2019 Hopeful Stakes Preview

Though the beginning of the meet keeps getting earlier every year, it seems, we can still depend on Labor Day as the last day at the Spa.  The meet draws to a close Monday, though not before

The Hopeful has been a fixture at Saratoga since 1904, and nowadays it is the first Grade 1 race for two-year-old open company.  Initially a six-furlong sprint, it was extended to six and a half in 1925, and to its current seven in 1994.  The first Hopeful winner, the filly Tanya, went on to win the Belmont the next year.  Over the years, its winners’ list has read like an honor roll of racing history.  The two greatest American racehorses of the 20th Century both won the Hopeful: Man o’ War (1919) and Secretariat (1972).  The list of great Hopeful winners continues through the century: Regret (1914), Whirlaway (1940), Native Dancer (1952), Buckpasser (1965), and Affirmed (1977) all won the race.  Though it has been a fruitful source of Classic race winners, the last Hopeful winner to prevail in a Triple Crown race was Afleet Alex (2004), who won both the Preakness and the Belmont the next year.

Deposit Ticket draws off in the 1990 Hopeful Stakes.  It was trainer D. Wayne Lukas’s first of what is now eight wins in the race; he goes for #9 with AMERICAN BUTTERFLY.

Monday, September 2: Saratoga Race Course

Race 10: Runhappy Hopeful Stakes (G1), two-year-olds, seven furlongs on the dirt, post time 5:39pm EDT

Perhaps oddly for a two-year-old stakes race nowadays, there aren’t any maidens in the Hopeful.  It’s still a field of lightly-raced horses, no one has more than two starts — it’s 2019, after all — but they’ve all won at least once.  What else is a bit uncommon about this race is that there are so many who haven’t just gone to the front, and goodbye, without proving they can pass horses or keep on going when the going gets tough.  Knowing all this?  Even though it’s only a seven-horse race, it should be a good one.

They are all trying seven furlongs for the first time, typical enough for juvenile dirt horses at this point in the season.  Though, two have gone six and a half: GREEN LIGHT GO won the Saratoga Special (G2) at that distance, and AMERICAN BUTTERFLY also broke his maiden over the trip.

It’s rather odd that only one horse comes into the Hopeful out of the Saratoga Special, though perhaps it’s for the best that GREEN LIGHT GO is the only one.  To borrow Michael Wrona’s most delightful turn of phrase, he gave them a comprehensive walloping that day. And, he is the one to beat in this race.  He romped in a five-and-a-half-furlong maiden race at Belmont on the front end, then came from a couple of lengths off the pace in the Saratoga Special, showing consummate versatility.  Whether you like the Brisnets or the Beyers, he paired big speed figures in both his maiden win and the Saratoga Special, suggesting that for this time of year, he is just a fast horse.  And, he looked like he did the Saratoga Special well within himself.  GREEN LIGHT GO also has upside on the step up in trip: his dam Light Green was a smart six-furlong filly, though the Hard Spun on top carried him to six and a half so easily, and should have no trouble getting him seven off of that kind of effort.

There’s no way to discuss this race without discussing Steve Asmussen.  After all, he has what seems like a barnful of promising babies, and three of the seven entrants in the Hopeful hail from his shedrow and won earlier in the meet over the Saratoga dirt.  There’s SHOPLIFTED on the rail, who comes off an easy victory July 27, who passed horses, but has to handle a tough post.  There’s outside-drawn BASIN, who missed by a nose behind BY YOUR SIDE on debut before coming back to romp up front July 21.  And, there’s GOZILLA, who won his debut wire to wire August 10.  What’s interesting is?  Ricardo Santana, Asmussen’s “A” rider, broke the maiden on all three of those horses.  It’s GOZILLA who lures him back.  In a race where pace is such a question, where there are several who are “will they or won’t they go?” types?  Sure, it’s only GOZILLA’s second start, and he may be able to pass horses.  But, the debut suggests he is the speed of the speed, and he may just clear off again and prove mighty hard to catch if that happens.

Even so, there’s also a lot to like about BASIN, despite rider Ortiz’s defection.  Though the win came close to the lead early, he proved he could rally nicely on debut, and he did so from a nice, clean outside gate.  He gets that kind of a draw again, and gets an excellent replacement in Jose Ortiz, a 22% rider on the Saratoga meet this summer. There’s reason to trust that race BASIN won last out, too, as second-place Three Technique came back to post a cozy victory in a maiden special on August 31.


#4 GOZILLA (5/2)
#7 BASIN (5/1)

Longshot:  If there weren’t already a Grade 3 at Churchill named after the Coach, it wouldn’t be a stretch to rename this one for D. Wayne Lukas: after all, he has won the race eight times.  Not all those wins were back in the day, either: his most recent triumph came just two years ago, when Sporting Chance, a second-out maiden winner, came back for his third career start and scored narrowly despite ducking out into the horse who became his favourite punching bag, Free Drop Billy.  This year, Lukas takes his shot with #2 AMERICAN BUTTERFLY (15/1).  AMERICAN BUTTERFLY showed little on debut July 21 at Saatoga, and was soundly beaten by BASIN that day.  But, he took a smart step forward August 17, when stretching out to six and a half furlongs, overcoming a tough break, getting near the pace, and winning clear.  He keeps strong front-end rider Luis Saez from that effort; Saez has shown the rapport with AMERICAN BUTTERFLY, and has been clicking well with the Lucas barn this summer.  Yes, this horse needs a step up to beat the best in this field.  But, lightly-raced two-year-olds are liable to step forward in general.  A horse who woke up going six and a half furlongs is likely to enjoy going seven furlongs.  And, the pedigree makes the step up in trip while staying at one turn interesting: he’s by American Pharoah out of a female family with a lot of sharp sprint form, making it the sort of interesting stamina-over-speed mix that can find a home over an extended one turn.


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