WHISTLING PASSED THE GRAVEYARD
The term “Graveyard of Favorites” comes in handy once in a while when some unbeaten prodigy finally tastes defeat at short odds giving horseplayers long faces. But like any rural legend, it’s an exaggeration.
On balance, the form in Saratoga in any given year is as good as it gets at any American track you could name—OK, Great Barrington notwithstanding—but favorites generally do fare very well.
As we head into the first full week of the Spa meet, some trends, or at least a few early stats, to provide a picture of what’s been going on between the fences. For instance, favorites are 13-for-41, a 31.7% win rate, pretty average.
Linda Rice leads all trainers with three victories, thanks in large measure to the kind of races that helped her become the first female leading trainer in Saratoga history in 2009–the same year Rachel Alexandra became the first filly to win the storied Woodward: Turf sprints. Five trainers are currently tied with two wins each.
HOT JOCKS ROCK
Jose Lezcano has picked up right where he left off, as Belmont leading rider at the recently concluded Belmont summer meet. Lezcano is tied for first with Irad Ortiz Jr., each with five wins.
Interesting to note that Irad’s younger sibling, Jose, is next in line with four, tied with Javier Castellano and Junior Alvarado… and Jose missed Saturday’s Spa program.
All Jose did was to hop on a plane to Delaware Park to win as many stakes in one day than all the winners he rode in three days at Saratoga, all stakes. Two biggies, both for Bill Mott, were among them.
The first was was astride the turf mare Capla Temptress. But the coup was his Delaware Handicap title defense aboard Elate, a disdainful 10-furlong thrashing of hopelessly overmatched rivals, whether the measure was class or ability at the trip.
Would be an interesting match with Midnight Bisou, who is scheduled to run on the Haskell undercard Saturday. Or perhaps, the boys?
RECORD OPENING WEEKEND BUSINESS
Business opening weekend was huge considering it was Saratoga’s earliest opening–since the 1800s. Total paid attendance for the first four days of the 2019 season was 105,690, which fell 4,000 short of 2018. Last year opened on a Friday through Monday schedule; this year Thursday through Sunday.
Not quite sure these are the same kind of apples. For comparison purposes, all-sources handle figures might be a better metric. Saratoga attracted $73,441,101 in wagers, almost $2 million more than last year. It’s the Thursday vs Monday number that confuses.
But here is the big point: With the early opening, Saratoga got first run on Del Mar. When it comes to comparing internal all-sources figures, Del Mar always opened first; a shared spotlight. But without competition from Del Mar, one could surmise that Saratoga’s all-sources figures would be higher.
This year wasn’t exactly a walkover even without Saratoga’s biggest summer rival. In the interests of fairness, not provincialism, the Spa did have to compete with big-event days at Delaware Park, Arlington and Indiana Grand.
BREAKING EVEN–AND THEN SOME
That’s one really fast filly Brad Cox saddled Sunday. His 3 year old lass Break Even is undefeated in six lifetime starts, including victories on fast, wet and grassy surfaces. Her debut should have been the tip-off, breaking maiden by five in the slop, a key race producing four next-out winners.
Heaven knows what Sunday’s score in the Coronation Cup will mean in the future, given that she never had an anxious moment and stopped the Mellon Course timer in 1:01.59 for 5-1/2 furlongs. No, we’re not kidding.
The scary notion is that this equine bullet by Country Day seems limitless sprinting. The young sire’s offspring has shown an affinity for grass racing, as demonstrated in Break Even’s turf debut Sunday. The young sire has compiled gaudy statistics as a grass progenitor.
And it’s like owner Richard Klein has said, she’s no runoff. She speed-popped without need of quarter-horsing from Shaun Bridgmohan. She was within herself but still went a half-mile in 43.50. And, no, we’re not kidding.
The owner said they are considering the G2 Prioress back on dirt at the end of August, or could await another turf sprint at meet’s end. Should she run and win the Prioress, they would need to think about the Breeders’ Cup Sprint vs. males at 6 furlongs: Extreme speed + weight concession = victory.
Considering the amount of talent in his shedrow, Bob Baffert’s had a relatively quiet 2019. That might no longer be case in the next five weeks.
We’ll get an idea after McKinzie, who has a legitimate chance at Horse of the Year should he run the table including a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, run in his own back yard.
But first there’s the little matter of a race called the Whitney on the first Saturday in August in upstate New York. Trivia question: How many times has Baffert won the Whitney? The answer might surprise you: Zero. Do you think he wants this race on his Hall of Fame resume?
Everyone saw McKinzie’s troubled trip in the Met Mile and he figures to be a better horse going a furlong farther and around a second turn. And the competition won’t be anything he couldn’t handle on his ‘A’ game.
Yoshida will be there, as will Gunnevera. Vino Rosso is highly probable, given that Todd Pletcher has won the race thrice. John Kimmel has said he’s seriously considering the race for streaking Mr. Buff. And who knows where world traveler Thunder Snow will show up next?
As far as the Travers is concerned, that would be well within the Baffert wheelhouse. He won it with Point Given in 2004 ad back to back with Arrogate and West Coast in 2016-2017. He’s already said he’s following the West Coast playbook with McKinzie.
This year’s edition of the Midsummer Derby, should all the pieces fit into place, will be the 3-year-old race of the year and a possible road to an Eclipse championship in a division that’s wider than the Mississippi.
The Los Al competition he beat was questionable but not so the awesome performance. Whether it will be good enough to defeat the top Haskell, Jim Dandy or Curlin finishers, or contenders from other Derbies to be named later, remains to be seen. Whatever, it’s going to be one helluva horse race.