The $250,000, Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap is usually a showcase for some of the best horses in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint division each summer, and this year’s edition is no exception. Three millionaires are among the quintet who entered the race on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course – Whitmore ($3.1 million), Firenze Fire ($1.9 million) and Mind Control ($1 million). In spite of this, young upstart Volatile is the one to beat. Lexitonian rounds out the field and can’t be totally counted out either based on his best prior efforts.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many horses’ 2020 campaigns were delayed this winter and spring as tracks around the country were closed. This has significantly affected the Road to the Kentucky Derby, allowing a horse like Art Collector, who recently won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, to reach the top level of contenders much later than in normal years. The same thing has happened in other divisions. An emerging star in the sprint division is Volatile, who was off from November to near the end of April but has since returned to put in two powerhouse performances worthy of top billing in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap. Volatile debuted as a 3-year-old last July and won at first asking before finishing second and then winning again, all at six furlongs. Those efforts were nothing compared to his 2020 debut in April at Oaklawn Park when he dueled with another horse on sizzling early fractions (21.6, 44.8) and then, in a field of 11, he still drew off by 7 ½ lengths to earn a stakes-quality 119 Equibase Speed Figure. To put that in perspective, the best figure Whitmore has ever earned throughout his stellar career is 121 and the best figure Firenze Fire has ever earned is 119. After the decisive win, Volatile returned the first week of June and this time exploded to win the Aristides Stakes at Churchill Downs by eight lengths with a 118 figure. Since then Volatile has come back to train well, including three workouts at Saratoga, so we know he’s holding his form. Making only his third start of the year and with improving to do as a 4-year-old, Volatile could put on a display of speed in Saturday’s race on par with the kind of superb performances the Saratoga meeting has to offer every year.
Whitmore finished second in February in his 2020 debut and has won both starts since, in March and April. His trainer was planning to run him in an allowance race at Keeneland on July 12 as a prep for this race but decided to just train him up to it, and that’s fine as Whitmore has won off of long layoffs before. In his only previous foray to Saratoga, Whitmore won the Forego Stakes in 2018 and this six-furlong trip is his forte, evidenced by a record of 12 wins and six seconds in 21 starts. However, this year his three efforts have yielded 111, 113 and 114 Equibase Speed Figures, which arguably are shy of what Volatile has earned in his last two races.
Firenze Fire won a stakes race as a 2-year-old at Saratoga back in 2017, and he’s won a lot of races in between in amassing a record of 11 victories from 26 starts. Last month at Belmont Park, Firenze Fire won the True North Stakes rather easily with a 111 figure which may seem low – but being as it was only his second start after four months off, there is potential to improve back to the level when he won the Fabulous Strike Stakes last fall with a 119 figure, or when he finished second in the 2019 Vosburgh Stakes with a 117 figure.
Mind Control is another classy horse, with a seven-for-13 career record including two wins at Saratoga in two tries. One of those came in the Hopeful Stakes in only the third start of his career in 2018. The other came last August in the H. Allen Jerkins Stakes. After five months off, Mind Control returned to win his first two races of 2020, with a career-best 113 figure effort in the Tom Fool Handicap at this distance in March. Returning on a sloppy track in June, Mind Control was no factor in the Carter Handicap, and I have no issue drawing a line through that race. Like Volatile, Mind Control is a 4-year-old who can improve and contend in the Vanderbilt.
Lexitonian won the Concern Stakes last July and the Chick Lang Stakes on Preakness Stakes weekend last May but has only won once in five races since. That win came on May 29 at Churchill Downs, and although he beat Hog Creek Hustle, who had finished second to Mind Control in last year’s Jerkins Stakes at Saratoga, his Equibase Speed Figure was just 101. As such, I think it’s asking a bit too much of Lexitonian to beat any of the other four top sprinters in this race.