By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Another Saturday at Saratoga brings another stakes-packed
card led by the Whitney Stakes (gr. I) and
the Test Stakes (gr. I), two
prestigious Grade 1 events that could ultimately help settle wide-open Eclipse
Both races look competitive on paper, and I'm optimistic that
a couple of mild upsets could be in the offing. Let's take a look and see what we can find:
Stakes (gr. I)
There's a ton of speed entered in this seven-furlong
sprint for three-year-old fillies, so I find it difficult to envision any
outcome other than a pace meltdown. #1
Serengeti Empress, the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner, always sprints to the
front and will break from the rail while cutting back in distance—she pretty
much has to go for the lead. The same goes for #3 Covfefe, the track record-setting Miss Preakness Stakes (gr.
III) victor who likes to run all-out from start to finish. #2 Bellafina can be a bit more
tractable, but her best efforts have come when she's set or pressed the pace, and
#6 Please Flatter Me also likes to
race up front.
A pace meltdown in the Test Stakes is hardly an uncommon occurrence.
The last five winners of the Test raced no closer than fourth early on,
capitalizing on quick fractions to run down their front-running rivals.
That's why I'm throwing my support behind #5 Trenchtown Cat. Stamina isn't a
question mark for this daughter of Discreet Cat, who stretched her speed over a
mile on turf to win the Sanibel Island Stakes at Gulfstream this spring. But
since cutting back in distance and switching to dirt, Trenchtown Cat has become
more of a tracker/closer, and a promising one at that.
In her dirt debut, Trenchtown Cat faced older rivals in
the 6 ½ furlong Ana T. Stakes at Gulfstream Park, where she tracked the pace
before drawing away to win by 3 ¾ lengths over the graded stakes-placed
Trenchtown Cat then faced an even tougher field in the
seven-furlong Princess Rooney Stakes (G2), and while she failed to run down
Stormy Embrace—a highly accomplished five-year-old with a strong affinity for
Gulfstream Park—I was impressed by the sweeping rally Trenchtown Cat unleashed on
the far turn to reach contention at the top of the stretch. She couldn't close
a two-length deficit on Stormy Embrace, but she refused to lose ground either
and stayed on strongly down the lane to finish 5 ¼ lengths clear of the rest.
After performing admirably against older mares, Trenchtown
Cat might find the competition a bit easier in the Test Stakes, especially if
she gets a fast pace to set up her late rally. Her relatively unfamiliar Gulfstream
Park form should ensure she starts at a nice price in the wagering, making her
an appealing play in this competitive race.
Stakes (gr. I)
Thunder Snow and #6
McKinzie are the obvious favorites in the 1 1/8-mile Whitney Stakes, which
offers a "Win and You're In" berth to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). They've
both won multiple Grade 1 races. They can throw down triple-digit Beyer speed
figures in their sleep. They both ran strongly in the one-mile Metropolitan
Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont on June 8th, with McKinzie edging Thunder Snow by a
neck for second place in a high-quality race.
But if we're being picky, I might point out that Thunder
Snow hasn't run in two months, and he tends to be at his best with more
frequent racing. He's also 0-for-4 so far in North America. And while McKinzie
has an abundance of talent and might have been the best horse in the
Metropolitan (he endured a troubled trip), he's also shown a tendency to
dominate against easier company and come up short when facing the best. He was
narrowly beaten as the odds-on favorite in both the San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II)
and Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) earlier this year, so I'm reluctant to view
him as an unbeatable favorite at 7-5.
Instead, I'm optimistic that Saturday is the day #8 Preservationist completes his
transformation into the leading older male in the nation. A lightly-raced
six-year-old trained by Jimmy Jerkens, Preservationist has battled soundness
issues throughout his career, but with four starts in 2019 he seems to be
on the right track now.
As a son of Arch out of a Dixieland Band mare,
Preservationist has a stamina-oriented pedigree, so it's not surprising that he's
4-for-4 running a mile or farther, which includes three consecutive victories heading
into the Whitney. Two starts back, Preservationist won a 1 1/16-mile allowance
optional claiming race at Belmont with fast speed figures, and he parlayed that
victory into a dominant 4 ½-length triumph in the 1 ¼-mile Suburban Stakes (gr.
II) at Belmont.
I was seriously impressed by Preservationist's Suburban
performance. After briefly setting the pace from post two, Preservationist
casually allowed the onrushing Catholic Boy to take over. Preservationist could
have gotten rank as a result of Catholic Boy's premature rally, but instead he
relaxed perfectly along the inside and re-bid on the far turn, advancing up the
rail to reclaim the lead and pull away down the homestretch.
Preservationist's final time of 1:59.99 translated to strong speed figures (108 Beyer and 116 Brisnet) that rank him as fast or faster
than McKinzie and Thunder Snow. Just as significantly, Preservationist has a
bit more tactical speed than either of his rivals, an advantage in a race that
isn't exactly stacked with front-runners. Five of the last six editions of the
Whitney have been won in gate-to-wire fashion, and I can certainly envision a
scenario in which Preservationist takes the early lead and never looks back.
The best part? Preservationist might start as the third
choice in the wagering. If he runs like I think he can, this might be the last
opportunity to play him at a nice price until the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Grade 1 races at
Saratoga this Saturday?
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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.