2015 Travers Day Stakes Preview

Saratoga is summertime racing’s biggest talking point.  No other meet has a contest that sees players from near and far try to take down large cash prices while negotiating the forty racing days of the Spa.  No other meet sees people rent their homes out to racing fans that descend on the area.  Those facts are true, yet Saratoga’s meet has yet to hit its crescendo.  It does so this weekend, as the stakes schedule was tweaked to turn Travers Day – already a splendid day of racing – into an August preview of the Breeders’ Cup.  Seven stakes races are set for the program – with four of them functioning as Breeders’ Cup “win and you’re in” qualifiers.  The headliner remains the G1 Travers Stakes – “the Mid Summer Derby” (even if kids are going back to school in some parts) that gained a plum of an entrant in AMERICAN PHAROAH. (You might have heard of that horse.) The undercard’s four BC qualifying races are the Ballerina, Forego, Personal Ensign, and Sword Dancer – all carrying G1 status of their own.  The G1 King’s Bishop and G2 Ballston Spa round out the program.

Racing coverage this week also includes Paul Mazur’s local look at the Arlington-Washington Lassie for two-year-old fillies.

NBC will provide live television coverage of Travers Day in a two-hour program to air live from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm ET.  The featured Travers and Sword Dancer are slated to be in this television time.  Horse Racing Radio Network will also live-stream the Travers Day festivities on its website as part of its Saratoga Saturdays. That broadcast will run from 3:00-6:00pm EDT, covering all the stakes from the Ballerina to the Travers. HRRN’s program is also available on Sirius 93. 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.

For all races carded for the turf, selections are given turf only. At publish time, the rails are placed in the zero setting on both the Inner and Mellon courses. All races discussed in this piece are scheduled for Saturday August 29th.

Saratoga Race Course — Race 6 — G1 Personal Ensign Stakes — One and one-eighth miles on Dirt — post time 2:35 pm ET

The Personal Ensign Stakes began its history in 1948 as the Firenze Stakes, named after the four-time Champion and Hall of Fame inductee. At the time of her retirement in 1891, she had won more money than any other filly or mare to race in North America save Miss Woodford, who remains a stakes namesake at Monmouth. In 1986, the race’s name changed to honour John A. Morris. Morris, who had passed away the year before the race was renamed, had owned racehorses as well as been an executive at both Jamaica Race Track and the Thoroughbred Racing Association. Racing had run in Morris’s family; his great grandfather Francis Morris had bred and raced Ruthless, the first winner of the Belmont Stakes. In 1998, the race’s name changed again to honour Personal Ensign. A daughter of Private Account out of the Hoist the Flag mare Grecian Banner, Personal Ensign retired at age four in 1988 — undefeated in 13 starts, including a late-closing victory over Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Run at varying route distances, mostly over dirt (though on turf in 1972-75), the Personal Ensign has been a Grade I since 1988, and set at its current nine-furlong dirt trip since 2012. In addition to a $750,000 purse up for grabs, the race also offers a Win And You’re In berth to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Beautiful Pleasure was the only horse to win both the Personal Ensign and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in the same year; she won both in 1999, though also repeated in the Personal Ensign in 2000. Two horses have won the pair of races in different years: Ginger Punch (2008 Personal Ensign, 2007 Breeders’ Cup Distaff) and Royal Delta (2013 Personal Ensign, 2011-2012 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic). Royal Delta won the Personal Ensign in 2013; she had won the Distaff (then known as the Ladies’ Classic) the previous two years, but Beholder denied her the three-peat that year.

Personal Ensign rallies to nail Winning Colors in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, preserving her undefeated record.

This year’s Personal Ensign drew a field of just six: the top three from the local prep, the Shuvee (GIII), and three interlopers. STOPCHARGINGMARIA won that prep, and all signs point to her following that up with a victory in the Personal Ensign. Five of her eight career wins have come in her six starts at nine furlongs, and she has four wins in five starts at the Spa. She comes in second off the lay, as well. STOPCHARGINGMARIA herself has run well second off the lay, and trainer Todd Pletcher wins 26% of the time with positive ROI in that circumstance. In terms of pace, she can run well either stalking the pace or closing. Expect her in a stalking place here, with the short field and the complete lack of dyed-in-the-wool speed horses in this field. Javier Castellano, who gets the return call today, has typically ridden her relatively close to the pace, as well. This field contains no world-beaters — including UNTAPABLE, who does not appear to have progressed from two to three, and who this space will take a stand against. STOPCHARGINGMARIA will likely go off favoured, but with so much pointing her way, she should chalk up another win over her favourite course and distance.

