Will Antonoe Upset the Diana Stakes?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The eagerly-anticipated Saratoga meet kicks off on Friday, and the action-packed opening weekend includes several top-notch graded stakes races, led by the Diana Stakes (gr. I) and the Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I). Although both races feature heavy favorites, a couple of mid-priced runners have caught my eye and I believe mild upsets could be on the horizon. Let's start handicapping!

Diana Stakes (gr. I)

The first Grade 1 race of the Saratoga meet is the $500,000 Diana Stakes for fillies and mares going nine furlongs on the Mellon Turf Course. The deserving favorite at 4-5 on the morning line is Lady Eli, a popular five-year-old mare that has won a Grade 1 race in each of the last four years. With eight wins and three seconds from 11 starts, she's been a picture of consistency and talent despite the fact that she missed a lot of time while dealing with laminitis in the second half of 2015.

Lady Eli has run twice so far this year, finishing second by a head in the Jenny Wiley Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland before rebounding with a hard-fought win in the Gamely Stakes (gr. I) at Santa Anita, in which she clocked nine furlongs in a quick 1:45.29. Both efforts were excellent, particularly her run in the Gamely (in which she tracked a solid early pace in an uncharacteristic departure from her late-running style), but you can make a case that Lady Eli hasn't been quite as dominant since her return from laminitis. She can absolutely win the Diana Stakes, but with three losses from her last five starts, her 4-5 morning line odds seem a bit short.

An intriguing alternate is Lady Eli's stablemate, Antonoe, a Group 3 winner in France who is 2-for-2 since arriving in North America. In her U.S. debut, she won an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Keeneland with a powerful late run, and in the one-mile Just a Game Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park, Antonoe unleashed a powerful rally from six lengths back to win by three-quarters of a length, stopping the clock in 1:32.12 over a very fast turf course. Better still, Trakus had her clocking the distance in 1:31.80, with a final quarter-mile in :21.53!

Antonoe's terrific acceleration was visually striking as well, and was made all the more impressive by the fact that Antonoe was the only filly to make up any significant ground during the final quarter-mile. In other words, the race really didn't set up for Antonoe at all, but she overcame the odds to win anyway.

The four-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Javier Castellano was in the saddle that day and will be aboard again in the Diana. Antonoe is 3-1 on the morning line for the Diana, which I think would be terrific value, though I suspect she'll go off at a somewhat lower price.

Also warranting respect is Dickinson, who defeated Lady Eli in the Jenny Wiley Stakes despite a troubled trip. Most recently, Dickinson finished third in the Just a Game Stakes behind Antonoe, beaten just three-quarters of a length while being carried wide in the homestretch by runner-up Sassy Little Lila. However, Dickinson also saved significantly more ground than Antonoe (running about 2 ½ lengths less), so the slight trouble in the homestretch was probably offset by an overall superior trip.

Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I)

The obvious choice in this nine-furlong race for three-year-old fillies is Abel Tasman, a three-time Grade 1 winner that enters off consecutive wins in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and Acorn Stakes (gr. I). Trained by Bob Baffert, the late-running daughter of Quality Road has been remarkably consistent while winning at five different tracks, so the trip to Saratoga shouldn't prove to be much of an issue.

The bigger question mark might be the fact that Abel Tasman has received near-perfect setups in her last two wins, taking advantage of a blazing pace in the Kentucky Oaks and cutting the corner coming off the turn of the Acorn Stakes to edge the game runner-up Salty, who covered more ground with a wider trip.

Salty will be back to challenge again in the Coaching Club American Oaks, and while I might still prefer Abel Tasman--who is much more accomplished around two turns and reportedly outworked Met Mile winner Mor Spirit on July 15th--I'm tempted to take a shot with Elate at a bit of a price.

Trained by Bill Mott, Elate caught eyes last November when she broke her maiden going a mile at Aqueduct by twelve lengths. Her performances over the winter were fine--a runner-up effort in the Suncoast Stakes and a third in the Honeybee Stakes (gr. III) after a slow start--but after being pulled up and vanned off in the Ashland Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland, it appeared as though her early potential wouldn't be realized.

However, Elate came back a month later to finish second in an 8.5-furlong allowance race over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs, and on June 15th she finally returned to the winner's circle after scoring by 5 ½ lengths in the Light Hearted Stakes at Delaware Park. Although she only beat three rivals, I thought Elate did quite well to prevail while racing wide and rallying into slow fractions of :25.16, :50.88, and 1:15.23. With the benefit of this slow pace, Elate finished powerfully in the homestretch, drawing off with authority while clocking the fourth quarter-mile in a quick :24.20 seconds.

Can Elate step up and be competitive at this level? It's impossible to say for certain, but I've long felt that she has the talent to be a player in major races, and the nine-furlong distance of the Coaching Club American Oaks could be a good fit for her. At the very least, I view her as the perfect candidate to round out the exacta or trifecta at a decent price, and I'm not counting her out of the mix for victory either. At around 6-1 or higher, she might be worth a play.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the weekend stakes races?


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


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.

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