We have reached Labor Day weekend: the traditional end of summer, and the closing weekend of racing action at the Spa.
The Grade 1, $750,000 Woodward Stakes is the final older-horse Grade 1 of the Saratoga meet. The race is named after William Woodward, Sr., a banker who developed Belair Stud into one of the premier breeding and racing operations in the country. He campaigned two Triple Crown winners: Gallant Fox and his son Omaha. Woodward died in 1953, and the first edition of the Woodward Stakes was contested the next year. The race was contested mainly at Belmont, though occasionally at Aqueduct, through much of its history. The Woodward moved to Saratoga in 2006. It has been run at distances as short as 1 1/8 miles, and as long as 1 1/2. It has settled at its current nine-furlong distance since 1990.
Some of the all-time greats have won the Woodward. Though Forego's name carries on in a sprint race at Saratoga, he could go long with the best of them, and won the Woodward four consecutive years (1974-1977). Sword Dancer, the namesake of a Grade 1 turf stakes at the Spa, won this race twice (1959, 1960). The unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar counted the 1995 Woodward as part of his historic streak -- and also achieved his final career victory in the 1996 edition. A pair of Triple Crown winners have won the Woodward at age four: Seattle Slew (1978) and Affirmed (1979).
Another legend to win the Woodward was Rachel Alexandra (2009), who followed up a Haskell (G1) win earlier in the summer with a victory in her first race against older horses.
In addition to our discussion of the Woodward, we also have selections for all four graded stakes on Saturday in a table at the bottom of this page.
Selections for the Saranac Stakes and the Glens Falls Stakes are for turf only.
Saturday, September 1 - Saratoga Race Course
Race 11: Woodward Stakes Presented By NYRA Bets (G1), three-year-olds and up, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 6:47pm EDT
The 2017 and 2018 editions of the Woodward Stakes could not be more dissimilar. Last year five horses passed the entry box, and what looked like a lucrative workout for Gun Runner turned out to be exactly that. This year, with no such monster in the handicap division, the Woodward is wide open. The Woodward drew a field of fourteen -- and it's ripe for chaos and a price.
The Todd Pletcher barn, a barn that has won three editions of the Woodward Stakes, sends out a trio for the Woodward. There's TAPWRIT, who comes off a distant fourth behind Diversify in the Whitney, and has yet to find his best at the Spa, at nine furlongs, or at all since his win in the Belmont last year. There's PATCH, who has a bit more appeal for a piece underneath after rallying for third in the Alydar, but is hard to see getting all the way there.
And then, there's RALLY CRY, who can actually take this thing down.
Even though this field features fourteen horses, there isn't a whole lot of sharp early speed -- all the better for anyone who can be sharp early, since forward placements have led to so much success in nine-furlong dirt routes at the Spa. The rider also appeals -- Mike Smith clearly shipped east to ride Chasing Yesterday in the Spinaway, but this is the one other call he takes Saturday. He knows how to shine in big races, no matter the coast, and has the skill and judgment to use RALLY CRY's tactical speed to best advantage.
Sure, there are some questions about RALLY CRY. He is mired in the 14 hole -- which isn't great, but without a ton of sharp speed in this race, he is fast enough (and tactical enough) to either clear to the front or grab a place close up. And, though this is a step up from the allowance in which he finished a well-beaten fourth on July 21, the seven-furlong distance of that allowance was just too short for RALLY CRY. He has been working regularly toward this outing, and the mile and an eighth distance should suit the son of Uncle Mo in a way the last-out sprint did not. Nine furlongs suits him, he should be able to get the forward position that has been so good at Saratoga, and he should be a factor from beginning to end.
Pace is why it seems there are a few who can win, and a lot who can hit the board. SEEKING THE SOUL, GUNNEVERA, and DISCREET LOVER are ones to consider in intra-race exotics as well, to get pieces under.
But, on the win end, ones who have a bit more early speed appeal more. KURILOV takes a move up in class here, as he was last seen finishing second in the restricted Alydar Stakes over the course and distance. He does lose rider Irad Ortiz to SUNNY RIDGE (a hard-trying sort, but perhaps not quite up to this level going a mile and an eighth), but KURILOV does get another one of Saratoga's top jockeys, and one who rides top horses for trainer Chad Brown all the time: Jose Ortiz. Though KURILOV's career since coming to the United States last year has been on-again, off-again, full of tries over different surfaces and distances, his pair of stateside nine-furlong dirt tries suggest he can take the step up in class. And, his tactical speed should serve him well.
YOSHIDA, on the rail, is the wild card. The four-year-old has raced ten times, all on turf. But, it's not absurd to think YOSHIDA will take to the dirt. Though his sire Heart's Cry was a Grade 1 winner on grass and his top progeny have been grass horses, Heart's Cry is himself by a top-class dirt horse in Sunday Silence. And, underneath? YOSHIDA's dam Hilda's Passion was a multiple graded stakes winning (and Grade 1-winning) dirt sprinter. So, the dirt breeding is there. The mile and an eighth form is there, too; in four tries going nine furlongs, YOSHIDA's only loss was a neck defeat in the Saranac (G3) last year, behind Saratoga maven and eventual Fourstardave (G1) winner Voodoo Song. And, though he has been coming off the pace more recently, looking to efforts earlier in his career reveals that YOSHIDA has tactical speed when he needs it. Though trying dirt for the first time in a Grade 1 is a gutsy move with any horse, there's plenty to suggest YOSHIDA could be up to it.
#14 RALLY CRY (20/1)
#7 KURILOV (10/1)
#1 YOSHIDA (5/1)
Longshot: This is as tough a race as #13 ZANOTTI (20/1) has ever tried, but as one of the horses who will likely drift up from an already hefty morning line, ZANOTTI has a right to outrun his odds. Set aside the Suburban (G2) -- a ten-furlong race he ran first off a three-month layoff -- and you otherwise see a horse who just keeps showing up. His record at nine furlong sparkles; in five tries, he has a win and four second-place finishes. ZANOTTI does not need to take his track with him; though he has not yet run at the Spa, his fifteen career exacta finishes have come at seven different tracks. He has tactical versatility, including sharp enough early pace to get into it early despite the outside draw, and ZANOTTI's best races show he can be just as fast as his more heralded rivals in the Woodward. All in all, for a horse so likely to slip under the radar, there's a lot to like about ZANOTTI.
Below are all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for Saturday's stakes races at Saratoga. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!
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