2017 Diana Stakes and Sanford Stakes Preview

Summer has officially found its stride.  After all, racing action returns to Saratoga this weekend.

Picks and Ponderings turns it attention this week to the pair of graded stakes on Saturday at the Spa.  In the Grade 1 Diana Stakes, a select field of six -- including proven star Lady Eli and rising stars Antonoe and Dickinson -- will tussle for the honour of becoming the first top-level winner of the Saratoga meet.  One race before that, eight juveniles will clash in the Sanford Stakes.  All entrants have a win to their name -- Direct Dial and Admiral Jimmy have stakes experience, but whoever wins the Sanford will tally the first added-money victory of their career.

Selections for the Diana are for turf only.  Morning line odds were not available at original publish time.  Morning lines added Thursday, July 20.

Race 9: Sanford Stakes (G3), two-year-olds, six furlongs on the dirt, post time 5:22pm EDT

This year marks the 103rd edition of the Sanford Stakes.  Inaugurated in 1913 at its current six-furlong distance, it took its name in homage to carpet magnate and congressman Stephen Sanford, who had died earlier in the year.  Sanford began campaigning horses at Saratoga around 1880.  Horses like 1890 Belmont Futurity winner Potomac, 1900 Toboggan Handicap winner Voter, and 42-time winner Clifford made Sanford a familiar face in the winners' circles of New York.  His sons John and Stephen also successfully campaigned racehorses; the race has been known by its current name, in honour of the Sanford family at large, since 1927.

Two Triple Crown winners have won the Sanford Stakes during their juvenile campaign: Secretariat (1972) and Affirmed (1977).  The Sanford is the first of three graded stakes for open two-year-old company during the Saratoga meet, and four runners have swept the Sanford, the Saratoga Special, and the Hopeful: Regret (1914), Campfire (1916), Dehere (1993), and City Zip (2000).  However, the Sanford may be best remembered for a horse who did not win it.  In 1919, Harry Payne Whitney's colt Upset won the Sanford -- handing Man o' War the only loss of his career.

Secretariat bursts through horses and finds triumph in the 1972 Sanford Stakes.

This year's Sanford Stakes is exceptionally well-matched.  The race drew a field of eight, all winners but none yet stakes winners, and no one looks hopeless.  Yes, a few would have to step forward to win this -- but on the other hand, as none has raced more than twice, they are all lightly enough raced to have some upside to move forward.

With that said, there's no shortage of speed in this race.  DIRECT DIAL drew best, on the outside of the early gas, but he's going to have a lot more on his hands dealing with BAFFIN and PSYCHOANALYZE than he has had to deal with in the past, and even Pletcher entrant ADMIRAL JIMMY has shown speed.  The right closer gets a solid setup.  And, this space will tab FREE DROP BILLY as the right closer.  Yes, the son of Union Rags will likely be best long, as his dam has also produced long-winded lawnmowers like G1W Hawkbill (Kitten's Joy) and maiden winner Trensita (Curlin).  But, he won his debut at Churchill Downs the right way.  Going just five and a half furlongs, he took off the pace in a field of seven, menaced through the turn, and won well clear.  FREE DROP BILLY keeps rider Robby Albarado in the irons from that outing, and trainer Dale Romans wins 20% of the time with last-out maiden winners.  He is class at a square price, and rates a strong chance here.

It's hard to discuss the Sanford Stakes without visiting the Todd Pletcher barn.  Pletcher never has a shortage of live two-year-olds, and has won six editions of the Sanford to date.  Here, he sends out two.  ADMIRAL JIMMY comes in out of a third-place finish in the Tremont last out, but may well be better on the front end -- which will be blazing hot here.  Instead, this space find itself more interested in his Florida shipper, BAL HARBOUR.  Yes, he graduated in a four-and-a-half furlong baby race in June at Gulfstream, which means he has class to prove.  But, BAL HARBOUR had some trouble there, and still won clearly.  In both starts, he showed an ability to kick on from off the pace.  He gets Pletcher's "A" rider John Velazquez in the irons, and should get every chance to pass this class test.

If the track is playing fairly, DIRECT DIAL is a defensive play; if it is leaning heavily toward speed, he is more than that.  DIRECT DIAL comes in off a second-place finish in the Tremont Stakes at Belmont.  There, he led for most of it, was overtaken by He Hate Me (who does not return for the Sanford), but did hold place over ADMIRAL JIMMY.  However, things should be tougher on the front end here than they were last out, making this a more difficult ask.  Still, DIRECT DIAL keeps strong Spa rider Jose Ortiz in the irons, and fired a solid set of speeds in both his starts to date.  Should speed hold at all, DIRECT DIAL looks the one to do it.



