Horse racing's summer season kicks into high gear this weekend. Of course, the summer season includes Saratoga Race Course and Picks & Ponderings in this space looks at the stakes quartet carded for the first of August, headlined by the Grade One Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap. The undercard includes the Grade Two Jim Dandy Stakes and Grade Two Amsterdam Stakes, both for three-year-olds with two-turn routers in the former and sprinters in the latter and with both races serving as local preps to Grade Ones later in the meet. Another steppingstone Grade Two, the Bowling Green Handicap, rounds out the quartet.
Coverage this weekend at Picks & Ponderings isn't limited to Saratoga. Paul Mazur looks at two Illinois-bred stakes closer to home. At Arlington, males go in the Addison Cammack and females go in the Isaac Murphy. On Sunday, Nicolle Neulist previews the feature race of the weekend: the G1 Haskell Invitational - featuring the return of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
As with all NYRA racing at Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct, audio of these races is streamed on the NYRA website, and HD video is available to anyone with a free NYRA account. Horse Racing Radio Network will also live-stream the Vanderbilt on its website as part of its Saratoga Saturdays. That broadcast will run from 4:00-6:00pm EDT. HRRN's program is also available on Sirius 92.
Selections for the Bowling Green Handicap are made for turf only. At publish time the turf rail is set for nine feet out. Authorship of each race in this piece is denoted by initials at the end of the race, PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist. Morning lines were not available at original publish time. All races are scheduled for Saturday August 1.
Updated on July 30 with pre-scratch morning lines. Updated August 1 to reflect the anticipated scratches of COMPETITIVE EDGE and TEKTON from the Jim Dandy.
Saratoga Race Course -- Race 5 -- G2 Amsterdam Stakes -- Six and one-half Furlongs on Dirt -- post time 3:17 pm ET
The Amsterdam Stakes began in 1993 as the Screen King Stakes. Screen King, a Kentucky-bred who started his career in New York, finished third in the 1979 Preakness Stakes. He won two graded contests: the 1979 Swift Stakes (GIII) at Aqueduct and the 1979 Ak-Sar-Ben Omaha Gold Cup (GII). In 1998, the race was renamed after Amsterdam, a town about a forty-minute drive from the Saratoga racetrack. Originally a seven-furlong race, it was a six-furlong race from 1994 through 2005, and has been run at its current six and a half furlong distance since 2006. It first earned a Grade III status in 1998, and has had its current Grade II designation since 2001. Only two winners of the Amsterdam have gone on to win the King's Bishop as well: Caleb's Posse (2011) and Discreetly Mine (2010). Two Amsterdam winners, who coincidentally both finished third when they returned in the King's Bishop, have made an even bigger name in the stud barn than on the racetrack: Distorted Humor (1996) and City Zip (2001).
With BLUEGRASS SINGER, VICTORY IS SWEET, THE GREAT WAR, and HOLY BOSS in this field, the early going stands to be feisty. It should set up nicely for MARCH to get a similar sort of trip he got in the Woody Stephens (GII) last out: sit off the pace battle, and pounce. He has been improving through the year, and has shown his best in his last two starts going seven furlongs. He cuts back to six and a half here. Though he was second in his only start at six and a half furlongs, that involved trying to make up ground against a wire-to-wire winner well rated on the lead. This should be a different ballgame, and better for MARCH than that debut race. HOLY BOSS also deserves some respect here. Though he has done most of his winning from the front end, he has shown an ability to fight. He also showed a new dimension last out in the Chick Lang, sitting off of VICTORY IS SWEET before taking command. HOLY BOSS has a regular sequence of works going into this race, though it seems slightly strange that he has been working and working, but never started (or even scratched) since that May 16 win in the Chick Lang. That said, if he runs back to what he has shown in the Bachelor and the Chick Lang, HOLY BOSS could stretch his win streak to four. BARBADOS could not quite catch Grand Bili last out in the Carry Back, but that was his first start since January. With that under his belt, and a sharp work at Churchill since then, he should be fitter here. Trainer Michael Tomlinson's record second off the lay (19% wins, 42% in the money) bolsters that claim. Though his biggest wins have been at Gulfstream, he cannot be pigeonholed as a one-track pony. He broke his maiden last year at Keeneland, sitting just off early and then scampering away in the slop. He also reunites with rider Luis Saez, who has ridden him in his last three starts -- two stakes wins, and a second. They should work well together again.
