Handicapping a Competitive Alabama Stakes

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

As the summer rolls on and we draw closer to the end of the season, the racing action is really starting to heat up at Saratoga and Del Mar. While the richest race of the week is the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. I) at Del Mar, in which Arrogate will seek to rebound to winning form, we'll focus our attention on the $600,000 Alabama Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, which has attracted a very deep field. Let's start handicapping!

Alabama Stakes (gr. I)

One of the most competitive races of the weekend is the Alabama Stakes, a ten-furlong showdown featuring some of the best three-year-old fillies in the country. Nine fillies have been entered, all of them stakes winners, and with no clear-cut favorite, the opportunity exists for handicappers to make a nice score.

While looking over the field, I'm struck by the lack of speed horses entered in the Alabama Stakes. Historically speaking, the Alabama tends to favor horses that race on or near the lead, yet the majority of the runners in this year's Alabama prefer to stalk slow fractions or rally from behind.

In fact, the only true front-runner in the race is Unchained Melody, who also happens to be one of the most consistent and talented fillies in the field. Trained by Brian Lynch, the daughter of Smart Strike has won three of her four starts so far, including an easy three-length romp in the Grade 2 Mother Goose Stakes last time out, in which she set a solid pace before kicking clear to win decisively.

For that effort, Unchained Melody earned a Beyer speed figure of 100, which stands above the best figures earned by her eight Alabama rivals. While she'll be tackling two turns for the first time and running 1 ½ furlongs farther than ever before, Unchained Melody figures to work out a perfect trip setting a modest pace, and that could make her very difficult to catch.

Her main challenger could be Elate, runner-up by just a head to division leader Abel Tasman in the nine-furlong Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I) at Saratoga last month. While Elate had some trouble in the run down the homestretch, being put in tight quarters by Abel Tasman, I think she actually suffered more from less noticeable trouble on the far turn. While attempting to stay within range of Abel Tasman, Elate was eager to run but had to wait in traffic around the far turn, losing ground compared to Abel Tasman. When she did get clear, Elate made back most of that ground, but if she'd been able to match Abel Tasman's move around the far turn, that might have given her the edge she needed to prevail.

In any case, Elate's performance in the Coaching Club American Oaks was excellent, and her respectable tactical speed could be an asset in a race that doesn't appear to have much pace. She strikes me as the type of filly that won't have any trouble handling ten furlongs, and it's worth noting that five of the last six Alabama Stakes winners prepped for the race in the Coaching Club American Oaks.

Two wildcards in the Alabama Stakes are New Money Honey and Holy Helena. Both have won major stakes races going ten furlongs, but New Money Honey's victory came on turf in the Belmont Oaks (gr. I) while Holy Helena prevailed on Tapeta in the Queen's Plate Stakes at Woodbine. Can they transfer their fine form to dirt?

Certainly the potential is there. New Money Honey's pedigree is thoroughly dirt-oriented, and trainer Chad Brown wins at a 30% rate with a positive ROI when switching horses from turf to dirt. Holy Helena's pedigree also suggests that success on dirt is a possibility, and she ran well in two dirt races earlier this year, finishing second in a maiden race at Aqueduct before winning a similar event at Belmont Park.

Of the pair, my slight preference is for Holy Helena thanks to her solid speed figures and proven form on dirt, though I certainly can't argue with anyone that wants to support New Money Honey, especially following Good Samaritan's romping victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga last month. Like New Money Honey, Good Samaritan had run exclusively on turf to that point, but his pedigree hinted that dirt could be a viable option and he delivered on that promise with a huge run.

Lockdown, third in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) with a troubled trip and runner-up to Unchained Melody in the Mother Goose, is another to consider for the exotics, though I'm not sure ten furlongs is really her true calling. The same goes for Salty, who has kept excellent company while giving the impression that she might be best going a one-turn mile. It Tiz Well and Actress were separated by just a half-length when finishing first and third in the Delaware Oaks (gr. II) last time out, and while It Tiz Will might have gotten the better trip that day, she is also the more accomplished filly overall and has much more tactical speed, which could be useful in a race like the Alabama. Rounding out the field is Mopotism, runner-up in both the Summertime Oaks (gr. II) and the Indiana Oaks (gr. III) while earning respectable speed figures. She's shown speed in the past, but drawing post eight could lead to a wide trip and she probably needs to take a step forward to be a major factor.

But to recap, I view Unchained Melody and Elate as the fillies to beat in the Alabama Stakes, and I wouldn't be opposed to boxing them in the exacta and seeing if they run 1-2 for a solid payoff. Of the pair, I give a narrow edge to Unchained Melody thanks to her excellent early speed, though Elate is twice the price on the morning line and might offer better value if she stays around 6-1.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Alabama Stakes?


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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