#2 BAL HARBOUR (6/1)

#7 DIRECT DIAL (5/2)

Longshot:  #3 FIRENZE FIRE (12/1) gets a class test here.  He has run just once, a commanding maiden score from which second-place Phonemyposseagain came back to win next out.  But, in that race, he kicked on well from a stalking spot -- which gives him a nice trick in the arsenal, coming into this speed-laden race.  FIRENZE FIRE's trainer, Jason Servis, also tends to do well with his last-out maiden winners: a third of his last 61 have won right back, for a positive win bet ROI.  FIRENZE FIRE has class to prove, as Monmouth is a bit of a step down from NYRA.  Still, Servis has secured the services of a top New York rider: Irad Ortiz, Jr., who has been firing well with his barn recently.  FIRENZE FIRE should be among the first to get run on the pacesetters, and deserves a long look by any longshot players.

Race 10: Diana Stakes (G1), three-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, one and one eighth miles on the turf (rail at 12 feet), post time 5:55pm EDT

The Diana Stakes, the first Grade 1 of the summer at the Spa,i will be run for the 80th time on Saturday.  It was not named after a horse, or after a prominent horseperson.  Instead, it was named after a Roman hunt goddess who had an ability any horseplayer would envy: the power to talk to and even control animals. 

The race has always been run at nine furlongs, though it was run on dirt from its inception in 1939 until 1973.  Miss Grillo was its first two-time winner, in 1946 and 1947; despite her wins being in the dirt days, she is currently the namesake of a turf stakes for sophomore fillies at Belmont.  Since her, the winners' list reads like a who's who of stakes namesakes in New York: Busanda (1952), Tempted (1959-1960), Shuvee (1970-1971), Waya (1978), Just a Game II (1980),  De La Rose (1981), Wild Applause (1984), and Wonder Again (2004).  Gamely, a Grade I stakes namesake at Santa Anita, also won the Diana in 1969.

Zagora kicks clear to win the 2011 Diana Stakes, giving trainer Chad Brown his first ever Grade 1 win.  Brown sends two mares into this year's edition of the Diana, LADY ELI and ANTONOE. 

DICKINSON rattled off three wins in a row through the winter and spring, but missed by less than a length to ANTONOE in the Just a Game (G1) at Belmont last out.  However, DICKINSON has the upside to improve here, and should be able to turn the tables.  That Just a Game was her first race in almost two months, and DICKINSON should be sharper here.  The short field should also help DICKINSON -- she should be a bit more forwardly placed than that foe.  She can take the initiative if she wants it, and get first jump on forwardly placed Shug McGaughey runner MY IMPRESSION if rider Paco Lopez judges that best.  The change in distance should also help DICKINSON.  That last out was just a mile -- but her better races earlier in the year came at eight and a half or nine furlongs, and she has two wins in two tries at today's nine-furlong trip.

Chad Brown sends a pair in here, and as can almost always be said about the horses he enters in New York turf races, they're both live.  The aforementioned ANTONOE appeals a bit more.  Though DICKINSON gets the nod on the stretch-out and the more forward placing, it would be no surprise to see ANTONOE outkick her home anyway.  The dazzling late foot she found in the Just a Game (G1) may be enough to win this race no matter what, and marked her a rising star in the filly and mare turf division.  Though this will be ANTONOE's first time going longer than a mile and a sixteenth, her breeding suggests the distance should be within her grasp.

The other Chad Brown entrant -- and your likely betting favourite, given her proven class and her fan favourite status -- is LADY ELI.  Would her best win this?  Sure, it would.  She is two-for-two at the nine-furlong distance, and has a win and a close second in two tries at Saratoga.  She is tactical enough that the short field would not hurt her, and she has every right to be back at her best (or close to it) while making her third start of the year.  There's little bad to say about her -- but there's so little bad to say about all the key contenders here, as they are in-form, Grade 1 horses.  It's hard to take chalk on LADY ELI with live runners at a bit better price, but as a defensive use, she makes sense.


#6 DICKINSON (9/2)

#2 ANTONOE (3/1)

#3 LADY ELI (4/5)

Longshot:  Usually the longshot writer takes a pass on these six-horse races.  But, if you're really looking to play a price here, #1 HARMONIZE (20/1) has some upside.  The question remains whether the daughter of Scat Daddy has taken the necessary step forward from age three to age four, as her three starts this year have been disappointing.  But, they have all come at a flat mile.  Here, she stretches out to a mile and an eighth, a distance at which she showed proper Grade 1 form last year.  She also has form at the Spa, with a win and a second in two tries.  Her best running style had her rallying off the pace, so HARMONIZE hopes that things get feisty up front between DICKINSON and MY IMPRESSION.  However, should that happen she has a shot.  HARMONIZE is not the sort of horse here on whom you can take chalk.  But, if she drifts back to be the longest shot on the board, or close to it?  Longshot players and contest players should find enough upside in HARMONIZE to take the shot.


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