Just how important is Saturday’s $750,000 Resorts World Casino Sword Dancer Stakes at Saratoga Race Course? Well, let’s see … it’s one of the richest summer turf races in North America, it’s a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the $4 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, and it’s a key Grade 1 race to win if you want to be voted champion turf male at the Eclipse Awards.
Indeed, three of the last seven Sword Dancer winners have gone on to earn the division championship. That includes reigning Sword Dancer hero #4 Channel Maker, who is back for another chance at the race he won so decisively last season.
Channel Maker was a formidable front-runner during the second half of his 2020 campaign. Switching to pacesetting tactics seemed to make a world of difference for the son of English Channel, who wired the Sword Dancer by a stunning 5 3/4 lengths before coming back to dominate the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths. A close third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Turf wrapped up Channel Maker’s season and cemented his credentials as the Eclipse Award winner.
But can Channel Maker recapture peak form in the 2021 Sword Dancer? That’s a tough question. He kicked off 2021 on a promising note, finishing second in the $1 million Neom Turf Cup in Saudi Arabia. But Channel Maker subsequently finished eighth in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic in Dubai and, following a four-month break, he resumed his U.S. campaign with a fading seventh-place effort in Saratoga’s Grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes.
It’s possible Channel Maker will run better in his second start of the summer. But producing a maximum effort may require securing a comfortable early lead, which seems unlikely due to the presence of #1 Tribhuvan.
Conditioned by three-time Sword Dancer-winning trainer Chad Brown, Tribhuvan has been on fire this season. The 5-year-old gelding knows of only one way to run: hard from start to finish. He kicked off 2021 with an impressive victory in the 1 1/8-mile, Grade 2 Fort Marcy Stakes at Belmont Park, where he opened up a huge early lead before hanging on to score by 1 1/2 lengths. He then ran nearly as well in the Grade 1 Resorts World Casino Manhattan Stakes on the same course at 1 ¼ miles, carving out a fast pace before settling for second behind stablemate Domestic Spending, a three-time Grade 1 winner.
But Tribhuvan elevated his game to another level in the Grade 1 United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park last month. Dashing to a large early lead in the 1 3/8-mile race, Tribhuvan managed to slow the pace down before kicking on sharply in the final three-eighths of a mile to win by two lengths.
In the Sword Dancer, Tribhuvan will stretch out to 1 1/2 miles, which is unexplored territory on the grass for the son of elite miler Toronado. Tribhuvan’s formidable combination of tactical speed and staying power has proven effective at every distance he’s tried so far, and I’m optimistic he’ll handle the challenge again on Saturday. Channel Maker, though a pacesetter on his best day, never runs very fast on the front end. The same can be said of #5 Moretti, a dirt horse trying turf for the first time. So, the stage is set for Tribhuvan to carve out a slow pace. From there, I don’t believe he’ll be caught.
For exotic wagers like the exacta and trifecta, logical contenders include 2020 Grade 1 Belmont Derby winner #2 Gufo and recent Grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes winner #7 Cross Border. The latter boasts six wins from seven starts on the Saratoga turf, with his lone defeat being a runner-up effort behind Channel Maker in the 2020 Sword Dancer.
This leaves #3 Rockemperor and #6 Japan as the final two entrants. Rockemperor has placed multiple times at the Grade 1 level, but he’s finished behind Tribhuvan twice already this season and will need improvement to challenge for more than a minor award.
As for Japan, he won multiple Group 1 races in Europe as a 3-year-old in 2019, but he hasn’t quite recaptured that level of form since. He enters off a narrow victory in the Group 3 Meld Stakes racing 1 1/8 miles at Leopardstown, but stretching out over 1 1/2 miles could be a question mark — he seems more effective running shorter distances these days.
Let’s combine all of these opinions into a pair of wagering strategies keying Tribhuvan on top. Underneath, we’ll emphasize Cross Border, hoping to get the Saratoga specialist into second or third place.
Wagering Strategy on a $15 Budget
$9 to win on #1 Tribhuvan
What to say at the betting window: Saratoga, 11th race, $9 to win on 1
$2 exacta: 1 with 2,4,7 ($6)
What to say at the betting window: Saratoga, 11th race, $2 exacta 1 with 2,4,7
Wagering Strategy on a $40 Budget
$18 to win on #1 Tribhuvan
What to say at the betting window: Saratoga, 11th race, $18 to win on 1
$4 exacta: 1 with 2,4,7 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Saratoga, 11th race, $4 exacta 1 with 2,4,7
$2 trifecta: 1 with 7 with 2,4,6 ($6)
What to say at the betting window: Saratoga, 11th race, $2 trifecta 1 with 7 with 2,4,6
$2 trifecta: 1 with 2,4 with 7 ($4)
What to say at the betting window: Saratoga, 11th race, $2 trifecta 1 with 2,4 with 7
Good luck, and enjoy the race!