SHEER DRAMA looks the most likely upset candidate.  She has the versatility to either stalk the pace or rally from well off, and has sharp enough early pace that she could reasonably garner the position of being early speed in a short field.  Her speeds are strong for the field, and she has back form (a win and a second in two starts) at the Spa.  Joe Bravo, her regular rider this year, gets the call for this ride as well.  His 5-0-0-2 record at the Spa this meet does not inspire tons of confidence, but his 6-2-4-0 record with SHEER DRAMA this year (all in stakes company) suggests they are a strong fit.  From there, the rest of the field does not inspire much.  AMERICA would intrigue in the slop, but has a couple of subpar races on fast tracks at Saratoga, and only one win in six starts at the distance.  TIZ WINDY has been a consummate undersides type all year.  At least the Pletcher B entry, GOT LUCKY, has a bit more to recommend her.  She does have a win in two starts at the Spa, last year, in an allowance at the same distance as the Personal Ensign.  She danced last out in the listed Lady’s Secret at Monmouth; though the field was softer than this, she beat them easily enough.  Her late pace figures have been among the strongest in the field; between that and her ability to stalk well in range of a moderate pace, if things get a bit feistier than expected up front, GOT LUCKY should be rolling best of all.  She loses regular rider Paco Lopez, but gains the hottest rider in the colony: Irad Ortiz, who has been winning a quarter of the time this Saratoga meet.



#2 SHEER DRAMA (3/1)

#5 GOT LUCKY (4/1)

Longshot: A white flag currently serves as the longshot writer’s personal ensign. — NN

Saratoga Race Course — Race 7 — G1 Ballerina Stakes — Seven Furlongs on Dirt — post time 3:10 pm ET

The $500,000 Grade One Ballerina Stakes has always been at seven furlongs on the Saratoga dirt ever since it was first contested in 1979.  The race honors Ballerina (Rosemont – Red Shoes by Easton), who took the first running of the Maskette Stakes – now known as the Go For Wand – in 1954.  For fillies and mares of the three-and-up variety, this sprint offers its winner a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint field – should connections desire.  Maryfield (2007) parlayed a win into taking the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.  Granted G1 stature in 1988, the winners list also includes stakes nameplates like Davona Dale (1980), Shine Again (2001-02), and Happy Ticket (2005). 1986 Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret – who beat boys in the Whitney earlier that meet – also took the Ballerina in the summer of ’86.

Two back DAME DOROTHY nailed defending Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner Judy the Beauty on the line on Derby Day in the G1 Humana Distaff at the Ballerina’s seven panel trip.  She proved last out in the Bed o’ Roses that she was more than opportunistic when winning that day.  While in the Bed o’ Roses she got the lead no one wanted, she rallied off the pace in the Humana Distaff.  That off the pace rally seems to be working anectodally at Saratoga, but more importantly should be helpful with one-way speed LA VERDAD signed on from the rail.  DAME DOROTHY features Javier Castellano for Todd Pletcher, so expect his one to take money and be bet down.  Still, seven furlongs can be a specialist’s distance and DAME DOROTHY is a perfect four-for-four at it.  Tactical ability – to lead if no one wants or to move from the off the pace –  just adds another plus point.  It’s second off the layoff for UNBRIDLED FOREVER, who annexed the Shine Again Stakes last time.  That was a minor stakes at the Spa, but it was at seven furlongs.  Second off the layoff isn’t a great stat for UNBRIDLED FOREVER’s conditioner, Dallas Stewart, who is only striking at 7% wins in this scenario. While she brings a win over the Spa surface, she is a bit pace dependent as she’s run her best races with someone in front to set the quick pace.  Still, UNBRIDLED FOREVER has done solid work around on turn through her career: maiden winner at seven panels and a podium finish in last year’s G1 Acorn.  LA VERDAD might be that pace target that sets up dead closers like UNBRIDLED FOREVER, however.  LA VERDAD could go off and steal the race, but at a minimum she’s the speed of the speed.  A wire-to-wire winner last out of the G2 Honorable Miss – the traditional prep to this event, LA VERDAD has shown that seven panels might be out of her comfort zone – as she wilted on the lead last year on the lead in the G1 Ballerina.  While she can win at six and a half as per a score in this year’s G3 Vagrancy – this field features quality sprinters like DAME DOROTHY and MERRY MEADOW that won’t let her get a free lunch on the front end.




