By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
After weeks—even months!—of eager anticipation, the $1,250,000 Whitney Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga is finally upon us. The prestigious nine-furlong race has long been a major target for the best older horses on the East Coast, but this year, the race has outdone itself by drawing a spectacular field of ten that includes seven grade I winners. To be perfectly honest, the depth and talent of the Whitney field could make it an even trickier race to handicap than the Kentucky Derby—and that’s a very exciting prospect! So without further ado, let’s start handicapping!
Whitney Handicap (gr. I)
||1st Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||2nd Suburban Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||1st Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)|
||8th Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||V. E. Day
||2nd Brooklyn Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||2nd Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||Irad Ortiz, Jr.
||3rd Brooklyn Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||2nd Forbidden Apple Stakes (VIDEO)|
||2nd Carl Hanford Memorial Stakes (VIDEO)|
In handicapping the Whitney, there’s one question that rises above all, and that is the question of whether morning line favorite Honor Code can win a major race around two turns. The colt has been brilliant in one-turn races, unleashing spectacular late rallies to turn certain defeat into victory. Last time out, he rallied from out of the clouds to win the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont by 3 3/4 lengths, and overall, he’s 4-for-5 around one turn, with his lone defeat coming by a head in the 2013 Champagne Stakes (gr. I).
In contrast, Honor Code is 1-for-3 around two turns, and doesn’t seem to have quite the same stretch punch at longer distances. In his two-turn debut, he did win the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct, but that was when he was able to track extremely slow fractions of :52.74 and 1:17.56, which turned the race into a three-furlong sprint to the finish. In his other efforts around two turns, he came off a layoff to finish second in a March 2014 allowance race at Gulfstream (he was beaten ten lengths behind Social Inclusion) and finished fifth by the same margin in the Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs on May 1st. But is this enough evidence to suggest that Honor Code can’t be effective around two turns?
It depends on what perspective you want to take. If you believe Honor Code can be successful around two turns, you can point to the fact that Honor Code had been dealing with hoof issues prior to his defeat in allowance company, and was sidelined with an injury shortly thereafter. You can also point out that the slow pace of the Alysheba hurt his chances, and that he actually ran quite well to get up and finish fifth—after all, he ran his final five-sixteenths in about :28 3/5. On the other hand, if you believe that Honor Code is best as a one-turn sprinter/miler, you can point to his stellar record around one turn, take note of the fact that his defeat in the Alysheba was sandwiched by terrific performances around one turn, and compare him to Caleb’s Posse, an absolute beast around one turn in 2011 and 2012 that wasn’t nearly as formidable around two turns.
Basically, if you believe Honor Code can excel around two turns, he has to be considered the horse to beat in the Whitney. But if you don’t think he can handle the extra turn, he’s a horse that you’ll probably want to leave out of the trifecta and superfecta completely. As you can see, it makes the race rather tricky to handicap, doesn’t it? :)
My gut feeling—and it could very well be wrong—is that Honor Code is an exceptional sprinter/miler that can’t quite reproduce his big finish around two turns, so I’m going to play the race from that perspective and seek a different horse for the top spot.
Next in line as logical choices are Noble Bird and Lea, who were separated by just a neck when running 1-2 in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs on June 13th. Noble Bird will likely be a lower price thanks to his victory, but he did rate closer to the early lead in the Stephen Foster than Lea, which was advantageous given the speed-favoring nature of the track. Furthermore, Noble Bird was carrying four pounds less than Lea and will not have that benefit on Saturday, as both horses are scheduled to carry 124 pounds. Additionally, the Stephen Foster marked Lea’s first start since returning from a trip to Dubai, and with that race under his belt, Lea should be ready for a sharper performance in the Whitney. I also like the fact that Lea has been training over the deeper, more tiring training track at Saratoga, which should help build his stamina and fitness for a peak effort.
However, I’m also very intrigued by the chances of Liam’s Map, a lightly-raced son of Unbridled’s Song trained by Todd Pletcher. After winning two straight races last fall, Liam’s Map was entered in the 8.5-furlong Harlan’s Holiday Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and after tracking sharp fractions, he engaged in a dual with the very talented Valid and triumphed by a half-length, earning a massive 112 Beyer speed figure. He went to the sidelines thereafter, but returned on June 19th to score a very impressive victory in a one-mile allowance race at Belmont, cruising to victory under a very light hand ride to earn a Beyer of 106. Those figures put him right in the mix against the best horses in the Whitney, and his excellent tactical speed—combined with the ability to settle off the lead—should make him a dangerous pace factor in a race that may not have as much early speed as there appears to be on paper. This could be particularly noteworthy since the main track at Saratoga was playing kindly toward speed at the end of last week, and if the trend continues, front-running types might have an edge in the Whitney. This goes double for Liam’s Map, who will be carrying just 117 pounds, seven less than his main rivals. Sealing the deal are Liam’s Map’s very impressive recent workouts—which culminated with a bullet five furlongs in :58.58 on August 1st—and the fact that top jockey Mike Smith is scheduled to ride the colt. To me, this looks like a recipe for an upset victory at around 6-1 or higher, and as a result, Liam’s Map is my selection to win.
Incredibly, the depth of this year’s Whitney field is so deep that I haven’t even mentioned Tonalist, winner of the 2014 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and runner-up in the Metropolitan Handicap; Moreno, winner of the 2014 Whitney; or even V. E. Day and Wicked Strong, the 1-2 finishers in the 2014 Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga. I wish I had space to discuss all of them in the body of this post, but alas, word count restrictions being what they are, I’ll have to share my thoughts on these runners and others in the comments section of this blog post. I hope you’ll join me to discuss and handicap what promises to be one of the greatest races of the year thus far!
Just for fun, here are a few race replays that I thought everyone might enjoy:
To help keep track of all the great racing action this week, here are the links to the enteires for some of the best races, along with the post times for each race:
To help keep track of all the Breeders' Cup prep races, here is the link to Bloodhorse.com's Breeders' Cup news page. To keep track of all the races for two-year-olds at Saratoga and Del Mar, here is the link to my "Diamonds in the Rough" column on The Turf Board. Also, here is the link to the currrent standings, entries, rules, and schedule for our "Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic" Handicapping Challenge. Enjoy the racing, everyone!
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.