Here’s a quick quiz for you. Bring up the entries for Saturday’s $750,000, Grade 1 Woodward Stakes presented by NRA Bets at Saratoga. Examine the past performances of the 14 entrants. How many front-runners do you see?
If you answered “none,” that’s certainly a reasonable answer. Only one horse—#1 Leofric—has been on the early lead in a recent race, but Leofric did so in a slow-paced renewal of the West Virginia Governor’s Cup at Mountaineer and had previously enjoyed success as a deep closer. We can hardly count on him to ensure a quick early pace.
The point I’m trying to make is that there’s an extraordinary lack of early speed entered in the Woodward Stakes, which could make the 1 1/8-mile race a challenging event to handicap. Despite the large field, a modest (or even downright slow) pace figures to unfold, which should favor the few runners that possess enough tactical speed to work out a good trip on or near the lead.
In my opinion, this means that the horse to beat is #12 Sunny Ridge. I must admit that the thought of Sunny Ridge winning a Grade 1 race seems odd since he hasn’t competed at this level in a couple of years, but take note, he did finish second in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes in 2015 and he’s long been a capable competitor at the Grade 2/Grade 3 level. Since this isn’t the strongest Woodward field of all time, there could be an opportunity for him to snatch a major prize on Saturday.
But questions of class aside, what Sunny Ridge undoubtedly possesses is tactical speed. He might not be the type of horse who sprints out and seizes the early lead, but he can he secure a forwardly-placed position without too much difficulty. He’s done so in all three of his starts this season, including a 3 ¼-length triumph in the State Dinner Stakes at Belmont Park. That effort in particular caught my eye because Sunny Ridge finished very, very fast, running the final five-sixteenths of a mile in about 29 seconds (an exceptional time) to pull away and win decisively.
With Saratoga’s leading jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. in the saddle, I hope to see Sunny Ridge work out a perfect trip stalking the early pace before unleashing a strong finish in the homestretch. We saw in the 2017 Grade 2 Brooklyn Stakes that Sunny Ridge has no issues with stamina—he finished second in the 1 ½-mile event—so even though he’s never won over the distance of the Woodward, it shouldn’t be an issue.
I’ll be more than happy to bet Sunny Ridge to win at what I expect to be decent odds, but I’ll also play him in the exacta with #9 Gunnevera. Last year, this durable son of Dialed In finished second in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga, and he further proved his ability to compete at the highest level of the sport by finishing third in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup back in January.
Gunnevera hasn’t seen a whole lot of action lately, but he recently returned from a layoff to score a decisive victory in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race on Aug. 10 at Gulfstream Park, an easy effort that should serve as a perfect prep for the Woodward. As a deep closer, Gunnevera could be compromised if the expected slow pace unfolds, but I still expect him to produce a big rally to finish on the board.
Here’s how I would play the race:
$10 to win on #12 Sunny Ridge
$5 exacta: 9,12 with 9,12 ($10)
Good luck, and enjoy the race!