#2 LA VERDAD (5/2)

Longshot: One for the home team as #1 SARAH SIS (20/1) reroutes to this race after an esophagus issue kept her from making the G1 Test.  However, she appears (at least on recorded clock times) to be over it, as she fired a bullet over the Arlington oval during a Million Week morning and again another before taking off to New York.  As a three-year-old she gets a weight-for-age allowance, and it’s worth recalling a sophomore beat the elders last year.  SARAH SIS does have a start at seven furlongs, where she was second in the Arlington-Washington Lassie to Quality Rocks in a race that bore out with quality in the end.  While able to lead as she has done in Iowa, she can pull off the pace – which was how she won the G3 Honeybee earlier in the year.  Julio Felix – Mason’s top rider – makes the trip to the Spa with her.  –PM

Saratoga Race Course — Race 8 — G1 King’s Bishop Stakes — Seven Furlongs on Dirt — post time 3:47 pm ET

NYRA.com serves as the sponsor of this race, which carries a half-million dollar purse and Grade One ranking.  The race honors King’s Bishop – a son of Hall of Famer Round Table out of Fleet Nasrullah mare Spearfish. Purchased by Craig Cullinan – one of the first owners of baseball’s Houston Astros – as a yearling for $72,000 at Keeneland, Cullinan was the owner and until the horse was sold to Allaire du Pont (a Preakness week stakes name plate) in 1973. The late H. Allen Jerkens took over as trainer when King’s Bishop wore du Pont colors, and he blossomed into a crack sprinter winning the Carter and Fall Highweight Handicaps in 1973.  A decade later in 1984 came the first King’s Bishop Stakes, a race for strictly three-year-olds. A Grade One since 1999, this sophomore race draws an intersectional field year-in and year-out full of promising sophomore sprinters like Lost in the Fog (2005) and turnback types like Hard Spun (2007).  Yet it’s also a Breeders’ Cup Sprint prep – something Squirtle Squirt (2001) used when he pulled the King’s Bishop-Breeders’ Cup Sprint double.  Caleb’s Posse (2011) parlayed a win here into a triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Caleb’s Posse rallies wide to defeat the then-incumbent juvenile champion Uncle Mo on the wire in the 2011 King’s Bishop Stakes.

This is a typical running of the King’s Bishop in that it brings together the quality sophomore sprinters (MARCH, GRAND BILI) and turnback types (MR. Z, CLASSY CLASS), mixes them into a stew, and puts them seven furlongs.  As such it’s not an easy race to decode.  As the opening leg of Saratoga’s seeded all-G1 P4 that ends in the Travers, it will be viewed as a spread leg.  Whether trying for that or aiming for a nice intra-race exotic score, MARCH has plus points that make the top choice.  After a summertime lay, he came back in the G2 Amsterdam and was close to a pretty strong pace that afternoon in this race’s local prep.  While six and a half furlongs may not be his distance, it certainly isn’t when he’s too keen off the layoff.  Perhaps going second off and be tucked back will help – as he rallied from a more mid-pack position to win the G2 Woody Stephens two back.  Two for two at this race’s seven panel trip (G2 Woody Stephens, G3 Bay Shore), this Irad Ortiz/Chad Brown production could drift down on the tote based on humans but could be a solid price in a contentious field with many options – and some quite popular ones with the public.  GRAND BILI comes north from Gulfstream, where he brings in a second in a minor stakes and a win in the G2 Carry Back.  That minor stakes victor was Requite – and he hit the podium in the G2 Amsterdam that March was perhaps too keen in.  GRAND BILI was close to the pace through zippy early splits and got the G2 spoils.  He ships north, but this isn’t the first time he’s left the friendly confines of Gulfstream – he appeared in the Chick Lang Stakes on Preakness Day.  Sometimes the Gulfstream form doesn’t always carry north and summertime Gulfstream form can be even more dubious.  He’s a defensive use given that he’s run with horses who can ship and he’s three-for-three in the exacta at seven-eighths.  If a turnback type is going to make a splash in the King’s Bishop, it’s the appearing-in-form MR. Z.  It’s time for the monthly start from this three-year-old that’s eligible for a two-other-allowance.  Don’t be fooled by the lack of the grade on his effort two back in the Ohio Derby, as that was a G2/G3 level field he played around with and won, and showed that perhaps the “B” Derby circuit is his thing when he led then steadied and was second.  Never the best on-track actor, MR. Z could take to the turnback well.  And Lukas does have a reason for putting him here as opposed to the Travers.  While not of the league of the American Pharoah/Texas Red type, he is game and tries – and an expected faster cadence could make him a closing type that mows many down.


