4 Picks for Saratoga’s First Saturday

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

The summer racing action is heating up in a big way with the opening of Saratoga. The meet kicked off on Thursday, and I'm excited for the upcoming Saturday card, a stakes-packed day of racing with lots of talented horses in the entries.

Let's check out four of the races taking place on the first Saturday of the meet, including a trio of graded stakes:

Race 1: Maiden Special Weight (5 1/2 furlongs)

No trainer has saddled more two-year-old debut winners at Saratoga over the last five years than Todd Pletcher. The Hall of Fame trainer has been especially hot over the last two years, going 12-for-61 (20%).

#1 Pirate (4-5) looks ready to become the latest juvenile debut winner for Pletcher. The son of hot young sire Omaha Beach is a half-brother to 2023 Preakness S. (G1) winner National Treasure. Pirate clocked a bullet half-mile from the Saratoga training track starting gate last week and is slated to be ridden by four-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz, a 30% winner teaming up with Pletcher over the last two months per Brisnet stats.

In short, what's not to like? Pirate has a ton of positives in his corner and is facing only five rivals. He looks ready to roll.

Race 4: Diana S. (G1, 1 1/8 miles on turf)

#2 In Italian (2-5) wired this race last year and has been in red-hot form ever since. Using her trademark early speed, In Italian wired the First Lady S. (G1) and finished second in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) to wrap up 2022, then kicked off 2023 by posting easy gate-to-wire victories in the Jenny Wiley (G1) and Just a Game (G1).

In Italian is clearly the most accomplished horse in the 2023 Diana field, which drew only five entries. There isn't a ton of pace on paper, so the excellent early speed In Italian shows with regularity should secure her a perfect front-running trip. Throw in the fact trainer Chad Brown has won six of the last seven editions of the Diana, and In Italian is an obvious choice and a compelling single for multi-race wagers.

Race 9: Kelso S. (G3, one mile on turf)

There are plenty of viable contenders in this race formerly known as the Forbidden Apple. Many bettors will be drawn to #2 Annapolis (8-5), last year's Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) hero whose 2-for-3 record at Saratoga includes a gate-to-wire romp in the 2022 Saranac S. (G3). The four-year-old colt kicked off 2023 with a rallying triumph in the Opening Verse S. at Churchill Downs and has every chance to deliver victory for Todd Pletcher and Irad Ortiz.

But I'm going to side with #6 Filo Di Arianna (6-1). The Brazilian-bred runner flashed significant talent last summer at Woodbine, wiring the seven-furlong Connaught Cup (G2) before taking the one-mile King Edward (G2) in identical fashion.

Early speed is Filo Di Arianna's greatest weapon, and he put it to good use in the one-mile Poker (G3) at Belmont Park last month, carving out the pace before battling on to finish second by a neck against the capable Emmanuel. The third-place finisher, Chez Pierre, had previously dominated the Maker's Mark Mile (G1) over a deep field including two-time Breeders' Cup winner Modern Games and future two-time Grade 1 winner Up to the Mark.

The Poker marked Filo Di Arianna's second run of the season, and his first turf start since the King Edward. I believe he still has upside, so I'm willing to bet he can spring a surprise against this deep Kelso field.

Race 10: Sanford S. (G3, six furlongs)

This isn't a creative selection by any stretch of the imagination, but #9 Gold Sweep (3-5) looks tough to beat in the historic Sanford. The son of Speightstown finished second in his debut sprinting five furlongs at Churchill Downs, rallying boldly down the lane to miss victory by a neck against next-out Bashford Manor S. runner-up Wilson Q. The third-place finisher, Works for Me, came back to win his next start.

As for Gold Sweep, he returned in the 5 1/2-furlong Tremont S. at Belmont Park and absolutely obliterated his rivals, tracking and pressing the pace before drawing off to win by nine lengths. His final time of 1:03.47 was fast and towered over the 1:06.59 clocking required by two-year-old fillies to complete the Astoria S. on the same afternoon. If Gold Sweep delivers a similar performance in the Sanford, his rivals might be running for second place.

Speaking of which, #10 Market Street (12-1) is a live longshot worth using for the minor awards. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas rarely wins with first-time starters, so it was noteworthy to see Market Street dominate his debut in a five-furlong maiden special weight at Ellis Park last month, leading all the way to win by 3 3/4 lengths.

Over the last decade, Lukas has saddled only half a dozen horses to win maiden special weights on debut. One is Market Street. The other five are champion Take Charge Brandi, Ohio Derby (G3) winner Mr. Z, Schuylerville S. (G3) runners-up Summer Promise and Saratoga Secret, and the multiple stakes-placed John Q. Public. These days, when a Lukas trainee wins a maiden special weight on debut, it's reasonably safe to assume they'll turn into a stakes-caliber performer. Thus, Market Street's appeal as a live longshot in the Sanford.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like on the first Saturday on the Saratoga meet?


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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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