Saturday’s $500,000, Grade 1 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga Race Course pits seven 3-year-old fillies against one another, with the winner getting an automatic starting spot into the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff on the first weekend in November. However, with the Longines Kentucky Oaks having been rescheduled to the first week in September, there is also certainly a chance the winner of this race will take a shot in three weeks to run in the Oaks and then have time to recover before the Distaff.
Among the field of seven, Swiss Skydiver has the best credentials. Not only did she win the Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream Park Oaks, the Grade 3 Fantasy Stakes and the Grade 2 Santa Anita Oaks in succession in the spring, she also finished second when facing males last month in the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes behind Art Collector, who just cemented his ticket to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve with a win last week in the Ellis Park Derby. Crystal Ball may not have three graded stakes wins like Swiss Skydiver, but her lone effort when second and beaten a head in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks last month at Saratoga provides enough information to view her as a strong contender in the Alabama. Harvey’s Lil Goil won the Grade 3 Regret Stakes on turf at the end of June, but the transition back to dirt is of no concern as she won the Busanda Stakes on Aqueduct’s main track in February. Bonny South may be no slouch either; she won the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks in March before a fourth-place effort in the Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland Stakes in July, the same race in which fellow Alabama starter Envoutante finished third. Spice Is Nice finished second in the Grade 2 Davona Dale Stakes in February in only the second start of her career, and enters the race off a win last month. Fire Coral rounds out the field, with fifth- and fourth-place finishes in her only two stakes tries to date.
When handicapping races for 3-year-olds, in the spring as well as in the summer, one must think about improvement and not as much what a horse has done previously, but to project what it might do today. In that sense, Spice Is Nice may post the mild upset in this year’s Alabama Stakes. Showing a world of talent in her January debut, Spice Is Nice won as she pleased by 12 lengths and was not disgraced in career start #2 when second in the Davona Dale Stakes one month later. After a poor showing when beaten 10 lengths by Swiss Skydiver in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, trainer Todd Pletcher gave the filly two months to mature, and mature she did when winning strongly on July 3. That effort earned her a career best 104 Equibase Speed Figure which is the best last-race figure in the field. It’s better than the 99 figure Crystal Ball earned when second in the Coaching Club American Oaks and it’s better than what Swiss Skydiver (97) earned when second in the Blue Grass Stakes. That 104 figure is also better than the figure Harvey’s Lil Goil earned in the Regret Stakes and it’s better than the 95 figure Envoutante earned when third in the Ashland Stakes. And it's better than 100 figure Bonny South earned winning the Fair Grounds Oaks in March as well. Considering Spice Is Nice is likely to run even better second off the layoff, the others will have to leapfrog over her in form to beat her. That leaves just one question – and that is whether she, or any of the seven fillies, has the breeding to succeed at this mile-and-a-quarter trip. That answer is a resounding yes, because sons and daughters of Curlin have the best record among any other sire’s progeny in the Alabama field. Hall of Famer Curlin is the sire of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso and Travers Stakes winner Keen Ice as well as a host of other stakes winners at this classic distance. As such, Spice Is Nice is decidedly my top choice to win the Alabama Stakes.
Harvey’s Lil Goil dominated in her first and second start on dirt this past winter, winning by six lengths to break her maiden before an easy 7 ½-length score in the Busanda Stakes in February at the distance of 1 1/8 miles. Returning in the Fantasy Stakes in May, she ran 11th of 14 behind Swiss Skydiver but just under two months later she returned to the winner’s circle in the Regret Stakes with a 96 figure. When winning the Busanda, Harvey’s Lil Goil earned a 100 figure which she’s likely to repeat, or improve upon, now that she’s back in top form. By American Pharoah out of a Tapit mare, there’s little doubt Harvey’s Lil Goil can successfully get the mile-and-a-quarter trip in the Alabama either. The bigger question is whether she can improve more than Spice Is Nice can to win. That’s a question to be answered on the track.
Swiss Skydiver won three straight stakes this spring, in March, May and June, and ran well against males last month when second to Art Collector in the Blue Grass Stakes. She finished nearly five lengths clear of the third horse and, given that Art Collector easily won the Ellis Park Derby last weekend, Swiss Skydiver appears to be a strong contender in this race. She earned a career-best 108 figure in the Santa Anita Oaks before the Blue Grass, so rebounding back to that kind of form gives Swiss Skydiver a strong chance to win provided Spice Is Nice doesn’t move up significantly off her last race.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is Bonny South (100), Crystal Ball (99), Envoutante (96) and Fire Coral (89).
Spice Is Nice
Harvey’s Lil Goil