#10 MARCH (10/1)

#2 GRAND BILI (5/2)

#5 MR. Z (5/1)

Longshot:  Churchill horses have been sneaky good at this Saratoga meet, and this space takes one of them – #1 COMMUTE (20/1)  – who drew the rail.  Last time a winner at today’s seven furlong, he was close but not on the lead to a quick pace and made a nifty inside-outside move to clear the first-level allowance condition.  His other win came in career start two at six and a half, so perhaps COMMUTE is a long distance one-turn type.  While an ambitious move from a first-level-allowance to the G1 King’s Bishop – he does get his distance element and does get the chance to chase a forecasted contentious pace from HOLY BOSS and Pea Patch invader RUNHAPPY.   –PM

Saratoga Race Course — Race 9 — G1 Forego Stakes — Seven Furlongs on Dirt — post time 4:25 pm ET

This race is sponsored by Priority One Jets and was named after the mighty Forego: four-time Champion Older Male (1974-77), three-time Horse of the Year (1974-1976), and Champion Sprinter (1974).  Even in 1974, when victories in races such as the Carter Handicap showcased his sprinting prowess, he showed versatility; he also won the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup that year.  Initiated as a one-turn mile at Belmont in 1980, the Forego moved to Saratoga and was shortened to its current seven-furlong trip two years later.  It has held its current Grade I designation since 2002.  This year’s renewal of the Forego offers a $400,000 purse, as well as a Win And You’re In berth to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint for the winner.  To date, two winners of the Forego have gone on to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.  Orientate was the first, completing the double in 2002.  In 2007, Midnight Lute swept the pair.  Midnight Lute won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint again in 2008, though he did not attempt a Forego defense that year.

This race looks like a showdown between THE BIG BEAST and PRIVATE ZONE, and for good reason.  PRIVATE ZONE should be the best of the early speed — a good place to be, given how nicely speed has been playing this meet at Saratoga.  Though PRIVATE ZONE has never before raced at the Spa, he has a sharp series of works leading into the race, including a blistering move at the Spa (4F in 45 4/5, fastest of 96 at the distance) on August 22.  Though there is some other speed in the field (including longshot RUN FOR LOGISTICS, rail-drawn RACE DAY, and possibly FALLING SKY or WILDCAT RED), PRIVATE ZONE is the class of that contingent, and has repeatedly been able to survive pressing or being pressed.  He will be the one to catch, but THE BIG BEAST could very likely catch him.  He comes into this race second off the lay for 27% second-off trainer Tony Dutrow.  This hulking four-year-old is a nose (or, more accurately, a missing whip) shy of a perfect three-for-three record at the Spa, and won the King’s Bishop at this distance last year.  Though his early pace is not quite PRIVATE ZONE-fast, he should not be too far off the early fractions, and his middle and late pace is strong.  His late pace particularly stands out: his figures are as strong as actual closers in the field, but he rallies from close enough to the pace to make that first run deadly.  THE BIG BEAST gets the nod between the two, due to the presence of so much other speed, but they really are a 1/1A sort of entry, and both should be covered in multi-race wagers.