#3 MARCH (3/1)
#7 HOLY BOSS (5/2)
#5 BARBADOS (7/2)
Longshot: #1 REQUITE (5/1) makes his graded stakes debut here, but has a few things going for him to suggest he can contend here. He showed form over the track last year, breaking his maiden at first asking lsat August by daylight over the promising Two Weeks Off. Though that was a wire job, his two wins since then have had him sitting off the early fractions, displaying some pace versatility. He has never tried the exact six and a half furlong distance of the Amsterdam, but since he has won at distances from five and a half to seven furlongs, this not quite sprint, not quite elongated sprint distance should suit him. His last-out win in the Big Cypress Handicap was franked, as well; second-place Grand Bili returned to win the Carry Back (GIII). -- NN
Saratoga Race Course -- Race 8 -- G1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap -- Six Furlongs on Dirt -- post time 5:14 pm ET
Think back to your 21st birthday and your gift. A trip to the bar (to drink legally), maybe a car, or perhaps a down payment on your first apartment. If you were Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt II (1912-1999), your 21st birthday gift was Sagamore Farm in Maryland. Bearing the same name as his father, his pedigree was steeped in wealth: his mother was the daughter of a drug inventor who invented an antacid that carries on in its current form as an Alka-Seltzer. The paternal side was the Vanderbilt family that controlled railroads (then moved to banks and racetracks, by the 20th century) in the Northeast. A. G. Vanderbilt was exposed to racing at ten when taken to the Preakness Stakes and got into racing heavily after military service in the Second World War. He campaigned Hall of Famers like Discovery and Bed o' Roses (NYRA stakes nameplates, too) but his ownership of Native Dancer (1953 Preakness winner/two-time Horse of the Year, and later a foundation sire) is perhaps is best claim to fame. In later years, he became chairman of NYRA. In 1985, the A Phenonenon Handicap was created to honor A Phenomenon, the winner of the 1983 G1 Vosburgh. Given a grade in 1990 and ascending to Grade One status in 2010, the race first honored Vanderbilt in 2000. Always at six furlongs in August at Saratoga, it carries a $350,000 purse this year. Orientate (2002) is the only winner of Vanderbilt to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint in the Fall. War Front (2006) has since gone on to be a fashionable stallion in Kentucky. Fabulous Strike (2009) is also among the winners, and has a stakes at Penn National in his honor.
Before becoming a fashionable stallion with a six figure stud fee, War Front was a sprinter - as seen in his win in the 2006 Vanderbilt Handicap.
Perhaps whatever afflicted THE BIG BEAST has come and gone, as he scratched on the morning of the Grade 3 Belmont Sprint Championship. He returns to the scene of his breakout performance last year. Winner at the Spa in last year's G1 King's Bishop, he's unraced since a six-wide trip in the G1 Carter. While he can blitz to the lead, THE BIG BEAST showed he has a slight rating gear when pulling back first off the winter vacation down at Oaklawn. That makes him dangerous as he can blitz to the lead and steal it if need be, or pull back and make a pressing run. The pressing run is more likely given the presence of front-running FAVORITE TALE. THE BIG BEAST is a Tony Dutrow training production who gets white-hot rider John Velazquez to climb aboard, and Tony Dutrow does quite well in long (at least three months) layoff situations - 23% wins and 55% top three. As he's tactical, that puts him at an advantage over speedball FAVORITE TALE. While FAVORITE TALE is the last-out winner of the G2 Smile Sprint at Gulfstream, he gets points for shipping in and winning in a tough humid climate. He doesn't get points for leading all the way when Illinois-bred BC Sprint hero Work All Week got jostled in the early race stages by Faling Sky and Work All Week - who goes in the Senator Byrd Stakes on West Virginia Derby Day - wasn't able to offer much challenge on the pace. While FAVORITE TALE is the speed of the speed, CLEARLY NOW could easily go with him and scramble his chances on the front end. However he's survived quick pace duels and come out better on the other side. Just as THE BIG BEAST can pull back, so can ROCK FALL. While he's made his move in the early-to-intermediate stages of races, he's shown he doesn't need to break on to top be involved in the early race dynamics. That could be helpful with FAVORITE TALE gunning for the lead. ROCK FALL last time won the G2 True North on the day before the Belmont Stakes and two back won a Keeneland allowance finishing ahead of eventual 2015 Iowa Sprint winner Delaunay. After losing his first start, ROCK FALL has reeled off five straight wins, the last two being that Keeneland allowance and the G2 True North. Though he's a Pletcher trainee, the Pletcher magic hat hasn't had as many rabbits in it at Saratoga and he might also be going once too often to the well. Like FAVORITE TALE he's a defensive use but not one to circle on top.
