.5 million. As a result, a simply fantastic field of nine has been entered in the race, led by Palace Malice and Will Take Charge.
The two colts faced each other on five occasions last year, in such major races as the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), Belmont Stakes (gr. I), Travers Stakes (gr. I), and Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Will Take Charge emerged ahead of Palace Malice on three of those occasions, including their final two, which was enough to give him the Eclipse award as champion three-year-old of 2013. However, based on their records this year, it appears that Palace Malice may have the edge in their first meeting of 2014.
Both colts began their four-year-old seasons in strong fashion, with Will Take Charge finishing second in both the grade I Donn Handicap (run in track-record time) and the grade I Santa Anita Handicap (run in stakes-record time), while Palace Malice triumphed in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) and New Orleans Handicap (gr. II). But while Palace Malice built upon his early-season efforts by winning the Westchester Handicap (gr. III) and the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I)—bringing his record for the year to a perfect 4-for-4—Will Take Charge seemed to regress, desperately winning the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II)—a race in which he should have romped—and then finishing a poor sixth in the Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) three weeks later. He showed signs of returning to form with a runner-up effort in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I), and has trained very well since then, but does he have what it takes to edge Palace Malice on Saturday?
That’s difficult to say, but my guess is probably not. There can be no denying that Will Take Charge is a very, very talented horse. But Palace Malice seems to be in the best form of his career, and as impressive as he has been this year while competing primarily at a mile, I believe he is even better at nine furlongs. Furthermore, he has drawn very well in post position five, which should enable him to work out a terrific stalking trip just behind the leaders. I honestly believe that Palace Malice could be sitting on a career-best performance this Saturday, and will prove extremely difficult to defeat.
In a race that appears to lack much early pace, the speedy colts Moreno and Itsmyluckyday are logical contenders for the exotics. Moreno showed an affinity for Saratoga last summer, finishing second by a nose to Will Take Charge in the Travers Stakes (gr. I), and enters the Whitney off of a strong runner-up effort in the ten-furlong Suburban Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont. The cutback to nine furlongs should help his chances, and he shouldn’t have too much trouble getting to the early lead from post three. Expect him to lead this field as far as he can, which may prove to be a long way.
As for Itsmyluckyday, he enters the Whitney riding a three-race win streak, which includes a victory in the Salvator Mile (gr. III) at Monmouth over Valid, who returned to win last week’s Monmouth Cup (gr. II) with a 108 Beyer speed figure. Having drawn post four, expect to see him track Moreno through the early stages of the race, and from there, it’s just a question of whether he’s good enough to hold his own against horses of this caliber. In my opinion, he has a great shot to hit the board.
Selection: Palace Malice
Test Stakes (gr. I)—Sweet Reason won both of her starts at Saratoga last year, including a hugely impressive victory in the seven-furlong Spinaway Stakes (gr. I), and received a brilliant ground-saving ride to win the one-mile Acorn Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont last time out. She enters the Test in good form and figures to be difficult to beat, but in such a large field, traffic is always a concern with a deep-closer like Sweet Reason. Therefore, I will take a chance with Sweet Whiskey, runner-up by a half-length to Sweet Reason in the Acorn despite a less-desirable trip. Others to consider are the speedy Princess Violet, runner-up to Untapable in the Mother Goose Stakes (gr. I); and Fiftyshadesofgold, fourth in the Acorn after setting the pace.
Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (gr. I)—Capo Bastone upset the King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I) here at Saratoga last summer, and while he has not won since then, he did finish a decent second in a one-mile allowance race at Belmont on June 28th, and in a race that lacks any stand-out stars, Capo Bastone looks to have as good a chance as any at a solid price.
West Virginia Derby (gr. II)—Vicar’s in Trouble ran a good third in the Iowa Derby (gr. III) last time out with a pace-tracking trip, but he has shown in the past that he is much better when allowed to set the pace, which I expect him to do on Saturday. With well-regarded contenders like Candy Boy and Tapiture expected to receive much of the wagering attention, Vicar’s in Trouble should offer a respectable price despite his fine credentials, and I think he has a great chance to steal this race in gate-to-wire fashion.
Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I)—More Chocolate finished second in this race last year and is really the only horse in this field with good form over the Del Mar Polytrack, making her a logical contender for the top spot on Saturday. Iotapa must be considered off of her dominant win in the Vanity Handicap (gr. I) last time out at Santa Anita, but her inconsistent form makes her difficult to trust while switching surfaces.
Who do you like this weekend?