TAMARKUZ intrigues second off the ship from Dubai, particularly because winner Honor Code and third-place PRIVATE ZONE have franked the race’s form so well.  However, his seven-furlong class remains a question, and he will be underlaid at anywhere near his 5/1 morning line.  Instead, WILDCAT RED abounds with value here.  He has been focusing on sprinting lately, and hi has been going well.  He finished third in the Smile (GII) first off a five and a half month lay, and then beat the streaking Stallwalkin’ Dude in the Teddy Drone at Monmouth last out.  Last year’s King’s Bishop (GI), his only previous start at Saratoga, was not the best.  However, his trip was not the best, and he does have a win farther back at seven furlongs.  He may also be a better horse this year than last.  His Teddy Drone win was particularly interesting because he was able to stalk several lengths off the pace and actually kick on late.  It was the best proof to date that Wildcat Red does not need to be right on the lead; with the likes of PRIVATE ZONE in this field, this ability should help him along well.  For a horse who does his best work sprinting, and is just getting into stride at four, anything near his morning line will be well overlaid.


#5 THE BIG BEAST (5/2)


#4 WILDCAT RED (20/1)

Longshot:  #2 TAKAJO (30/1) made himself the least-loved horse on Twitter a few weeks ago after crossing the wire ahead of Juba in a seven-furlong allowance at the Spa.  This race will be his first attempt in stakes company, and will prove harder than that allowance try.  However, his ability to rate well off the pace, either from a stalking spot or rallying to close, should give him some versatility depending on what trip he gets from his relatively inside post.  He has done his best, most consistent work at the Spa: he has four wins in eighteen career starts, but two in five starts at the Spa.  He has also hit the board in four of six at this distance.  His recent starts have shown improved late pace compared to earlier in his career, suggesting he is in form and taking well to seven furlongs.  Finally trainer John Terranova has been choosy and shrewd with his Saratoga placings; though he has only started 23 runners, he has won five times.  Winning may prove a bridge too far, but TAKAJO’s improved recent form against the likes of Green Gratto and Classy Class could be enough to put him in the exotics as one of the longest shots on the board. — NN

Saratoga Race Course — Race 10  — G1 Sword Dancer Stakes — One and one-half miles on Turf — post time 5:04 pm ET

The winner of the G1 Sword Dancer Invitational Stakes for three-year-olds and up will get the lion’s share of a million dollar purse and a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Turf gate. In Saratoga’s configuration, this is a three-turn race. Four horses have negotiated the three turns and twelve furlongs of the Sword Dancer and later taken down the Breeders’ Cup Turf: Theatrical (1987), Fraise (1992), Better Talk Now (2004) and Main Sequence (2014). In recent years, the Sword Dancer functioned as a twelve furlong alternative to the often richer and at times more prestigious Arlington Million. This year, the Sword Dancer moves away from Million Week and beefs the purse up to seven figures. The Sword Dancer Invitational takes its name from Sword Dancer, the 1959 Horse of the Year (as well as champion three year-old) who was a summer and fall buzzsaw in his sophomore year on the New York circuit- taking down the Met Mile, Belmont Stakes, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Sword Dancer rarely raced on the weeds, but the race did start life on the dirt. In 1980 the race was shifted to Belmont and took on the twelve furlong configuration it has today. Grade One status came in 1984 and a move to Saratoga followed in 1992.

Sometimes in handicapping one spends a lot of time crafting an argument.  This is not one of the cases.

