Saratoga Stakes Plays for Opening Saturday

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

Who's ready for another summer of high-class racing at Saratoga?

The much-anticipated 2019 summer meet kicked off earlier today, and the first Saturday of the meet will feature a couple of prominent graded stakes races. The fields might be small, but this is Saratoga, and upsets could be just around the corner.

Let's dig in and examine the two feature races on Saturday:

Sanford Stakes (gr. III)

It's hard to believe the two-year-old #2 Raging Whiskey has already knocked heads with two future stakes winners—how is that even possible so early in the season?—but such is the depth of the juvenile division in California that even ordinary maiden races are filled with stakes-caliber runners.

At first glance, Raging Whiskey's debut sprinting 4 ½ furlongs at Santa Anita on May 19th was unremarkable. He broke slowly, then produced a decent rally to finish in a dead-heat for third, beaten 5 ½ lengths. But this performance looks infinitely better when you consider the horses he competed against.

For starters, there was the victorious Fore Left, who came back to win the Tremont Stakes at Belmont Park. Then there was the runner-up Phantom Boss, who proceeded to break his own maiden and then prevail in the Bashford Manor Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs. Even the other third-place finisher, Verb, returned to finish a game third in the Bashford Manor.

Raging Whiskey didn't waste any time reaching the winner's circle himself, wheeling back two weeks later to win another 4 ½-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita by 2 ¼ lengths. Notably, Raging Whiskey broke alertly in his second start and scored a gate-to-wire victory. Now he'll follow Fore Left, Phantom Boss, and Verb into stakes company.

In terms of Beyer speed figures, Raging Whiskey isn't the fastest colt in the Sanford field—he's technically slower than #3 Cucina and #5 By Your Side. But it's hard to trust speed figures for inexperienced two-year-olds sprinting short distances, because these horses are rapidly maturing and accurate speed figures are hard to calculate.

So I'm feeling more inclined to place my faith in Raging Whiskey's solid form lines and trust he'll step up his game Beyer-wise in the Sanford. If you need any more evidence that California's two-year-olds are strong this year, just check out the results of the Schuylerville Stakes (gr. III) on opening day at Saratoga, in which Comical—the lone Californian in the field—made a successful cross-country journey to win by a neck.

Diana Stakes (gr. I)

The three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown conditions four of the six fillies and mares entered in this 1 1/8-mile turf race, including the three morning line favorites. It's practically a certainty that Brown will win the Diana for a fourth consecutive year, but which of his fast fillies will reach the wire first?

It's not hard to make a case for #4 Sistercharlie or #2 Rushing Fall. Sistercharlie is a neck and a head away from being undefeated in six North American races, and she counts triumphs in the 2018 Diana and the 2018 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. I) among her four Grade 1 wins. Rushing Fall is also a Breeders' Cup winner—she prevailed in the 2017 Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr. I)—and she's been sharp in two starts this season, winning the Jenny Wiley Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland and the Just a Game Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont.

But if we're being picky, I might point out that Sistercharlie's seasonal debut was delayed due to illness, so the Diana will mark her first start in more than eight months. And Rushing Fall enjoyed uncontested leads in both the Jenny Wiley and the Just a Game, a situation that seems unlikely to occur in the Diana thanks to the presence of #3 Mitchell Road, a clear-cut front-runner stepping up in class off a victory in the Gallorette Stakes (gr. III) at Pimlico.

That's why I'm going to throw my support behind Brown's third-ranked contender #6 Homerique, who will carry just 118 pounds, six less than Sistercharlie and Rushing Fall. As a three-year-old competing in France last year, Homerique held her own against some top-class runners, finishing third by a neck against multiple Group 1 winner Laurens in the Prix de Diana Longines (Fr-I) and third by a length against Epsom Oaks (Eng-I) runner-up Wild Illusion in the Prix de l'Opera Longines (Fr-I).

But Homerique has really thrived under Brown's care in North America. She kicked off 2019 with a victory in the 1 1/16-mile Beaugay Stakes (gr. III), where she rallied to defeat her Grade 1-winning stablemate Competitionofideas by a half-length.

This effort becomes all the more remarkable when you consider the almost impossible pace setup Homerique encountered. Reserved at the back of the pack through incredibly slow fractions of :26.87, :52.86, and 1:16.92 (over a firm turf course no less!), Homerique faced a tough task trying to reel in the leaders. Yet by sprinting the final five-sixteenths of a mile in :27.48, a terrific fashion, Homerique managed to get the job done. Not surprisingly, assigned the race a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of "2" on their 1-to-100 scale, signifying a highly speed-favoring race.

Homerique subsequently stretched out to 1 ¼ miles for the New York Stakes (G2) at Belmont and handled the extra distance just fine, holding off a late charge from Competitionofideas to prevail by a neck. Again Homerique showcased a sharp turn-of-foot, sprinting the final half-mile in :45.48.

Yes, Homerique has yet to prove she can defeat a filly as classy as Sistercharlie or Rushing Fall. The Diana will mark her toughest North American test to date, but if this race turns into a sprint to the finish line, I believe Homerique's turn-of-foot will win the day. Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. will have plenty of options to work out a clean trip while breaking from post six, and isn't the thought of playing a filly like Homerique at 5-2 rather appealing? It's not every day you can catch a price like that on a classy Chad Brown-trained filly in a turf race.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Saturday stakes races at Saratoga?


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

Recent Posts

More Blogs