By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
My, how time flies! It seems like yesterday that the Saratoga meet began, but believe it or not, the upcoming August 30th card will be the final Saturday program of the meet. Fortunately for racing fans and handicappers alike, the card promises to be a special one, with four graded stakes races on the agenda. In terms of prestige, there’s no denying that the $600,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I) is the highlight, but in terms of excitement and intrigue, there’s no race better than the $250,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap (gr. II), in which two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan will make his first start since undergoing colic surgery in May. Throw in strong renewals of the Forego Stakes (gr. I) and Prioress Stakes (gr. II), and you have a race card that shouldn’t be missed. Let’s start handicapping!
Woodward Stakes (gr. I)
On paper, this race looks like a rematch between Moreno and Itsmyluckyday, the 1-2 finishers in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) earlier in the Saratoga meet. The fact is, they have beaten most of the other horses entered in the Woodward—some of them on numerous occasions—and seem poised to run 1-2 around the racetrack while setting a modest pace, which should leave them with plenty in the tank for the stretch run.
At the same time, both Moreno and Itsmyluckyday have been known to throw in poor efforts on occasion, often without any obvious reason. Granted, they run well more often than they don’t, but their slightly inconsistent tendencies make finding a longshot in this otherwise wide-open race an appealing possibility.
There are a couple of horses that I believe warrant consideration. The most obvious is Zivo, who brings a six-race winning streak into the Woodward. All told, he has never finished worse than third in fifteen starts, and last time out, he beat Moreno in the ten-furlong Suburban Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont. Another logical contender is Romansh, who has run competitive Beyer speed figures in the past, but is coming off of two sound defeats in the Whitney and the Suburban.
But the horse I’m really interested in is Stephanoatsee. Last time out, in a nine-furlong allowance race at Saratoga, he closed well off a slow pace (:48.68 for a half-mile and 1:12.96 for three-quarters) to finish second behind lonely leader Abraham. Stephanoatsee ran his own fourth quarter in approximately :23.52 seconds, a solid time, and if the early pace ends up faster than expected, Stephanoatsee could come running to spruce up the exotics.
But do I like him well enough to pick on top? Well, that’s probably stretching things a bit. In all likelihood, Moreno is going to get away with another relatively easy lead, and romp to another gate-to-wire victory while Itsmyluckyday chases him home. But his odds will not be very appealing (he’s the 2-1 morning line favorite), and Stephanoatesee is listed at 30-1. So although I can’t believe I’m writing this, I’m going to pick Stephanoatsee on top, and hope that Itsmyluckyday and/or Prayer for Relief put pressure on Moreno early on and help set up a late run from Stephanoatsee.
Bernard Baruch Handicap (gr. II)
This year’s Bernard Baruch is one of those races that pits the racing fan side of me against my handicapper side. As a fan, I have been eagerly anticipating the return of Wise Dan for weeks, and I’m crossing my fingers that his return from colic surgery results in another stellar victory. But the handicapper within me worries that Wise Dan could be vulnerable in his first start since the surgery, and this—coupled with the fact that Wise Dan will be conceding from eight to thirteen pounds to his eight expected rivals—has led me to "officially" pick against him on Saturday, even though I feel bad doing so.
I’m fairly certain that no horse will beat Wise Dan from off-the-pace, so in handicapping the race, I turned my focus to the horses that possess good tactical speed; my thinking being that a talented front-runner with a light impost will have the best chance to steal the race.
One horse that fits the bill is Five Iron. If one excuses his poor showing last time out, when he got pushed through a very fast pace in the Nijinsky II Stakes (gr. II) at Woodbine, his recent form looks very good. Two starts back, he opened up an early lead of almost ten lengths while recording fractions of :48 and 1:11.73 in the ten-furlong Manhattan Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont, yet still stayed on well enough in the stretch to finish fifth, beaten just three lengths. The cutback in distance to a mile and a sixteenth should greatly aid his chances, and he will carry eight pounds less than Wise Dan. I believe that is the recipe for a potential upset.
Who do you like this weekend?