When nine talented 2-year-old Thoroughbreds face off in Sunday’s Grade 1 Summer Stakes at Woodbine, there will be a lot more on the line than the winner’s share of the $400,000 purse.
The Summer Stakes is held over one mile on turf, the same conditions as the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf taking place seven weeks from now at Del Mar. The Summer actually awards a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Juvenile Turf, guaranteeing the winner a fees-paid spot in the Breeders’ Cup starting gate.
As a result, the Summer has drawn a promising group of horses from a wide variety of sources. There are local runners based in Canada, a couple of raiders from New York, and even an international traveler from Europe. Sorting through the contenders and formulating a successful wagering strategy won’t be easy, but we’ll give it our best shot.
Among the locals, #8 First Empire looks like a standout. Trainer Mark Casse has won the Summer four times since 2013, and First Empire will have every opportunity to add a fifth Summer tally to Casse’s résumé.
A son of Casse’s champion 2-year-old Classic Empire, First Empire failed to show his best when debuting over Woodbine’s synthetic Tapeta track in July, weakening from a pace-pressing position to finish fifth. But First Empire improved significantly when switching to turf, winning a maiden sprint on Aug. 1 before coming right back to dominate the Aug. 21 Soaring Free Stakes by 1 ¾ lengths.
First Empire has plenty of early speed and figures to be prominent from the outset in the Summer Stakes. He may even set the pace under jockey Patrick Husbands, a 43% winner when teaming up with Casse. Any way you slice it, First Empire looms as a formidable win threat.
But First Empire may have to deliver a career-best effort to defeat #4 Albahr, the international raider conditioned by Charlie Appleby. Since 2013, Appleby has compiled an excellent 7-for-23 (30%) record in North America, with all seven of his wins coming at the Grade 1 level. Appleby has already won a couple of top-level prizes at Woodbine, and Albahr is seemingly poised to gain another on Sunday.
A Godolphin homebred son of Dubawi, Albahr boasts a near-perfect 3-for-4 record in England. Since finishing fourth in his debut at York, the chestnut gelding has rattled off three consecutive victories. In the Stonehenge Stakes racing one mile at Salisbury last month, Albahr tracked the early pace before taking command to win by three-quarters of a length.
The fact Albahr has already won over one mile gives him an experience advantage compared to First Empire, who has never run beyond a sprint distance. Another appealing factor in Albahr’s favor is the presence of internationally acclaimed jockey Frankie Dettori, who is traveling from Europe to ride a trio of Appleby trainees on Sunday.
Taking all of these positives together, Albahr looks like a deserving favorite to claim top honors in the Summer Stakes. We’ll plan on betting him on top of all our tickets while keying First Empire for second place – if they run 1-2 in our preferred order, we should catch a solid payday.
For third place, there are several logical horses to choose from. #1 Dripping Gold was a sharp debut winner at Saratoga for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, tracking the early pace before kicking clear to win by 2 ¼ lengths. McGaughey strikes at a 25% rate with second-time grass starters, so there’s a chance Dripping Gold will take a step forward under hot jockey Joel Rosario.
#6 Degree of Risk, runner-up behind First Empire in the Soaring Free Stakes, also has the credentials to factor. And don’t count out First Empire’s Casse-trained stablemates #2 Luckman, #3 Grafton Street, and #7 Souper Legacy, They’re all longshots, and the first two have yet to visit the winner’s circle. But none have run on grass yet, so there’s a chance any one of them could improve significantly while switching surfaces.
To recap, here’s how we recommend betting the Summer Stakes:
Wagering Strategy on a $10 Budget
$10 exacta: 4 with 8
What to say at the betting window: Woodbine, 9th race, $10 exacta 4 with 8
Wagering Strategy on a $30 Budget
$6 trifecta: 4 with 8 with 1,2,3,6,7 ($30)
What to say at the betting window: Woodbine, 9th race, $6 trifecta 4 with 8 with 1,2,3,6,7
Good luck, and enjoy the race!