By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Get ready, folks! On Saturday, Saratoga will host a spectacular fourteen-race card featuring four graded stakes races, including a trio of grade I events headlined by the $1,250,000 Travers Stakes (gr. I). Each race has drawn a wide-open field of talented competitors, and there should be plenty of opportunity to track down nice-priced longshots if you don’t care for the favorites. Let’s take a quick look at some of the highlights!
Travers Stakes (gr. I)
As I outlined in my last blog post, I believe that Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Tonalist is absolutely the horse to beat, and I expect him to improve sharply off of his runner-up effort in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) last time out. Bayern will probably be favored off of his romping win in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), and while he might get an easy lead in the Travers—he appears to be the lone speed—I’m not convinced that he will be as effective stretching out to ten furlongs over a track that is much less speed-favoring than the one he encountered at Monmouth. Also, it’s worth noting that seven of the last ten Travers winners prepped for the "Midsummer Derby" in the Jim Dandy, while during that same timeframe, only one Travers winner—Summer Bird—prepped in the Haskell.
The other colts I will seriously consider for the exotics are Mr Speaker, winner of the Belmont Derby (gr. I) on turf; Wicked Strong, winner of the Jim Dandy Stakes; Commanding Curve, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby (gr.I) and most recently fourth in the Jim Dandy; and Viva Majorca, a late-running fourth in the Curlin Stakes despite a troubled trip.
King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I)
This race looks fairly wide-open on paper, with the speedy Haskell third-place finisher Wildcat Red likely to be favored while cutting back to seven-eighths of a mile after seven consecutive starts at a mile or longer. Coup de Grace will also receive a great deal of support off his three-length victory in the Amsterdam Stakes (gr. II) here at Saratoga on July 26th. But hey—the last three King’s Bishop winners have been Capo Bastone (28-1), Willy Beamin (11-1), and Caleb’s Posse (6-1), so keeping in mind that Wildcat Red and Coup de Grace are by no means standouts on paper, I’m going to try and find a longshot to pick on top.
There are two colts that really intrigue me, the first of which is The Big Beast. The Tony Dutrow-trainee caught my eye during the winter when he rallied from far behind to finish second in a maiden race at Oaklawn, but since then, he has transformed into a front-running type with blazing speed. Last time out, in a six-furlong allowance race at Saratoga, The Big Beast won by 6 ¼ lengths in gate-to-wire fashion, recording fractions of :21.74 and :44.41 en route to a final time of 1:09 flat. He may have to work hard to get to the lead from post position seven, but I think he has as much raw speed as any colt in the race, and should give a good account of himself.
The other horse I really like is Myositis Dan. Granted, he’s 3-for-3 on Polytrack and 0-for-5 on dirt. But he possesses a strong finishing kick, and did finish third—beaten two noses—in the Derby Trial Stakes (gr. III) on the dirt two starts back. With Wildcat Red, The Big Beast, and the speedy Gulfstream shipper Fast Anna likely to ensure a quick pace, I hope to see Myositis Dan closing fast in the final furlong to score a major upset.
Ballerina Stakes (gr. I)
If you thought the King’s Bishop was tough to handicap, good luck finding the winner of the Ballerina Stakes! You can take your pick from the proven grade I winners Better Lucky, My Miss Aurelia, and Artemis Agrotera—who have combined to win six grade I races, but not so much as a single graded stakes race this year—or you can choose one of the talented but mostly unproven fillies such as Kipling’s Joy, Willet, La Verdad, Voodoo Tales, Hot Stones, or Geeky Gorgeous, who have won exactly two graded stakes races between them.
My gut feeling is that proven class will emerge victorious in the end, with preference for Artemis Agrotera over My Miss Aurelia. My feeling is that the latter may need one more race before returning to top form, since this will be only her second start in a year and a half.
On the other hand, I also like the chances of Hot Stones, who won the seven-furlong Bed o’ Roses Handicap (gr. III) two starts back in the quick time of 1:21.98 seconds. Her third-place finish in the nine-furlong Shuvee Handicap (gr. III) last time out was not bad, considering that the distance was probably a bit far for her, and the cutback to seven furlongs should help her chances immensely. Don’t count her out!
Ballston Spa Stakes (gr. II)
This 8.5-furlong turf race for fillies and mares has drawn just seven starters, but five of them look like major contenders on paper, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see any one of them end up in the winner’s circle. That said, the horse I like best is Abaco, who has finished second, third, or fourth in all five of her starts this year. Last time out, she unleashed an eye-catching late rally to finish a close fourth in the Diana Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga, beaten just 1 ½ lengths while running her final furlong in :10-and-change. She’s been knocking on the door for a while, and is—in my opinion—long overdue for another victory. The slight class drop on Saturday should help her get the job done.
Who do you like this weekend?