Will This Saratoga Allowance Produce Two Graded Winners?

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

On Aug. 14 at Saratoga, a seemingly ordinary seven-furlong allowance race produced an outcome that may have an outsized impact on a pair of graded stakes this weekend.

Six weeks out from the Breeders' Cup, talented three-year-olds will take center stage in a handful of rich events. For colts and geldings specifically, there's Saturday's $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G1) at Parx Racing and Sunday's $400,000 Oklahoma Derby (G3). Both races have drawn strong fields filled with proven stakes competitors, but might a couple of unheralded runners from the above-mentioned Saratoga allowance steal the shows?

Let's dig in and find out!

Pennsylvania Derby (G1) at Parx Racing

Even though #9 Medina Spirit (2-1) is expected to scratch, the Pennsylvania Derby is still shaping up to be the best race of the week. Six of the nine remaining entrants in the 1 1/8-mile test are proven graded stakes winners, while two others have scored at the stakes level.

#7 Hot Rod Charlie (5-2) will likely start as the favorite. The consistent son of Oxbow won the Louisiana Derby (G2) during the spring before placing in both the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Belmont S. (G1). In the latter race, Hot Rod Charlie carved out a testing pace before settling second behind division leader Essential Quality, with Preakness S. (G1) hero Rombauer 11 1/4 lengths back in third place.

The Pennsylvania Derby will provide Hot Rod Charlie with an opportunity to claim his first Grade 1 win. It's an achievement he nearly nabbed in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell S. (G1) two months ago; Hot Rod Charlie actually battled across the Haskell finish line in front by a nose, but was ultimately disqualified for drifting in and causing #8 Midnight Bourbon (5-1) to unseat his rider.

Speaking of Midnight Bourbon, the Preakness S. (G1) runner-up bounced back nicely from the Haskell to finish second in the 1 1/4-mile Travers S. (G1) at Saratoga, beaten only a neck by Essential Quality. But Midnight Bourbon did enjoy a perfect trip setting uncontested fractions of :24.18, :48.96, and 1:14.49, and I'm not sure he'll receive as favorable a setup in the Pennsylvania Derby. Hot Rod Charlie also has speed and put it to good use in the Louisiana Derby, where he out-dueled Midnight Bourbon to win by two lengths.

Among the two favorites, I prefer Hot Rod Charlie. But ultimately, I have to take a shot with #3 Speaker's Corner (12-1) as my top choice, even though he's the only non-stakes winner in the field.

A beautifully bred son of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense out of a mare by Preakness hero Bernardini, Speaker's Corner showed promise in two starts against maiden special weight company last year. After finishing third in his debut at Saratoga, the Godolphin homebred rallied gamely to win a seven-furlong event at Belmont Park. His beaten rivals included Smarty Jones S. and Arkansas Derby (G1) runner-up Caddo River, Fountain of Youth S. (G2) winner Greatest Honour, Wood Memorial (G2) winner Bourbonic, Travers S. (G1) third-place finisher Miles D, and Manila S. winner Original.

Speaker's Corner subsequently spent 10 months on the sidelines before returning to action in a seven-furlong allowance at Saratoga—yes, the allowance we mentioned in the intro. Showing improved tactical speed while tracking quick early fractions, Speaker's Corner was full of run down the homestretch, seizing command and powering clear to dominate by 5 1/4 lengths.

Stepping up sharply in class and distance for the Pennsylvania Derby will be a challenge for Speaker's Corner, but he might just be up to the task. The Bill Mott trainee has already beaten good horses and may receive a favorable pace setup if Hot Rod Charlie and Midnight Bourbon hook up early on. If Speaker's Corner actually starts at 12-1 (I have my doubts), I believe he'll offer solid betting value in this competitive race.

Oklahoma Derby (G3)

Speaker's Corner wasn't the only horse returning from a long layoff in the Saratoga allowance. Oklahoma Derby entrant #6 Defeater (12-1) was exiting from a six-month break, and while the son of Union Rags failed to challenge Speaker's Corner, he did run a gallant race in defeat. After breaking slowly, Defeater unleashed a sharp mid-race move while racing wide to reach contention. He understandably flattened out a bit down the lane, but still held second over the capable sprinter Mahaamel.

This effort marked Defeater's first start since February, when he closed ground furiously to finish second in a 1 1/16-mile allowance optional claimer at Fair Grounds, beaten just half a length after gaining 5 1/2 lengths through the final furlong.

Slow starts have been a trouble spot for Defeater, who has never got off to a particularly alert break. But I'm excited to see what his stretch-running talents can accomplish in the Oklahoma Derby. The chestnut colt has been training sharply and figures to improve in his second start off the layoff, opening the door for a competitive effort. Arkansas Derby (G1) winner #1 Super Stock (7-2), Texas Derby winner #3 Warrant (5-2), and West Virginia Derby (G3) hero #7 Mr. Wireless (3-1) are all accomplished rivals with obvious win credentials, but there's a fair amount of speed in the Oklahoma Derby field, and Defeater may receive just the setup he needs to spring a surprise.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the graded stakes this week?


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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.

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