#6 THE BIG BEAST (4/1)
#7 FAVORITE TALE (5/1)
#3 ROCK FALL (2/1)
Longshot: The video above showed War Front winning a Vanderbilt, and one of his sons - #1 DEPARTING (20/1) - sees the starter in the G1 Vanderbilt. There must be a boogeyman or something scary in the G2 Fourstardave that DEPARTING is avoiding. (The only monster this space sees in the G2 Fourstardave is the kind in cans you buy near the Shake Shack.) That's because DEPARTING was belatedly put on turf two back in a loaded minor stakes and the hit the podium at Churchill, finishing behind next-out G3 winner The Pizza Man. Last out he won the G2 Firecracker going a grassy mile, so a race like the G2 Fourstardave would make sense as a next out. But Stall, to Blood-Horse, is taking a stab and tries this race. Based on the newfound turf effort, DEPARTING looks like he's going into the wrong race. But he does have solid dirt form courtesy of graded wins at three and a win to kick off his 2014 campaign at a one-turn mile at Churchill. Six furlongs may be short based on form but his sire won this race a decade ago. Yet DEPARTING does have every reason to like this distance and his off-the-pace style will certainly find FAVORITE TALE a more than adequate target. It might not be the wrong race, after all. --PM
Saratoga Race Course -- Race 9 -- G2 Bowling Green Handicap -- One and three-eighths miles on Inner Turf -- post time 5:50 pm ET
This year, Saratoga reconfigured its stakes schedule to put eleventy squillion - okay, seven - graded stakes on Travers Day. One stakes that moved to Travers Day was the G1 Sword Dancer at a mile and a half. So Saratoga shifted about the stakes calendar and moved the Bowling Green Handicap upstate to the Spa, after nearly five-plus decades at Belmont Park (though it was at Aqueduct in the 1960s). Named for a portion of Manhattan Island, the Bowling Green was a Grade One in the 1980s but in 1990 became a Grade Two, which it has been ever since. For years contested in the summer, it was moved to the Fall in 2009 (after a one-year hiatus) as the Man o' War took the summer slot among turf races. When the Man o' War went to early May in 2014, the Bowling Green went back to the summertime. Now it moves upstate and functions as a local prep to the Sword Dancer. At between ten and twelve furlongs throughout its history, it will be contested at a three-turn eleven furlongs this year with a quarter million dollars in purse money. NYRA stakes nameplates like Fort Marcy (1970), Woodbine Stakes nameplate Overskate (1979), and Canadian Hall of Famer With Approval (1990) are among the heroes. Theatrical (1987) won this race and the Breeders' Cup Turf in the same year. Locals will recognize Mid-America triple hero Honor Glide (1999) also on the winners' roll call.
IMAGINING gets the call narrowly as the choice in the G2 Bowling Green. As Saratoga's turf has played a touch kindly to speed, it puts a deeper closer like INNOVATION ECONOMY behind the eight ball. He can certainly win and those who endorse won't be turned away. But we'll take Shug's runner, who scored three back in the G2 Pan American over Gulfstream turf. That's a plus as Gulfstream turf usually looks brown and wilted but can carry forward runners more than other turf courses. Although his G1 claim to fame is running off with the 2014 renewal of the G1 Man o' War, he did make an off-the-pace move to take the Pan American - which was contested at three turns. He bested Twilight Eclipse, who would turn the tables in this year's Man o' War that was even more slow-paced. While an argument could be made that IMAGINING is on the way down off a pair of fifths in Grade One events, there are trouble notes in the trips in both races. Plus this race hasn't lured the best and brightest of the turf division, and maybe IMAGINING is just a touch better. It certainly helps when John Velazquez, who is riding lights-out at Saratoga, has your mount. The fact he'll work closer to the pace set by IRON POWER and WAR DANCER makes him the play over INNOVATION ECONOMY, who will rally from the picnic tables. Winner last time out of the two-mile Belmont Gold Cup, he cuts back to eleven furlongs in this spot. Winner over next-out G3 Louisville winner Xtra Luck in a Keeneland allowance two back, this Chad Brown trainee comes off a layoff while having worked in the interim. A winner last fall at eleven furlongs at Aqueduct on the green, he makes sense in this race but he'll need a clean trip as he'll be picking off runners. Still, he's a fresh face in a relatively dull turf division and that "new face in a crowd" angle might just be enough. After being the exotics-buster in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, it appeared GOLDEN SOUL would wither away into a career of anonymity. Perhaps now GOLDEN SOUL has found his calling: as a clunk-up type in long distance turf events. Sometimes he gets all the pie, like he did clearing three conditions for the price of two last fall at Churchill. Sometimes he gets nibbles of it, like in the G3 Louisville or the G3 San Juan Capistrano. But he will go third off the layoff in the G2 Bowling Green. And he will get pace to attack from WAR DANCER and others on the front end.