This space really doesn’t like the American turf contingent.  It takes turns beating each other and an Illinois-bred for goodness gracious won the Arlington Million.  Granted, The Pizza Man is far above the average for Illinois-breds (and someone that could ship East and be competitive) but this is a weak group, even by the usual standards.  In thinking that the Americans are somewhere south of barf, the space lands on Europeans.  So perhaps the thinking is to take FLINTSHIRE, the Euro everyone’s heard of.  The one that was second to Main Sequence in the Breeders’ Cup Turf last year at Santa Anita.  Instead, this space thinks GUARDINI will blitzkrieg his way to a victory.  A recipient of first time lasix and blinkers on, GUARDINI comes over to the states for the G1 Sword Dancer.  A winner to start his year in a German Group 2, he went to France and caught soft ground in a French Group 2.  Last time he was in the back half of the field in a German G2.  For him to get lasix in normally no lasix (and no means no) Germany, perhaps he bled last time and a move to the states will help him.  As he came off the winter layoff to win a German G2, perhaps he fires best fresh and he’ll enter unraced since late June.  As a three-year-old he hung around with Adelaide and Teletext.  It might be a stretch to take a runner with unknowns, but this space thinks FLINTSHIRE, the 8/5 favorite, is a trap horse to use defensively.  While FLINTSHIRE gets firm ground that he wants, the Sword Dancer wasn’t the race the camp was aiming for.  Intent for this one is on a bigger autumnal prize, and perhaps FLINTSHIRE is a trap.  Should he run back to his Breeders’ Cup Turf silver medal showing last year, the trap claims this space.  In the same zip code as quality European turfers as Dolniya and Treve across the pond, he is someone who can’t be left off tickets based on the company he keeps.  MESSI kicks his way into the Sword Dancer field, starting from the American-based Graham Motion barn.  Since coming to the United States he’s cleared the twice other than and thrice other than allowance levels.  Stepping him up into a G1 sounds ambitious, but the time may be right based on the form and the place may be right based on the weak home team.  It will be third start of the form cycle and it’s worth noting he won at three turns last time going eleven furlongs at the Spa.


#7 GUARDINI (15/1)


#6 MESSI (6/1)

Longshot: Not only did NYRA figurehead Chris Kay put a cap on Travers Day attendance, he put a cap on the number of longshots to watch one can give on a card. Guess the longshot writer has to sit this one out.  (The writer liked GUARDINI, for what it’s worth).  –PM

Saratoga Race Course — Race 11 — G1 Travers Stakes — One and one-quarter miles on Dirt — post time 5:46 pm ET

The Travers Stakes, colloquially dubbed the Mid-Summer Derby, is the marquee three-year-old race of the Saratoga meet.  It has been run at Saratoga since 1864.  The race has always been named after William R. Travers, president of the Saratoga Racing Association when the race was founded.  Travers’s own horse, Kentucky, won the inaugural running of the race.  The race was contested at distances as short as 1 1/8 miles and as long as 1 3/4 miles, but has held steady at the American Classic 1 1/4 mile distance since 1904.  It has been a Grade I affair since 1973, as long as stakes have been graded in North America.

This year’s edition of the Travers will offer a $1,250,000 base purse.  Should AMERICAN PHAROAH face the starter, the purse rises to $1,600,000. Over the years, the Travers has been a fruitful source of Champion Three Year Old males; thirty-four winners over its history have eventualy won a three-year-old crown, be it an Eclipse award or one of its precursors.  The last one to perform that feat was Will Take Charge; after a disappointing Triple Crown season, his nose victory over Moreno in 2013 became the springboard to an Eclipse-worthy late season.  AMERICAN PHAROAH will attempt to become only the second horse to sweep the Triple Crown and the Travers; Whirlaway accomplished that feat in 1941.

Will Take Charge catches Moreno just in time to win the 2013 Travers Stakes.

AMERICAN PHAROAH will go off the favourite, and deservedly so.  He was impressive leading into the Triple Crown, impressive through the Triple Crown, and won the Haskell in an easy little gallop.  This field does not contain a lot in the way of early speed; it would be a surprise to see anyone but AMERICAN PHAROAH on the front end, unless FROSTED really turns the jets on early as he has sometimes done.  Could AMERICAN PHAROAH lead the field on a merry, wire-to-wire chase at a mile and a half here?  Sure.  Saratoga likes speed horses just fine, after all.  However, is 1/5 palatable with a talented and improving addition to the field?

Not so much.  This space will try to beat the champ with a horse he hasn’t faced since last fall: TEXAS RED.

