Get ready, racing fans! The $350,000 Grade 1 Runhappy Hopeful Stakes on Labor Day at Saratoga is so much more than just the feature race on closing day of the historic racetrack’s summer meet.
Held over seven-eighths of a mile, the Hopeful Stakes is a historic and prestigious test for classy juveniles. As the first Grade 1 race of the year for 2-year-old males, the Hopeful is a major steppingstone toward the Grade 1 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and – ultimately – the following year’s Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
The list of Hopeful winners through history reads like a “who’s who” of champions and legends. Man o’ War, Secretariat, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Affirmed, Regret, Nashua, Needles, Buckpasser, Foolish Pleasure, Gulch, and Afleet Alex are just a few of the illustrious names on the roster. If you win the Hopeful Stakes, you’ve secured a place in racing history.
The funny thing is, major career accomplishments aren’t a prerequisite for success in the Hopeful. In recent years, the race has been dominated by last-out maiden winners jumping into stakes company for the first time. Local Hopeful prep races like the Grade 3 Sanford Stakes and the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes have struggled to produce winners of this meet-closing feature; the last Hopeful winner to contest either race was Vineyard Haven in 2008, who finished third in the Sanford.
So if your plans for the holiday weekend include betting a few bucks on the outcome of the Hopeful Stakes – and let’s face it, who doesn’t want a rooting interest in the outcome of this much-anticipated juvenile showdown? – you might want to keep history on your side and oppose runners exiting the Sanford and Saratoga Special.
It might seem like a risky strategy, but there’s actually some sound reasoning to support this approach. Two-year-olds can be unpredictable, wildly improving one day and sharply regressing the next. A slow maiden winner might improve by a dozen lengths second time out. An early-season stakes winner might burn out and never regain their best form.
Since it takes a pretty sharp effort to win the Hopeful, it follows that you might not want to play a runner who fired off a big win against graded stakes company a few weeks prior. Such a runner is bound to be heavily supported thanks to their high-profile victory, but there’s no guarantee they’ll repeat the performance on short rest. It might have been too much, too soon.
Granted, #3 Green Light Go looked great winning the Saratoga Special by 3 ¾ lengths with solid speed figures, and #5 By Your Side was similarly impressive scoring by three lengths in the Sanford. But in terms of Beyer and Brisnet speed figures, they don’t stand out against their Hopeful rivals, and it’s fair to wonder if we’ve already seen the best they have to offer. Of the pair, By Your Side might have more upside since he’s rested for seven weeks since the Sanford and has yet to run particularly fast; the Sanford featured an easy pace and a quick finish, the type of performance young runners can build on.
But with history in mind, I’m just as intrigued by the chances of #4 Gozilla and #7 Basin, two Saratoga maiden winners trained by Steve Asmussen. Gozilla was thoroughly dominant in a sprint on Aug. 10, effortlessly opening up a clear lead around the turn before winning easily by 4 ½ lengths. Gozilla ran fast on the Beyer and Brisnet speed figure scales, but Basin was actually quicker winning a similar event by 1 ¼ lengths on July 21. His margin of victory wasn’t as impressive, but Basin defeated a high-quality field that included fellow Hopeful Stakes entrant #2 American Butterfly.
Splitting the two colts is the challenging part, but it’s worth noting jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr. guided both Gozilla and Basin to their debut victories, and in the Hopeful he’ll stick with Gozilla, a promising endorsement for the stoutly-bred son of Flatter.
So if you insist on asking me to name the single most likely winner of the Hopeful Stakes, I’ll point to Gozilla as a promising prospect with a chance to improve in his stakes debut. But rather than recommend a simplistic win/place/show wager (the risk vs. reward in a field this competitive just isn’t appealing), I suggest playing a more complicated wager – the trifecta. If you cover plenty of options and successfully identify the top three finishers, the payoff should be well worth your trouble.
Wagering Strategy on a $15 Budget
$0.50 trifecta: 4,7 with 1,3,4,5,7 with 1,3,4,5,7 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Saratoga, 10th race, $0.50 trifecta 4,7 with 1,3,4,5,7 with 1,3,4,5,7
$0.50 trifecta: 4,7 with 4,7 with 1,3,5 ($3)
What to say at the betting window: Saratoga, 10th race, $0.50 trifecta 4,7 with 4,7 with 1,3,5
Wagering Strategy on a $30 Budget
$1.50 trifecta: 4,7 with 4,7 with 1,3,5 ($9)
What to say at the betting window: Saratoga, 10th race, $1.50 trifecta 4,7 with 4,7 with 1,3,5
$1.50 trifecta: 4,7 with 1,3,5 with 4,7 ($9)
What to say at the betting window: Saratoga, 10th race, $1.50 trifecta 4,7 with 1,3,5 with 4,7
$1 trifecta: 4,7 with 1,3,5 with 1,3,5 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Saratoga, 10th race, $1 trifecta 4,7 with 1,3,5 with 1,3,5
Good luck, and enjoy the race!