Labor Day weekend proved to be a very exciting one in the Thoroughbred racing with a number of important graded stakes contested on the East and West Coasts that had Breeders’ Cup implications. From 2-year-olds to older horses, there were some great performances across the board and things definitely got a little bit more interesting heading into the fall meets.
At the beginning of the week, the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes was gearing up to be a monster with many exceptional older males lining up to get their share of the $750,000 purse. As the week progressed, however, the field began to drop in size. First trainer Todd Pletcher announced that his front-running, Whitney Invitational Stakes victor Cross Traffic would not run in the Woodward and instead would point to the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park for his prep for the Breeder’s Cup Classic. Then news came Thursday that 2012 Breeder’s Cup Classic winner Fort Larned had a minor injury during his morning exercise and would also bypass the Woodward. Finally, on the morning of the race, trainer Kathy Ritvo announced that she was scratching Mucho Macho Man from the Woodward because of the sloppy track conditions. These defections left the Woodward devoid of almost all speed, and it became a “guess who” scenario for which horse would control the pace and which one would come home victorious.
Fan favorite Paynter appeared to be a strong contender to take the lead early but when the starting gate opened, it was Alpha and John Velazquez who surged to the front early. Alpha had a 2-length lead heading into the first quarter and continued to control the pace through a half-mile in :48.20 and three-quarters of a mile in 1:11.57. Alpha was chased throughout the race by Paynter and Flat Out, but coming into the turn for home Paynter started to fade.
“We had a good trip, but I was out of horse by the half-mile. I think he didn't feel comfortable on the surface,” Paynter’s jockey, Rafael Bejarano, said. “He never felt comfortable.”
Flat Out put up a strong challenge to Alpha on the outside but it in the end he fell just short. Flat Out started to drift out in the stretch under urging from jockey Junior Alvarado.
ALPHA AND FLAT OUT BATTLE IT OUT IN THE WOODWARD
Alvarado straightened him out, but Flat Out came up just short of a determined Alpha in a thrilling final furlong.
Successful Dan finished third, followed by Ron the Greek and Paynter.
Alpha had not won since his victory in the Travers in August 2012 at Saratoga. He ended up finishing the race in 1:49.28 as the longest shot on the board at 7.70-to-1 for owner Godolphin Racing and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
“Once that horse didn’t pass me at the three-sixteenths pole, I knew my horse was going to put up a good fight, and obviously he did and kept a head in front,” Velazquez said.
Alpha’s victory put his career earnings at $1,772,500 with wins in six of 16 starts. Alpha is also 3-for-4 at Saratoga.
The $500,000 Forego Stakes proved to be very exciting as the first of two Grade 1s on Saturday’s card at Saratoga. It featured a strong field with the formidable coupled entry of Justin Phillip and Fast Bullet, for Zayat Stables, going off as the favorite. Strapping Groom rushed to the early lead but was challenged by Fast Bullet, and the two battled through an opening quarter-mile in :22.92. Entering the turn for home Fast Bullet began to fade and it was up to Justin Phillip to resume the chase, but he, too, could not keep pace.
Jockey Junior Alvarado angled Strapping Groom outside and was quickly challenged by 2011 Forego winner Jackson Bend under Javier Castellano from the inside. Strapping Groom was able to hold off Jackson Bend’s late charge and win the Forego by a half- length.
“We were fortunate to have an outside post. The horse likes to be on the lead, and Junior [Alvarado's] instructions were to get the lead if he could,” said winning trainer David Jacobsen, who co-owns Strapping Groom with Drawing Away Stable. “After he put away Fast Bullet, I was pretty confident he was going to win.”
It’s hard to believe that just this spring David Jacobson claimed Strapping Groom for $35,000. He has earned a whopping $423,000 since the claim and boosted his career earnings to $626,713 with eight wins in 22 starts.
The Grade 2, $250,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap kicked off the graded stakes action at Saratoga on Saturday. With steady rain throughout the day, the Bernard Baruch ended up being the only race that was left on the turf and the field was reduced to five horses with a pair of scratches.
Silver Max under Robby Albarado jumped up to the take the early lead in the race with Paris Vegas and Tetradrachm trailing close behind. Silver Max set some quick early fractions of :23.88 for a quarter-mile and a half-mile in :47.34 in the 1 1/16-mile turf race. Tetradachm attempted to press the pace heading into the final turn but Silver Max continued to dig down and was easily clear of him entering the stretch.
As Silver Max pulled clear, Paris Vegas made his charge to try to catch him but it was too little too late though as Silver Max prevailed by two lengths.
SILVER MAX ALONE ON THE LEAD
“It's no secret what his strategy is: He just pops right out of there and goes right to the front,” Albarado said. “I try to be a quiet and patient passenger on him and let him do all the work.”
Trainer Dale Romans said that he might try to shorten Silver Max up and point to the Breeder’s Cup Mile but would take some time to decide considering the potential opposition.
“He’s obviously a fast horse and he’s going to be a tough miler, but you have to deal with [Wise] Dan when you’re going to go in that division, so that’s the only reason to think about doing something different,” Romans said.