In most of his races TEXAS RED has rallied from well off the pace, most notably into the pace meltdown in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) last fall.  His three-year-old year proceeded in fits and starts, but has finally gotten on the rails.  His Jim Dandy (GII) win last out stands out.  Instead of leaving himself too much to do as he did in the San Vicente (GII) earlier this year, he stalked close to the pace, made a relatively early move, and gamely held on.  Of course, stalking off of Japan and holding off Frosted were a lighter challenge than beating a Triple Crown winner.  However, TEXAS RED is the new, talented face here.  He has not faced AMERICAN PHAROAH since the FrontRunner (GI) last year — though AMERICAN PHAROAH is a better horse than he was back then, TEXAS RED may be as well.  He also tries something new here.  TEXAS RED has not gone past a mile and an eighth before, and tries a mile and a quarter here.  Being by Afleet Alex out of a Jeune Homme mare, he should have stamina to spare.  With what he showed in the Jim Dandy, the price on TEXAS RED should be right to bet that he keeps AMERICAN PHAROAH in his sights early, and is able to turn on the afterburners and run him down.

Second off the lay and going back to a mile and a quarter, KEEN ICE also appeals.  His only previous attempt at this distance was the Kentucky Derby — in which he was boxed in, but moved nicely once he had space.  He ran on late to garner third in the Belmont behind a runaway AMERICAN PHAROAH, and ran on strongly again for second in the Haskell (GI) last out, going a mile and an eighth.  He loses rider Kent Desormeaux to TEXAS RED, but new rider Javier Castellano should be a good fit.  He has been firing at 18% over the Saratoga meet, and his statistics in route races could not be stronger: 33% wins and 64% on the board in his last 192 starts at a mile or longer.  It would require a freakish effort by KEEN ICE or a subpar run by AMERICAN PHAROAH for the son of Curlin to hit the wire first, but given how well he ran over a speed-friendly Monmouth track last out and how well-intentioned he is for ten panels, KEEN ICE should hit the trifecta.


#4 TEXAS RED (8/1)


#7 KEEN ICE (12/1)

Longshot:  #10 SMART TRANSITION (20/1) rallied from too far off the pace to finish fourth in the Dwyer (GIII), his stakes debut.  His next out, in the Curlin Stakes, he proved much the best.  That was his first start at the Spa, and his first at nine furlongs.  He rallied off a solid pace — something he may get here on account of AMERICAN PHAROAH’s high cruising speed, and the possibility that others in the field may not be able to keep up for a mile and a quarter.  It may be too much to ask for him to win, particularly if AMERICAN PHAROAH is on his game.  However, being by Smart Strike out of the Crimson Tide mare Zardana, his pedigree suggests he should have some gas left nearing the end of ten furlongs.  Between that and the fact that he already has a sharp win over the course at Saratoga, he looks like the most likely bomb for the trifecta or superfecta. — NN

Saratoga Race Course — Race 12 — G2 Ballston Spa Stakes — One and one-sixteenth miles on Turf — post time 6:20 pm ET

Begun in 1989 as the Aqueduct Breeders’ Cup Stakes, the race moved to Saratoga in 1994, and gained its current name in 1997. In the tradition of races named after places near Saratoga, it took its moniker from Ballston Spa, the seat of Saratoga County. It was initiated as a turf mile, but was stretched to a mile and a sixteenth when it moved to the Spa in 1994. It has been contested at eight and a half grassy furlongs every year since except for 2002, when it was rained out and run at a mile and an eighth on sloppy dirt. It has held its current Grade II designation since 2006. Though the $400,000 race is not a Win And You’re In, Zagora (2012) parlayed a Ballston Spa win into a Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf win and a Champion Grass Mare title later that year for the formidable Chad Brown. Vodka maker Ketel One serves as the race’s sponsor.

This handicapper wanted no part of TEPIN last out going a mile and an eighth in the Diana (GI), but she surprised me.  Despite her miler breeding, she never stopped fighting and finished beaten just a nose by Hard Not To Like: a closer who pulled out a track record performance.  Here, she cuts back to a mile and a sixteenth, a distance that should suit her even better.  Rider Julien Leparoux, her regular, had a very cold start to the Saratoga meet, but has been getting things on track over the last week.

