Thinking Outside the Box in the Alabama

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

I must admit, one of my favorite races to handicap each year is the $500,000 Alabama Stakes (G1) at Saratoga. The 1 1/4-mile distance is unique among major dirt races for 3-year-old fillies, making the Alabama a fascinating test of both speed and stamina.

Of course, picking the winner of the Alabama can be a challenging task, and apparently I find the task befuddling, Last year I gushed about the chances of Point of Honor, even voicing my belief that she would "win decisively," but this excitement was all for naught as she finished second. Two years ago I favored future Eclipse Award winner Midnight Bisou, but her third-place finish in the Alabama failed to produce any winning tickets.

Even more frustrating, back in 2017 I spent the better part of 1,000 words hemming and hawing between Elate (who won at 4-1) and Unchained Melody (who failed to finish the race). Ultimately, I elected to "give a narrow edge to Unchained Melody." Oops! At least I correctly settled on Songbird in 2016, though it was hardly a creative opinion, and her $2.40 win payoff was far from lucrative.

I could probably end my three-year Alabama losing streak by playing #5 Swiss Skydiver (1-1) in Saturday's renewal of the historic race. The Triple Crown-nominated filly won't be as short a price as Songbird, but she's bound to be a heavy favorite after compiling a stellar resume during spring and early summer.

Thanks to the postponement of the Kentucky Oaks, and the reconfiguration of the entire racing calendar, Swiss Skydiver managed to crisscross the country and win three races that usually take place within a couple weeks of each other: the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), the Fantasy (G3), and the Santa Anita Oaks (G2). Along the way she posted a bevy of 90+ Beyer speed figures while beating just about every major 3-year-old filly in the country aside from Acorn (G1) and Test (G1) winner Gamine.

For good measure, Swiss Skydiver squared off against males in the Blue Grass (G2) and ran a huge race in defeat, dueling for the lead before settling for second place behind next-out Ellis Park Derby winner and acclaimed Kentucky Derby contender Art Collector. Take note, Swiss Skydiver finished 4 3/4 lengths clear of the rest of the field, which included proven Grade 1 competitors Rushie, Basin, and Shivaree.

But this is the Alabama—evidently my handicapping Achilles' heel—so even if there isn't a good reason to play against Swiss Skydiver, I'm bound and determined to invent one. So let me begin by saying I'm concerned the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Alabama will stretch the limits of Swiss Skydiver's stamina. As a daughter of Daredevil out of a mare by Johannesburg (both best as sprinter/milers), Swiss Skydiver is bred for speed and has certainly shown plenty of tactical foot in her races, setting or stalking the pace in her four big runs.

Swiss Skydiver can clearly handle short two-turn routes is 3-for-4 racing 1 1/16 miles, but she was growing a bit leg-weary at the finish of the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass, and stretching out over 1 1/4 miles will only exacerbate her stamina shortcomings if they do indeed exist.

I'm also concerned about Swiss Skydiver's busy racing schedule this year; she's competed half a dozen times since the start of the season, and she ran hard race from start to finish in the Blue Grass. If Swiss Skydiver's action-packed campaign catches up to her at all on Saturday, the 1 1/4-mile distance will be even more formidable.

But rather than oppose Swiss Skydiver with a logical alternative like Belmont Park allowance winner #2 Spice Is Nice (3-1) or Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) runner-up #3 Crystal Ball, I'm feeling inclined to step way outside the box with a longshot.

For better or worse, the filly I'm interested to play is #6 Harvey's Lil Goil (10-1), a daughter of Triple Crown champion American Pharoah produced by the Tapit mare Gloria S. This is a pedigree with some promise for handling 1 1/4 miles, and Harvey's Lil Goil has already shown above-average stamina by compiling a 2-for-2 record racing 1 1/8 miles.

Harvey's Lil Goil first came to my attention when she annihilated five rivals in the 1 1/8-mile Busanda Stakes during the winter at Aqueduct. Racing over a slow track, Harvey's Lil Goil settled off the pace early on before effortlessly sweeping past rivals on the far turn. Harvey's Lil Goil was never asked for her absolute best, yet powered clear down the homestretch to beat future Busher Stakes winner and Acorn (G1) third-place finisher Water White by 7 1/2 lengths.

Harvey's Lil Goil never remotely fired when facing Swiss Skydiver in the Fantasy (G3), finishing eleventh while beaten 21 lengths, but perhaps she was rusty while returning from a three-month layoff. In any case, Harvey's Lil Goil rebounded sharply when switching to turf for the 1 1/8-mile Regret (G3) at Churchill Downs, battling to victory by a head over the promising Crystal Cliffs.

Harvey's Lil Goil has trained forwardly since the Regret and could be poised for a career-best effort while returning to dirt for the Alabama. Drawing post six will afford jockey Junior Alvarado plenty of options for working out a clean trip, and if you draw a line through Harvey's Lil Goil's non-effort in the Fantasy, her 10-1 morning line odds are highly enticing.

If Swiss Skydiver misfires while stretching out over 1 1/4 miles, Harvey's Lil Goil can pick up the pieces. Whether she'll deliver as I hope or join the ranks of Point of Honor, Midnight Bisou, and Unchained Melody remains to be seen... but in the meantime, I'm excited to play Harvey's Lil Goil on Saturday.

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


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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

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