J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
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
Diana Stakes (gr. I)
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.