It took until July 30, until Stay Thirsty could get back on the Saratoga surface, a track he showed a distinct preference for last year when he finished second in the G1 Hopeful to an ill-fated now back-in-training Boys At Tosconova.
Following the Hopeful was an impossible wide trip behind Uncle Mo and “Boys,” as his known around the Dutrow barn in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He came out running in his debut at 3 to win the G3 Gotham with authority. Big things were expected.
But then came the Florida Derby debacle when he melted in the heat of the SoFla sun and subsequent 12th place finish in Animal Kingdom’s Kentucky Derby. But the Derby toughened him up and he was ready for his best in the Belmont.
The sealed sloppy track might have helped him but his effort could not be disparaged, a game placing behind Ruler On Ice. The problem, however, is what does it all mean when he returns to fast footing at a more reasonable distance?
The Spa was just the tonic, my friends.
He surged into the lead soon after straightening away and under strong urging, drew off in the final furlong in :12.98, stopping the timer in 1:48.78 for the nine furlongs. This is commonly called racehorse time.
“I was right where I wanted to be, the spot right behind the front-running horses, and everything set up perfectly for me,” said Castellano. “He’s a very handy horse, the way it unfolded was perfect.”
“This horse just ran a special race today,” said an excited Repole. “I think what you saw today was a horse that’s just getting better and better and better… If everything goes right, he’ll be in the Travers.”
“That’s the plan,” added Pletcher. “Assuming he comes out of it well, that’s why we’re here.”
With the exception of Dominus, who appeared unable to stay the distance, unable to hold off 37-1 Moonshine Mullin for the place, the other major Jim Dandy contenders looked very much like horses who were using this race as a bridge to the Travers.
Neither Alternation nor Brilliant Speed, the fourth and fifth finishers, did very much running. Peter Pan winner Alternation was going the right way at the finish, closing some ground late without threatening.
The Blue Grass winner Brilliant Speed never really had an opportunity to make an impact, even if he was ready for his best, which clearly he was not. He raced four wide virtually throughout the nine furlongs.
When the pace is a series of 12-clips, faster at some junctures, and the final time breaks 1:49 for the trip, there’s very little anyone could do. But it was unlikely to make a difference yesterday.
Stay Thirsty is back in Saratoga and proved yesterday that this is the favorite of the five tracks he’s raced on.
Barring a very strong performance in Sunday’s Haskell Invitational, the 3-year-olds that show up here on August 27 had better have their running shoes tied very tight.
The Stay Thirsty that won the Jim Dandy will be a very tough out one month from now. The pressure is now on the celebrated juvenile champion. Right now, he’s not the stable leader, not even under his own shed.
Oh, Please, Stay By Me, Zagora
The pre-race chatter surrounding the Grade 1 Diana was three-fold: that it didn’t appear to be a Grade 1 group, that there were several fillies with top class potential and that it would be a good betting race.
As it turned out, that assessment looks very much like a cold trifecta. I’m not sure a true Grade 1 horse would give up a lead as easily as the favorite Unbridled Humor did after setting a moderate pace with any true pressure.
Even after yesterday’s downpour, the turf remained firm and even though Graham Motion was concerned that the lack of pace on paper would find his filly on the lead, which Motion says it not her best game.
However, it’s hard to make excuses after early splits of :25.20 and :50:31. The tempo began to pick up when the 1.95-1 favorite reached three-quarters in 1:14.02--sub 24 seconds--which is difficult to withstand but alarming that she gave way so readily.
After bumping slightly with Motion’s other filly, Aruna, leaving the starting gate, the winning Zagora, Javier Castellano kept Chad Brown’s filly covered up and in the clear, the best of both worlds.
Castellano encouraged Zagora who gained ground into the stretch but didn’t ask in earnest until reaching the three-sixteenths marker. Asked and answered.
Zagora simply took off leaving the eighth pole, opened some ground, and was kept in a drive to the finish, a length and a half to the good of Aruna, whose momentum enabled her to earn the place from a stubborn stalker, Canadian invader Bay to Bay.
Aruna was forced to race between horses throughout most of the trip, found room just as her stablemate was setting sail to the finish and continued strongly in a final quarter-mile hand-timed in :23.50.
Zagora, meanwhile, has been close to doing something like this all winter and spring. Narrowly beaten in Tampa’s G3 Hillsborough, she shipped to Keeneland, caught yielding ground and was one-paced to the finish, third in the G2 Jenny Wiley.
But it was her fast closing narrow loss to Giants Play--a non-factor today--that signaled she was coming to hand, finally putting it all together in her first G1 try since shipping over from France, showing that her placing in the G1 Queen Elizabeth II last year at Keeneland was no mirage.
Castellano replaced Ramon Dominguez aboard Zagora, Dominguez opting to ride Aruna instead. Handicapping can be a tricky business.