By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
On the final Saturday of the 2015 Saratoga meet, a strong field of eight will contest the $600,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I), a major prep race on the road to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). The nine-furlong race has been won in recent years by such stars as Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, Quality Road, and Havre de Grace, and while this year’s renewal lacks a star of that caliber, it nevertheless promises to be an intriguing event that could have a major impact on the Breeders’ Cup. Let’s start handicapping!
Woodward Stakes (gr. I)
||4th Whitney Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||2nd Whitney Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||7th West Virginia Governor’s Cup (VIDEO)|
||Bay of Plenty
||1st Alydar Stakes (VIDEO)|
||Irad Ortiz, Jr.
||2nd Alydar Stakes (VIDEO)|
||3rd Suburban Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||1st Suburban Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||1st Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
At first glance, the Woodward Stakes looks like Todd Pletcher’s race to lose—after all, he trains half of the entrants, including 6-5 morning line favorite Liam’s Map. After winning four straight races against lesser company, Liam’s Map stepped up in class for the Whitney Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, in which he led every step of the way through fractions of :46.00 and 1:09.72 before getting caught in the homestretch to lose by a neck. For his effort, he received a massive 113 Beyer speed figure, and a repeat of his Whitney effort should be enough to win the Woodward.
But will Liam’s Map repeat that performance? That is the trickier question. Although he set a fast pace in the Whitney, he also seemed very relaxed while doing so, meaning that the fractions probably weren’t as testing as they appear on paper. Furthermore, Liam’s Map is likely to face some pace pressure on Saturday, as Bay of Plenty, Coach Inge, and Protonico have all shown a tendency to race on or near the lead. Now, the latter two are both trained by Pletcher, and it’s unlikely that they will engage Liam’s Map in a battle for the lead, but Bay of Plenty hails from the barn of Kiaran McLaughlin and has done all of his best racing on the lead, often while setting sharp fractions. He looks likely to challenge Liam’s Map from the outset, which means that Liam’s Map might not be able to relax as well on Saturday as he did in the Whitney.
It’s also important to note that Liam’s Map brought a very strong and eye-catching series of workouts into the Whitney—two of his last three breezes had been bullets, including five furlongs in :58 2/5 a week before the race. It seemed as though Liam’s Map was being trained to deliver a peak effort in the Whitney, whereas his works in preparation for the Woodward (two half-miles in :48 1/5 and :49 4/5) seem to be geared more toward trying to maintain his form. For these reasons, I think Liam’s Map could be vulnerable as the heavy favorite, so I’m going to try and beat him with a horse offering better odds.
One possibility is Coach Inge, winner of the twelve-furlong Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II) two starts back and most recently third in the ten-furlong Suburban Handicap (gr. II) after setting a solid pace. He’s drawn well in post six and figures to track the pace on Saturday, and cutting back in distance should leave him with a stronger finish for the homestretch. However, it should be noted that the main track was playing very fast on the day of the Suburban, so Coach Inge’s fractions (:22.80 and :46.13) might not have been quite as quick as they first appear. I still think that he has a strong chance to track the pace and take command in the homestretch if Liam’s Map starts to tire, but he may have to work harder to keep up early on, which could leave him vulnerable to being caught by a stretch-runner.
Therefore, my choice to win the Woodward is Effinex. He’s won three of his last four starts with solid late rallies, earning triple-digit Beyer speed figures on each occasion. Last time out, he showed a lot of grit and determination to win the Suburban Handicap by a head over Tonalist, with Coach Inge another 1 ½ lengths back in third. Since the Suburban, he’s been specifically trained toward the Woodward, and his last two workouts—seven furlongs in 1:27 3/5 followed by a speed-sharpening five furlongs in :59 3/5—suggest that he’s ready for another great effort today. I envision him settling behind a fast pace and unleashing a big run in the homestretch to wear down Liam’s Map and Coach Inge to secure the victory.
One colt that I will likely play against is Protonico, winner of the Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) and Ben Ali Stakes (gr. III) earlier this year. From a speed figure perspective, he should be right in the mix, and he’s very versatile in terms of running style, winning graded stakes races when on the lead and when coming from eight lengths back. But he hasn’t run in four months, so he might be in need of a race, and he could be in for a wide trip from post eight. Additionally, his recent riders John Velazquez and Javier Castellano have jumped ship to ride Coach Inge and Liam’s Map, and while I don’t usually read much into jockey choices, I believe that this could have some significance since all three colts are trained by Pletcher.
For the exotics, Mylute could be a live longshot after rallying strongly in the nine-furlong Alydar Stakes here at Saratoga to finish second behind Bay of Plenty. We know he’s got class—he finished third in the 2013 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and fifth in that year’s Kentucky Derby (gr. I)—and he could take advantage of a fast pace on Saturday to rally and finish in the superfecta at a big price. Bay of Plenty also warrants respect, but got a great trip securing a clear lead in the Alydar, and hasn’t run as well when beaten to the lead by other horses, which seems likely to happen on Saturday with Liam’s Map in the race.
Rounding out the field are Wicked Strong, fourth in the Whitney, and Commanding Curve, runner-up in the 2014 Kentucky Derby. The former doesn’t win very often, but he’s remarkably consistent and has finished in the superfecta in nine of his last eleven races, an impressive feat considering the company he’s been keeping. If you’re playing the superfecta, he’s definitely a colt you’ll want to include. Commanding Curve has generally disappointed since his late-running second-place finish in the Derby, but he showed signs of improvement when winning an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Churchill two starts back, and his poor showing in the West Virginia Governor’s Stakes can be blamed on a lung infection. He’ll need to turn in a career-best effort to contend in a race like the Woodward, but he’s bound to be a huge price, and if you forgive his last race, it’s not out of the question that he could get involved for the exotics.
Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Woodward Stakes?
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.