#3 IMAGINING (3/1)
#7 INNOVATION ECONOMY (5/2)
#6 GOLDEN SOUL (12/1)
Longshot: #5 MORNING CALM (15/1) is an application of the same idea behind taking IMAGINING: use a horse that showed closing kick on a course not known for it. MORNING CALM won twice at Gulfstream, in a first level allowance going a mile and seven-sixteenths and in a twelve furlong minor stakes. Both are three-turn races down there, and he closed from the parking lot in both cases - not something you think of for south Florida. Tried in the Belmont Gold Cup last time, he folded late in that two mile race. But what American horse is suited for two miles? Plus, we're only traveling eleven furlongs here and the distance cut back could be just what is needed. While he does appear to be a closer, he can race mid-pack - as he did two back at Gulfstream - and might get that spot with dead closers like GOLDEN SOUL at the back. That could set him up nicely. --PM
Saratoga Race Course -- Race 10 -- G2 Jim Dandy Stakes -- One and one-eighth miles on Dirt -- post time 6:25 pm ET
The Jim Dandy Stakes (GII), a prep for the Travers, was named in honour of a horse who made his name by winning the Travers. Jim Dandy, a 100-1 shot in the 1930 Travers Stakes, galloped home to an eight-length victory over Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox that year. This race, inaugurated in 1964, began as a one-mile race for sophomores. In 1971 it was shortened to seven furlongs, then stretched out to its current nine-furlong distance the following year. A Grade III starting in 1973, it has been a Grade II every year since 1984 -- except for 2001, when it was a Grade I. Though this year's Triple Crown winner opted for the Haskell instead, one Triple Crown winner has won the Jim Dandy as well: Affirmed (1978). However, his rival Alydar got the best of him in that year's Travers.
The Jim Dandy has been a fruitful local prep for the Travers. Through its history, ten horses have gone on to win the Travers after taking the Jim Dandy: Alpha (2012, in a dead head with Golden Ticket), Stay Thirsty (2011), Street Sense (2007), Bernardini (2006), Flower Alley (2005), Medaglia d’Oro (2002), Thunder Rumble (1992), Carr de Naskra (1984), Willow Hour (1981), and Arts and Letters (1969).
Carr de Naskra obliterates the 1984 Jim Dandy Stakes, winning by 12 3/4 lengths. He would go on to win the Travers.
UPSTART was entered in the Jim Dandy, but trainer Rick Violette has announced that he will run in the Haskell instead. This preview reflects UPSTART not running in the Jim Dandy. COMPETITIVE EDGE entered the Haskell as well. TEKTON opted to run in the Curlin Stakes on Friday.
UPSTART was out of this race almost as soon as he was entered. However, with the defections of COMPETITIVE EDGE and TEKTON from the race, the Jim Dandy becomes a four-horse affair devoid of speed.
Among the two who stand to be closer to the pace early, this space has a slight preference for JAPAN over FROSTED, mainly because JAPAN stands to go off at a slightly longer price. JAPAN already showed the ability to navigate a very short field, stalking the pace and then kicking on to score in a three-horse rendition of the Easy Goer Stakes last out. He should keep the frontrunning types well in range. He also looks to be getting good at the right time. His connections also inspire strong confidence. Trainer Bill Mott has a 6-3-1 line in 14 starts through the first week of the meet, and wins at 26% with runners who won last out. Rider Junior Alvarado has five wins in 24 starts through the first week of the meet, and fires at 24% with Mott over the last two months. FROSTED sees the starter here for the first time since the Belmont. His best races of late have come from well off the pace, but he has mustered some decent efforts from closer up as well. Reverting to that sort of style, which he showed in his maiden in and the Remsen, may suit the short field here. He has shown he can win running that way. He also won the Wood at the same distance as the Jim Dandy, a point in his favour. However, with as cold as Joel Rosario has started the Spa meet (1-for-31), taking a price with a hot rider on JAPAN appeals just a bit more.
The other two, TEXAS RED and FRAMMENTO, just do not appear likely to be best suited by a short field without a likely speed duel. They looked up against it in a field of six, and even more up against it now that COMPETITIVE EDGE and TEKTON both opted elsewhere. FRAMMENTO did sit a bit closer to the pace in his maiden win than he has been in his more recent starts, but he would have to show a serious improvement to be fast enough to contend here. TEXAS RED will not likely have enough pace in front of him to win, but his speed and turn of foot are strong enough to make him a bona fide closer, as opposed to a clunk-up type only. With that, in this field of just four, TEXAS RED appeals a bit more.
#2 JAPAN (10/1)
#7 FROSTED (2/1)
#3 TEXAS RED (7/2)
Longshot: Like UPSTART and COMPETITIVE EDGE, the longshot writer hopped the next van to Monmouth. -- NN
All videos courtesy of Youtube/NYRA.
You can take "Picks & Ponderings" with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Arlington International Racecourse. And you can get "Picks and Ponderings" in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking "Create Subscription." It's a FREE service, and you'll never get any unwanted spam.