Will Backyard Heaven Upset the Whitney Stakes?

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

Action on the road to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Churchill Downs picked up last week with a couple of major races for three-year-olds, and it will continue this Saturday with the prestigious $1,200,000 Whitney Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga.

Over the last dozen years, the nine-furlong race has been won by future Breeders' Cup Classic winners Gun Runner (2017), Fort Larned (2012), Blame (2010), and Invasor (2006), hence the Whitney's status as a major "Win and You're In" milestone on the road to the Classic. This year's renewal is shaping up to be a high-quality event pitting eight graded stakes winners (including three Grade 1 winners) against each other with a major purse as the prize.

The 7-5 favorite on the morning line is #6 Diversify, and deservedly so. The New York-bred son of Bellamy Road seems to have trouble taking his game on the road, but in his home state, he's compiled a 9-for-12 record (plus two second-place finishes) while winning such prestigious events as the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and the Suburban Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park.

Speaking of which, his win in the Suburban on July 7th was a terrific performance. True, he did shake loose on an uncontested lead, but it's not like he was allowed to set a slow pace—he carved out fractions of :23.47, :46.18, and 1:09.65, which was sufficient to spread out the field over more than seventeen lengths while exhausting his closest pursuers. Even more impressive, Diversify kept going, pulling away to win by 6 ½ lengths while stopping the clock in a quick 1:59.84 seconds, earning a 110 Beyer.

A repeat of that performance would make Diversify difficult to beat in the Whitney, especially when you consider that his lone previous start at Saratoga yielded an 11 ½-length romp in the nine-furlong Evan Shipman Stakes last summer.

If there's one potential chink in Diversify's armor, it's that he wasn't originally an intended starter for the Whitney. Following his tremendous Suburban effort, trainer Richard Violette, Jr. had planned on aiming Diversify for the September 1st Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, but following a bullet five-furlong workout in :59 flat on July 29th, those plans were changed and Diversify was rerouted to the Whitney.

It also seems unlikely that Diversify will secure an uncontested lead this time around, since #3 Dalmore—who has shown plenty of speed in his last three starts—could get aggressive under the guidance of jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr., who has not been afraid to grab the early lead at Saratoga this summer, a strategy that is working well since Santana is winning at a 22% rate.

Regardless, Diversify looms as the most likely winner of the Whitney and is a horse that I would want to include in multi-race wagers, but since I don't fully trust him (and am not particularly excited about his 7-5 morning line odds), I'm tempted to take a shot at beating him with #2 Backyard Heaven.

Simply put, Backyard Heaven looked like a star in the making earlier this year. The lightly-raced four-year-old son of Tizway kicked off the season with an easy win in a one-mile allowance race at Aqueduct (for which he earned a 108 Beyer), and he followed up that effort with a decisive score in the 8.5-furlong Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs, pressing the pace early on before seizing command and pulling away to win by 4 ½ lengths over a quality field, earning a 105 Beyer.

Those efforts stamped Backyard Heaven as the 4-5 favorite for the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, but after tracking the early pace, Backyard Heaven failed to seriously fire and retreated to finish sixth, beaten more than ten lengths.

Some might take that effort as a sign that Backyard Heaven isn't capable of handling the jump in class to Grade 1 company, but it's worth noting that the Stephen Foster took place on a very hot and humid evening, conditions so uncomfortable that the multiple graded stakes winner Irish War Cry failed to even finish the race. As a result, I'm tempted to just draw a line through Backyard Heaven's Stephen Foster performance and judge him off his previous form.

Since that race, Backyard Heaven has trained well at Belmont and Saratoga, even breezing alongside recent Haskell Invitational (gr. I) winner Good Magic on a couple of occasions. From all appearances, Backyard Heaven has bounced out of the Stephen Foster well, and he appears likely to work out an ideal trip on Saturday stalking Diversify and/or Dalmore through the opening six furlongs. Whether he can catch Diversify is another matter entirely—and it probably depends on whether or not Diversify brings his A-game or his B-game—but at his 9-2 morning line odds, I think Backyard Heaven offers fair value since he's lightly raced and we still don't know what he might be capable of achieving.

#4 Mind Your Biscuits is actually the second choice on the morning line at 2-1, thanks in large part to a near-miss in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) last time out. A two-time winner of the Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I) at Meydan, Mind Your Biscuits has a ton of class and must be respected, but he's also never run farther than a mile and has never contested a race around two turns. Can this late-running sprinter/miler successfully stretch out to nine furlongs against this caliber of competition?

It's a question that's impossible to answer with any certainty, but my gut feeling is that a mile is already stretching Mind Your Biscuits' distance capabilities, and going another furlong in the Whitney could be a tough task. In the Metropolitan, I believe Mind Your Biscuits benefited from a modest opening quarter-mile of just :23.08 seconds, which essentially turned the race into an elongated sprint to the finish line—exactly the type of race Mind Your Biscuits relishes. When faced with a much stiffer early pace in the Cigar Mile Handicap (gr. I) last December, Mind Your Biscuits made a menacing move around the turn, but ultimately flattened out and lost ground down the homestretch to finish a distant second.

I'm actually more intrigued by the chances of #7 Good Samaritan, who offers significantly higher odds (12-1) on the morning line. Although he could only finish seventh in the Metropolitan last time out, the pace of the race didn't set up for him by any means—RacingFlow.com assigned the race a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 7, indicating a speed-favoring event that put Good Samaritan at a distinct disadvantage, considering that he was trying to rally from a dozen lengths off the pace.

Even with a more favorable setup, I think the one-mile distance would have ultimately been too sharp for him. After all, Good Samaritan's best races to date have come going nine furlongs on dirt, the same conditions as the Whitney. Under those conditions, he's compiled a near-perfect 2-for-3 record, winning the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) and New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) with decisive late rallies and finishing second by just half a length in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) last fall.

With Diversify, Dalmore, and Backyard Heaven all likely to show speed, I think Good Samaritan will get a reasonably good pace setup in the Whitney, allowing him to utilize his late run more effectively and come running late to finish on the board at a nice price. I won't be leaving him off my tickets.

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


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!


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.

Recent Posts

More Blogs