Looking for Longshots at Saratoga

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

The top-notch racing at Saratoga will continue this weekend with several competitive graded stakes races on the agenda, including the $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes for three-year-olds and the $350,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (gr. I) for older sprinters. While the field sizes aren't huge--there are five horses in the Jim Dandy and eight in the Vanderbilt--I believe both races have the potential to produce surprising results. Let's start handicapping!

Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II)

This race is being billed as a showdown between Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing, and deservedly so. On paper, they appear to tower over the field--Always Dreaming was brilliant early in the year, winning the Florida Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby (gr. I) in dominating fashion, while the lightly-raced Cloud Computing rose quickly to impressive heights and won the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) in just the fourth start of his career.

But while their best form would make them difficult to beat, there are reasons to believe that both colts can be upset. From 2007 through 2016, a span of ten years, 25 different horses scored victories in Triple Crown races. Of those 25 horses, 23 came back to run after the Triple Crown season, with 15 suffering a defeat in their first post-Triple Crown start. Even more striking, if you had wagered $2 to win an all 23 horses, you would have wagered $46 for a return of $28.90--an ROI of just $1.26.

In essence, this is a roundabout way of saying that the winners of Triple Crown races aren't usually a good bet in their first start after the Triple Crown. Compared to their actual chances of winning, they're usually overbet thanks to their reputations.

So is it worth playing against Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing in the Jim Dandy? I believe it is, though it helps that I also believe the least-known runner in the field has a legitimate chance to pull off the upset.

The horse I'm thinking of is Pavel, who has made just one start to date. Owned by Reddam Racing and trained by Doug O'Neill, Pavel caught my eye with his impressive maiden win sprinting 6 ½ furlongs at Santa Anita on July 1st, for he was part of a pretty solid pace battle for the first half-mile before pulling away to score with authority by 4 ½ lengths, earning a 97 Beyer.

What's interesting is that Pavel's pedigree suggests that longer distances are well within his reach--in fact, being by Norfolk Stakes (gr. I) winner Creative Cause out of a mare by Maria's Mon (the sire of Kentucky Derby winners Monarchos and Super Saver), I think Pavel could show significant improvement while stretching out around two turns.

Obviously the Jim Dandy Stakes will mark a huge step up in class for Pavel, but drawing post position four in a small field (with Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing to his inside) will give Pavel plenty of options for running style depending on how the race unfolds. Doug O'Neill has spoken highly of Pavel, and with Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing expected to draw most of the wagering attention, I believe Pavel will go off at a solid price that will offset the risk involved with playing such a lightly-raced horse.

I would also like to mention Good Samaritan, an accomplished stakes winner on turf that will make his dirt debut in the Jim Dandy. Being by Harlan's Holiday out of a Pulpit mare, Good Samaritan's pedigree suggests that the surface switch won't be an issue, though his late-running style could put him at a disadvantage in a small field. He must be respected, but if I'm going to take a shot with a horse trying something new, I'd rather try front-running Pavel stretching out in distance than Good Samaritan switching surfaces, though I'm very curious to see how Good Samaritan performs.

Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (gr. I)

Eight accomplished sprinters will line up to contest this six-furlong race, including the defending winner A. P. Indian, who won six straight races last year to become a finalist for champion male sprinter at the Eclipse Awards.

Now seven years old, A. P. Indian is still among the best sprinters in the country, but he's been beaten in both of his runs this year, finishing second in the Commonwealth Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland and second again in the Maryland Sprint Stakes (gr. III) at Pimlico, beaten a half-length by the accomplished Whitmore.

With A. P. Indian possibly a step slower this year, I'm tempted to try and beat him for the top spot. A logical alternative is Limousine Liberal, who has won three straight races at Churchill Downs this year, but Limousine Liberal's previous forays into Grade 1 company have not yielded the best results, and it's fair to wonder if he can reproduce his very best form away from Kentucky, where he has been based throughout his career.

I'm a bit more intrigued by the newcomer El Deal. The son of Munnings was a decent low-level stakes horse early in his career, but since being transferred to the barn of Jorge Navarro during the winter, he has transformed into a different horse. In his first start for Navarro, El Deal crushed four rivals in a 4 ½-furlong handicap race at Charles Town, setting blazing fractions of :21.38 and :44.36 while drawing off to win by 7 ¾ lengths. He was even more impressive in the six-furlong Decathlon Stakes on June 11th at Monmouth Park, opening up a clear lead through sensational fractions of :21.26 and :43.12 before winning by three lengths with a final time of 1:08.59.

For those efforts, El Deal received Beyer speed figures of 101 and 102, the highest numbers earned by any of the Vanderbilt runners in their recent starts. With his phenomenal early speed, El Deal figures to work out an ideal trip setting the pace while saving ground and carrying just 114 pounds, the lightest assignment in the field and six pounds less than A. P. Indian will carry. With Javier Castellano in the saddle, I think El Deal could be tough to catch, though I would want a somewhat better price than his 7-2 morning line odds.

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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