Racing does not get much better than the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course. The finest horses, trainers and jockeys annually find their way to iconic Saratoga. My top 10 moments from this year’s meet:
The expected duel between Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown for the H. Allen Jerkens training title never materialized. Brown’s performance was that good as he easily surpassed the meet record of 40 victories that he had set two years ago and had seen matched by Pletcher last summer. “It’s been a magical meet for us,” Brown said. “We’ve had so much good fortune and so much support. The most rewarding thing is the chemistry in the morning between all the moving parts, everyone doing their jobs.” Irad Ortiz, Jr., who won the jockey title in 2015, kept the Ortiz name atop the jockey standings with his second win in 2018. He displaced his younger brother, Jose, who had won each of the previous two years.
When Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert followed American Pharoah’s Triple Crown sweep in 2015 with Justify’s historic run this year, the timing became perfect for him to become part of Saratoga’s Walk of Fame. “Saratoga is very dear to me, and to be recognized in this manner with a plaque in the Walk of Fame is something special,” Baffert said. He joined “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons as the only conditioners to oversee two Triple Crown champions and moved into the all-time lead with 15 Triple Crown victories, one more than D. Wayne Lukas.
After taking the Belmont Derby Invitational on turf, Catholic Boy shifted to dirt for the Runhappy Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and displayed his versatility in resounding fashion, chasing down front-running Mendelssohn and whipping him by four lengths for trainer Jonathan Thomas and jockey Javier Castellano. No one was more thrilled than aging Robert LaPenta, part of the ownership group. “I’ve been coming to Saratoga since I was 18 years old. I won’t tell you how long ago that was,” LaPenta said. “And this race has always been my dream, even more than the Kentucky Derby. I know a lot of people don’t understand that. The ‘Mid-Summer Derby’ has always been my dream.” Castellano brought home his sixth Travers.
When Abel Tasman and Elate meet, it appears that a major battle, a taut finish, and a fair amount of controversy are all but assured. Abel Tasman edged Elate by a head in the Coaching Club American Oaks last year. They engaged in an extended stretch duel in this year’s Personal Ensign Stakes, with Abel Tasman eking out another win, this one by a neck. The star fillies made contact each time they met and each time stewards allowed the result to stand. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert cast all of that aside in saying of Abel Tasman, “She’s one of the best I ever trained and she just keeps showing it.”
Change of Heart
Trainer Rick Violette targeted the Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on Sept. 1 for Diversify as soon as the speedster romped by 6 ½ lengths in the Suburban Stakes on July 7 at Belmont Park. Then Diversify persuaded the trainer to change plans and enter him in the $1.25 million Whitney Stakes in early August instead. “He just did too well not to run. Everything he did said ‘Run,’” Violette said, adding, “It was like, ‘Okay, stupid, stop being a chicken and bring him over.’” Diversify controlled the Whitney from the start and never relinquished his hold.
Turf to Dirt
There was no faulting Yoshida’s record on turf. He had won four of 10 career starts on grass with three runner-up finishes and earned nearly $890,000. Still, Elliott Walden, head of WinStar Farm, had been pushing to try the 4-year-old Heart’s Cry colt on dirt. WinStar owns him in partnership with China Horse Club International Ltd., Head of Plains Partners and SF Racing. Walden got his wish with a start in the $750,000 Woodward Stakes, and Yoshida responded by rallying with an extremely wide move for a two-length score. “He was taking very nice to the dirt. He liked it early on,” said winning jockey Joel Rosario.
Monomoy Girl blazed on the front end to her fourth consecutive Grade 1 triumph when she rolled to a three-length victory against Midnight Bisou in the Coaching Club American Oaks. Midnight Bisou had loomed as a threat after dominating the Mother Goose Stakes by six lengths on June 30 at Belmont Park. Monomoy Girl quickly ended any suspense concerning the outcome following previous Grade 1 wins in the Ashland Stakes, Longines Kentucky Oaks and Acorn Stakes. “She brings her ‘A’ game every time,” said trainer Brad Cox. “I was very confident going into this race. She didn’t let us down.”
Heavenly Prize, champion 3-year-old filly in 1994, winner of eight Grade 1 stakes and an earner of more than $1.8 million, stood apart as the lone contemporary Hall of Fame selection to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. She was bred and owned by Ogden Phipps and trained by Shug McGaughey. While saluting the past, the Museum looked to the future by announcing a $20 million capital campaign to fund an interactive exhibit. John Hendrickson and his wife, Marylou Whitney, stepped up as they so often do by donating the first $1 million.
On the same day that trainer Gary Contessa and close friends of the late David Cassidy scattered the singer’s ashes at the Oklahoma training track, Contessa said he asked Cassidy for help minutes before 16-1 Sippican Harbor broke from the starting gate in the $350,000 Spinaway Stakes on Sept. 1. His longshot delivered by two lengths to earn an automatic, expense-paid berth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies on Nov. 2 at Churchill Downs. “She is legit, so we’re looking forward to the Breeders’ Cup,” said Contessa, a long-time friend of Cassidy.
Kharafa pulled a heart-warming upset in the West Point Stakes to highlight New York Showcase Day. The 9-year-old fan favorite won for the first time in almost two years. “We’ve been talking about retirement,” noted trainer Timothy Hills, “and maybe his vote is to keep doing what he’s doing.” Jockey Dylan Davis described the gelding’s performance as “incredible” and added, “When he turned for home, he turned into a beast out there.”