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
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
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
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 www.theturfboard.com.