Beyond her, we look to a familiar face at the Spa this summer, Chad Brown.  He has three entrants in this race.  DANZA CAVALLO has been overbet and has underdelivered, but his other two have merit.  KITTEN’S QUEEN has been a rabbit for Stephanie’s Kitten in her last two starts, but both times she has performed better than her stablemate.  Two starts back, she was third beaten just 3/4 length in the New York Stakes (GII); last out, she was third beaten only a neck in the Diana (GI).  That occurred over the Saratoga track, a course over which KITTEN’S QUEEN is 6-1-1-2 over her career.  Here she cuts back to a mile and a sixteenth, and gets Jose Ortiz back from that last start.  She should be forwardly placed, and has shown the ability to fight on the front end or press just off the pace if need be.  KITTEN’S QUEEN has proven herself to be more than just a rabbit, and should be fast enough and in good enough form to do well in her own right.  DACITA makes her first start in the United States, after a solid three-year-old season in Chile last year.  She has not run since December of last year, but she runs for Chad Brown, a trainer who fires at 29% with horses laid off three months or more, with a long and strong worktab.  Her stalking style should keep her well in contention in a race with a relatively balanced pace scenario, as this one looks to have on paper.  Brown also wins at 29% with first-time American runners, and hits the board over half the time with them.  She also goes first-time Lasix here.  Though her last few races were longer than this one, she does have a Chilean Group I win at this distance.  The worktab fits, the trainer delivers with shippers, and signs point to DACITA having a sharp American debut.

The third spot was a tight choice between DACITA and COFFEE CLIQUE; if budget allows, consider covering COFFEE CLIQUE in multi-race wagers as well.  She has never raced at the Spa, but did win her first try at this distance last out.  The speed figure shook out a bit low in that race, but she won it clear, and did all she needed.  Her back races are near what she needs for this company, and her stalking-to-midpack style should be a fit.  There’s just a little more pointing to the other three, but COFFEE CLIQUE’s best is good enough that she deserved mention.


#1 TEPIN (5/2)


#4 DACITA (7/2)

Longshot:  #9 NEW PROVIDENCE (12/1) is the other first-time United States runner here; she ships out from Great Britain.  Pacewise, she does her best work stalking off the pace, which should keep her in a fine spot given the likely moderate pace of this race.  Her layoff is quite short compared to most first-time stateside runners; she last raced on July 31 at Glorious Goodwood, finishing fourth in a GIII going seven furlongs.  She does have a few Group-level wins to her credit: the Summer Stakes (GIII – ENG) at York two starts back, as well as the Dick Poole Stakes (GIII – ENG) at Salisbury in September of last year.  The Summer is particularly interesting; NEW PROVIDENCE is only three, but that win came against older.  Both of her Group wins came at six furlongs.  In fact, the Ballston Spa will be NEW PROVIDENCE’s first try going a route distance.  Still, being out of a Giant’s Causeway mare, trainer Hugo Palmer could not be faulted for trying her long.  With the filly and mare turf division being a revolving door yet again this year, why not consider a classy enough “B Euro” trying something new at a price?  — NN

Picks & Ponderings also has a grid of selections for the big day with both Paul and Nicolle looking at all seven stakes on the Travers Day program.

All videos courtesy NYRA/Youtube.


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Filed under: horse racing, Saratoga


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  • I grew up in Saratoga and Travers Day is HUGE! Always has been but this year it's especially epic thanks to American Pharoh. The Midsummer Derby as it's called really used be be that...the race used to be in mid-August in the middle of the meet. Now it's been pushed back because everyone figured out after Travers the place becomes a sort-of ghost town again even though the meet wraps up around Labor Day. It used to be the "August place to be" but now the track starts up in July, think that started 20 or so years ago. It's true: people rent out their homes and their lawns become parking lots. I'll have to remember to watch on Saturday.

  • In reply to MBA Mom:

    MBA Mom,

    Between NBC's television coverage, HRRN's radio coverage, and the Picks & Ponderings twitter coverage you'll be kept well abreast of Travers Day. AMERICAN PHAROAH makes this year's Travers Day into a colossal event, for sure.

    You are right on how Saratoga post-Travers turns into a ghost town until the meet's end on Labor Day (the Hopeful is the feature), and it's one reason why the Personal Ensign got moved to Travers Day (along with the NYRA desire that we must run a multi-stakes mega-card once a meet).

    Thanks for reading! ---PM

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