Will Sunny Ridge Upset the Woodward Stakes?

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

I must admit that when I first examined the past performances for Saturday's $750,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, I had no real opinion of the race, and the only strong feeling I had was some sort of primeval urge to turn around and flee from such a wide-open and downright confusing field.

But of course, that's not very productive, and after spending more time handicapping the race, I'm actually rather excited by the possibilities it offers. With a full field that lacks any standout runners, the Woodward is shaping up to be a terrific betting race with plenty of opportunities to make a significant wagering score.

One reason why the Woodward is such a compelling race is because the potential pace scenario is completely unclear. The fourteen entrants have run a total of 250 races in North America, yet I can only find seven instances in which any of these horses have been the leader at the first call of a race. Furthermore, the majority of the Woodward entrants want nothing to do with racing even remotely close to the lead—instead, they prefer to drop back many lengths off the pace and come running late.

One notable exception is Sunny Ridge, who has been a capable graded stakes competitor since 2015, when he finished second in both the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) and the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III) during a productive juvenile campaign. Now five years old, this gelded son of Holy Bull has shown newfound tactical speed in his three starts this year and arguably delivered the best effort of his career when he cruised to victory in the 8.5-furlong State Dinner Stakes at Belmont Park on July 6th.

Simply put, there was a lot to like about that performance. The field was small but tough, with the graded stakes winner Timeline heavily favored to win. And when Timeline shook loose on an easy lead through fractions of :24.14, :47.70, and 1:11.46, he seemed destined for victory.

But lurking 2 ½ lengths off the pace in third place was Sunny Ridge, and as the field approached the homestretch, Sunny Ridge unleashed a burst of acceleration that carried him to a decisive 3 ¼-length victory. And his acceleration was hardly an illusion; according to Trakus, Sunny Ridge ran the final five-sixteenths of a mile in :29.03 seconds, an exceptional time for a dirt route. Furthermore, Sunny Ridge's final time of 1:40.71 was legitimately fast and produced a career-best 102 Beyer speed figure.

Need any more convincing that Sunny Ridge turned in a monstrous effort in the State Dinner Stakes? According to RacingFlow.com, which rates races based on their favorability toward front-runners or closers, the State Dinner Stakes produced a Close Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 1—in other words, it was in the top 1% of races favoring the early leader. By rallying from 2 ½ lengths behind Timeline, Sunny Ridge ran right through a very difficult pace setup, and he did so with complete authority.

Sunny Ridge has never won over the nine-furlong distance of the Woodward, but he did finish second in the Brooklyn Stakes (gr. II) going twelve furlongs last summer, so the extra half-furlong of the Woodward when compared to the State Dinner should not be an issue. With Saratoga's leading rider Irad Ortiz, Jr. in the saddle, I hope to see Sunny Ridge flash his speed from post position twelve and work out a perfect trip stalking a slow pace. If he produces the same powerful finish that he did in the State Dinner, he should be tough to catch at a little bit of a price. For all these reasons, I'm picking Sunny Ridge to win.

But if you value the race ratings produced by Racing Flow, then you'll also want to strongly consider the chances of Gunnevera. This durable and steadily-improving son of Dialed In already has three graded stakes victories under his belt and finished third behind champions Gun Runner and West Coast in the Pegasus World Cup (gr. I) earlier this year, earning a 101 Beyer. That was big number, though it pales in comparison to the 109 he posted while finishing in a dead-heat for fifth in a strong renewal of the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) last fall.

A foot issue and a strong track bias subsequently derailed Gunnevera's chances in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), but the Antonio Sano-trained colt recently returned from a layoff to score a very easy victory in an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream Park. He was favored at 1-10 and didn't beat much, but he did it impressively, settling in last place behind slow fractions of :24.58, :48.32, and 1:11.66 before rolling past his rivals to win by 6 ½ lengths. Like Sunny Ridge, he finished fast (running the final five-sixteenths of a mile in :30.04 per Trakus), and the end result was a CFR of 2, ranking the race in the top 2% of speed-favoring events.

Sure, Gunnevera's final time produced a Beyer speed figure of just 85, but remember last summer, when he ran through a CFR of 1 to win Gulfstream's 8.5-furlong Tangelo Stakes with an 86 Beyer? In his very next start, Gunnevera unleashed a big rally to finish second in the prestigious Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga behind West Coast. Gunnevera's recent allowance win was almost a carbon copy of his victory in the Tangelo, and just as Gunnevera stepped up his game significantly in the Travers, I'm expecting a similar move forward in Saturday's Woodward Stakes. The slow pace might compromise his chances to some extent, but I think he's the most likely of the deep closers to make a significant impact on the race.

In any case, I'm excited at the thought of a Sunny Ridge/Gunnevera exacta box and am looking forward to playing them both on Saturday. As for the rest, I won't try to talk you off anyone (that's how competitive this field is), but if you're looking for big longshots to include in the exotics, I would steer you toward Leofric and Zanotti. Both have some tactical speed, both enter the Woodward off of career-best Beyers, and both are 20-1 on the morning line. Leofric in particular seems to be on the rise with six wins from his last eight starts for trainer Brad Cox, who has gone 6-fo-26 (23%) at the current Saratoga meet.

Meanwhile, Zanotti has finished out of the exacta just once in his last 15 starts, a streak that includes a game runner-up effort in the nine-furlong Monmouth Cup Stakes (gr. III) last time out, for which he earned a 102 Beyer. The very wide draw is concerning, but with a bit of luck, maybe he can tuck in on the first turn and stay involved for a spot in the superfecta.

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


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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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