Horse racing is a humbling sport, one minute you’re cheering and inspired, the next you’re silent and completely bewildered watching a maiden take down a field of accomplished horses in a graded stakes.
If the last two weeks have proven anything it’s that, as a general rule of thumb, no matter how impossible an outcome appears, it’s always possible in racing. Does that make any sense? Regardless, it’s safe to say there’s an element of uncertainty going into this weekend.
The main event, the 89th running of the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes, features a short field of six, headlined by impressive Metropolitan Handicap winner Frosted. The strikingly handsome Tapit colt already is a proven winner at the 1 ⅛-mile distance and was second best to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah last year in the Belmont Stakes.
Still, he’ll have to back up his explosive performance at Belmont Park equally at Saratoga on Saturday to prove he’s just as capable of handling two turns.
Let’s rewind to last Saturday, when front-running Laoban galloped to win the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes. The longest longshot in the field at 27-1 beat Grade 2 winners Mohaymen and Destin as well as Belmont Stakes winner Creator in a manner that seemed almost too easy and left most of us feeling mind blown. Based on that, it’s only logical to consider every horse in this field equally capable of winning on Saturday.
Now, let’s be different and switch things up a bit. When I first got into racing in 2014, @Matticapper and I did a bi-weekly handicapping column called The Maiden and The Mad Capper, in which we categorized horses based on talent and ability using a medieval theme with a hierarchy: Kings/Queens, Nobles, Knights and Peasants. Here’s how the contenders of this year’s Whitney rate.
Frosted - He’ll carry the weight of the world loading into the gate, but he’s the classiest of them all. Recall last year’s Travers Stakes and take his third-place finish with a grain of salt. He didn’t win, but he put up hot fractions from gate to wire and was the reason American Pharoah lost. So, if you think about it, Frosted is extremely capable of handling this track, and Joel Rosario is not going to throw away the race by pulling a Jose Lezcano. Even if he runs half as good as he did in the Met Mile, he should cross the finish line first.
Effinex - A winner of three races at the 1 ⅛-mile distance, Effinex appears to be Frosted’s biggest threat. His record at Saratoga — no wins in two starts — throws a big red flag up because horses either love the deep track or hate it. I think he’ll put forth a solid effort, but I also think he’ll regress. Proceed with caution at the betting window…
Noble Bird - He ran HUGE two starts back in the Grade 3 Pimlico Special Handicap, but his flop in the Met Mile is casting shade. Not only is this race longer, it also has significantly less speed, which sets up ideally for him. Now, he’s a front-runner, so he’ll have to go easy on the pace to bag the win. He’s extremely overlooked in this field.
Upstart - People used to think he was better than Frosted, but that was back in his glory days before he got injured. Since then, he’s struggled. His lone win in 17 months came in the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap against nobody and, while his third-place finish in the Met Mile may look nice at first glance, the replay tells a different story. Surely, his last start took something out of him … and he’s going to need that something to hit the board come Saturday.
Comfort - Simply put, he lacks experience. But, he comes into this race on a three-race winning streak and his trainer-jockey combination of Todd Pletcher-Johnny Velazquez reigns supreme at Saratoga. I think he’s capable of hitting the board.
El Kabeir - This gray or roan son of Scat Daddy showed a lot of potential on the 2015 Kentucky Derby trail, then he got sidelined and he has not been the same since. He hasn’t fared well in graded company since he was at his best, he’s never won at this distance and he’s the slowest in the bunch. Perhaps this race is a bit overambitious.
Win: Noble Bird
Exacta box: Frosted, Noble Bird
Trifecta box: Frosted, Noble Bird, Comfort