By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Who's ready for another summer of high-class racing at
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
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.
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
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
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, RacingFlow.com 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?
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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.