Out West on Saturday, the $300,000 Del Mar Debutante served as a key Grade 1 prep race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. The favorite, Awesome Baby, jumped to the early lead but was quickly challenged by She’s a Tiger. Awesome Baby set a fast pace through a half-mile in 44.81, but on the turn She’s a Tiger made her move to the outside and pulled clear by several lengths about halfway through the stretch. Fascinating rallied on the outside with Hall of Famer Mike Smith aboard, but She’s a Tiger and fellow Hall of Famer Gary Stevens held on to win by a half-length.
Stevens expressed confidence in his filly moving forward.
"You're going to think I'm crazy, but I think she'll be better going two turns, where I could drop her head and let her just get into a high gallop like Winning Colors,” he said. “She's got a stride on her a mile long, and I think she'd love to go on.”
SHE'S A TIGER AND STEVENS AFTER THEIR VICTORY
Smith also was encouraged by Fascinating’s runner-up finish, saying he can’t wait until he can get her in a race around two turns.
She’s a Tiger now has three wins from her four lifetime starts with career earnings of $315,650. She avenged her only defeat – a loss to Concave in the Sorrento Stakes earlier in August at Del Mar – with the Debutante win. Concave finished third in the 8-horse field.
The Grade 3, $150,000 Saranac Stakes on Sunday at Saratoga appeared to be another competitive race with the likes of Joha, Notacatbutallama, and Frac Daddy stepping up to the challenge.
Five Iron was coming into the race with back to back stakes victories at Woodbine, and he broke sharply and took the lead while setting a solid pace in the 1 1/8-mile turf race for 3-year-olds. Joha and Frac Daddy took chase after the leader but failed to make up much ground. Entering the stretch, the Todd Pletcher-trained and Mike Repole-owned favorite Notacatbutallama took aim at Five Iron.
“Coming for home, I still had a lot of horse,” said Luis Saez, Five Iron’s jockey “When I saw Notacatbutallama coming, I knew we could hold him off. He gave me everything he had to win this race.”
After turning back Notacatbutallama, Five Iron cruised to an easy 2 ½-length victory.
Winning trainer Brian Lynch said he had a lot of confidence in his Sharp Humor colt coming into the race.
“He worked so well coming into the race. I knew if he could get the lead and get left alone, he'd be very dangerous. He's a very determined horse. I've never had a horse prick his ears when he makes the lead like that and run into the bridle like he does. He's a fun horse, and as he's gotten older, he's found his niche and become effective at it.”
The Saranac was Five Iron’s first graded stakes win and third stakes victory overall.
The Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes was the feature race of Saratoga’s Sunday card and the 7-furlong race for 2-year-old fillies turned into a coming-out party for trainer Leah Gyarmati’s talented Sweet Reason.
The Spinaway was an intriguing early test for the East Coast juvenile fillies to see who would step up and prove themselves as one of the best in her division. Sweet Whiskey, True Blue Nation, Art of the Game, and Bahnah all broke sharply and vied for the early lead. Entering the turn, Bahnah briefly took the lead before Sweet Reason seized command heading for home. Sweet Reason was much the best in the Spinaway and pulled away first from Bahnah and then Stopchargingmaria and the rest of the field to win by 5 ¾ lengths.
This was Sweet Reason’s second career victory in as many races and brought her earnings to $237,600 for trainer Gyarmati and owner Treadway Racing Stables. The Spinaway was also Gyarmati’s first Grade 1 victory as a trainer.
“It was spectacular!” Gyarmati said. “Obviously, she ran impressively first time out when she won, but it was an off-the-turf race and the competition wasn't anywhere near what she faced today. So, this is thrilling to do what she did against horses that have proven they are very, very nice horses.”
Both of Sweet Reason’s victories have come on a sloppy track so it will be interesting to see how she fares next time out, especially if she races on a fast track. She definitely is one to watch on the road to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
The Saratoga meet always serves as a showcase for the top 2-year-olds, so a dominant performance in the track’s signature race for juveniles – the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes – was a fitting end to both the summer meet and Labor Day weekend.
The Hopeful featured a great group of 2-year-olds lining up for their shot to join a list of past Hopeful winners that includes Man o’ War, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Nashua, Buckpasser, Secretariat and Affirmed to name just a few. But the main storyline was the rematch between Wired Bryan and Corfu. Earlier in the Saratoga meet, Corfu, trained by Todd Pletcher, held off a surging Wired Bryan, trained by Michael Dilger, to win by a nose in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special.
When the gates broke for the muddy edition of this year’s race, Corfu stormed to the lead and was followed closely by Wired Bryan and Strong Mandate. Corfu set quick early fractions going the opening quarter in :22.47 and a half-mile in :45.15.
JOSE ORTIX CELEBRATES AFTER CROSSING THE WIRE ON STRONG MANDATE
Halfway through the turn in the seven-furlong race, Strong Mandate began to make his move on the outside and entered the stretch with a slight lead. He powered away with complete authority and drove to a decisive 9 ¾-length victory.
Closing late, Casiguapo rallied for second place and Lunarwarfare finished third.
Strong Mandate prevailed at odds of 7.30-to-1 for his Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. He is now 2-3 with career earnings of $230,400 and could be a serious 2-year-old contender this fall. Lukas has won 19 career races at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and Strong Mandate certainly looks like a top candidate for this year Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.