By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Just as the opening of Saratoga in mid-July marks the beginning of summer for racing fans, the closing of Saratoga on Labor Day marks the arrival of fall. It’s always a bittersweet occasion, but the closing-day races promise to be special ones, highlighted by the $350,000 Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) and the $300,000 Saranac Stakes (gr. III). So let’s try and finish the meet with a bang by finding some live longshots!
Hopeful Stakes (gr. I)
This seven-furlong race for two-year-olds marks the stakes debut of Competitive Edge, a highly-regarded Todd Pletcher-trained colt that romped to a 10 ¼-length victory sprinting six furlongs at Saratoga earlier in the meet. The performance was an extremely impressive one, as Competitive Edge set fast fractions before drawing away under a hand ride to stop the clock in 1:09.89 seconds, which earned him a strong 90 Beyer speed figure.
Chances are, Competitive Edge is going to romp in the Hopeful, but it’s certainly not uncommon to see well-regarded two-year-olds regress off of runaway debut performances, and since Competitive Edge is likely to be a heavy favorite, I’m going to try and beat him.
There are a couple of colts that I believe are capable of pulling off an upset. The first is I Spent It, who brought his record to a perfect 2-for-2 with a victory in the Saratoga Special (gr. II) at Saratoga on August 10th. Trained by Anthony Dutrow, I Spent It did take advantage of a good trip while winning the Saratoga Special, but earned a Beyer speed figure that would make him competitive if Competitive Edge lacks his edge—okay, sorry. :) He also signaled his readiness for this race when he breezed five furlongs in a bullet :59 4/5 on August 26th.
The other colt I like is actually one of three maidens in the race: Signature Cat. The Eric Guillot-trained colt flashed excellent early speed in his debut sprinting five furlongs at Saratoga, running the first quarter-mile in :22.11 while opening up a five-length lead. He did tire late in the race to finish second, beaten a length, but earned a solid Beyer speed figure for his effort and has turned in a sharp five-furlong breeze since then. Also, note that the third-place finisher in that race, El Kabeir, returned to win a seven-furlong maiden race on Saturday by almost eleven lengths.
I could easily take any one of these three colts and feel good about my chances, but since Competitive Edge (6-5) and I Spent It (2-1) are both going to be heavily bet, and since Signature Cat (8-1) is bound to be overlooked as a maiden, I will take the latter and hope for an upset in the final grade I race of the meet.
Saranac Stakes (gr. III)
A field of ten has been entered in this 8.5-furlong turf race, although two of the entrants—Life in Shambles and Lunar Rover—will run only in the event that the race is taken off the turf.
The morning line favorite is Ring Weekend, who finished second behind Tourist (subsequent runner-up in the grade I Secretariat Stakes) in the Sir Cat Stakes earlier in the Saratoga meet. His performance was a good one, as he tracked quick fractions before closing well into a :23.30-second final quarter mile. A repeat of that effort would make him difficult to beat. The only negative is that he’s the 8-5 favorite on the morning line, although given his strengths, 8-5 might not be such a bad price.
One other colt I like is Storm, a Todd Pletcher-trained son of Artie Schiller that rallied strongly to win a nine-furlong turf allowance race at Saratoga. In that race, Storm ran his final furlong in approximately :11 2/5 seconds, a very strong time that should put him right in the hunt for victory. He should also offer considerably more value than Ring Weekend, as he is a 5-1 shot on the morning line. Assuming Ring Weekend stays at 8-5, or even drops below that, Storm would be a logical contender to play on top at a solid price.
If you’re looking for a longshot, you might want to take a look at Beyond Smart, a Jonathan Sheppard-trainee that has won three straight races, including a turf stakes, against lesser company. He’ll need to step up to contend against in a race of this caliber, but he’s 15-1 on the morning line, and Sheppard is a master with turf horses.
Who do you like this weekend?