These are the cards that make Saratoga special. We’ll see a trio of graded stakes races with some of the most well-known horses in the sport. Belmont Stakes hero Essential Quality headlines the Jim Dandy, Whitmore runs up against a strong field in the A.G. Vanderbilt, and multiple Grade 1 winner Channel Maker makes his first start after a trip abroad in the Bowling Green.
Combine that slate with a bunch of big fields in undercard races, and you have a card that should give even the most jaded handicapper a jolt of excitement. On a day like this, you only need to be right once or twice to have a profitable afternoon, and that’s all I can possibly ask for.
FRIDAY’S RESULTS: Collaborate loomed boldly in the Curlin, but seemingly forgot how to turn left with about a quarter-mile to go. I got a bit of a thrill at odds of 8-1, but ultimately dropped $20.
SATURDAY’S PLAY: I’m focusing on the Vanderbilt, because I don’t like #2 MISCHEVIOUS ALEX at all. It goes as the eighth race on the program, and I’ll box #1 LEXITONIAN, #6 WHITMORE, and #9 SPECIAL RESERVE in $2 exactas. I’ll also use those three horses in the middle of a $2 Pick Three starting in the seventh. I’ll use #2 INVINCIBLE GAL and #8 LOVE AND THUNDER there and single #5 ESSENTIAL QUALITY in the ninth, the Jim Dandy.
TOTAL WAGERED: $24.
Best Bet: Essential Quality, Race 9
Longshot: Lexitonian, Race 8
#2 MASTER GAME: Hammered for $300,000 last year and has several flashy gate drills for soon-to-be Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher. Expectations are high for offspring of young sire Mastery, and this one looks pretty precocious; #3 KEVIN’S FOLLY: Also shows a solid work pattern coming into his unveiling. He’s bred to want far more distance than this 5 1/2-furlong event, but Tom Amoss has already unveiled one flashy 2-year-old this meet and may have more bullets in the chamber; #6 WOODLINE: Has a major experience edge on the field and was second behind a runaway winner that ran in the Grade 3 Sanford earlier in the meet. He does have some early speed, but he appears to have hooked some promising first-time starters and may need to improve further to win.
Eight Weeks Long
#12 MAJESTIC SKY: Is a tepid top selection in the first of several very befuddling turf races on the Saturday program. He was inexplicably rated behind a very slow pace last time out at Belmont, and in this event, he sure looks like not just the main speed, but like a horse whose hand is forced by the far outside draw; #3 EIGHT WEEKS LONG: Exits the same race as my top pick and ran third that day while sitting a bit closer to the pace than usual. That may have been an aberration given the slow pace, but his usual effort would give him a shot; #4 GATEWAY GUARDIAN: Didn’t do much running first time out, but debuting in a one-mile race is no easy task and David Donk’s horses usually need a race or two to get going. I think he could improve at a price, and it wouldn’t take a huge step forward to get a piece of this.
ZILLA ENTRY: Both #1 MISS LIANA and #1A FLAT AWESOME JENNY could win this, and they certainly look like the class of the field. The former has a bit more tactical speed and returns to the right level, so I’d give her the slight edge if I had to choose one; #3 CATHY NAZ: Has run a few solid races over this track and seems to be working well ahead of her first start since January. Saez sees fit to ride for Bond, and he was aboard for her one recent win; #4 SARATOGA BEAUTY: Makes her first start off the claim for Ray Handal, whose barn may be starting to heat up. Her form this past winter and spring was solid, and she’s got more tactical speed than she showed last time out downstate.
#7 HIGH TONE: Ran very well in his first start since last July when second in a two-turn turf route at Churchill. That was against open company, and he’s back against New York-breds in his first start for new trainer Ron Moquett; #3 PIVOTAL RUN: Had every right to need his last-out effort off of such a long layoff, and he was claimed out of that race by George Weaver, who excels with new acquisitions. He was a good second at this route in his debut last summer, and a return to two turns could help him find his form; #8 BRENNAN’S WAR: Made a bit of a move when third in his debut last month, and that effort came from a barn whose first-time starters don’t often win. I’m not sure what he ran against that day, but figures-wise, it was a solid effort that gives him a chance here.
Behind the Couch
#5 HONEY MONEY: Is far better than she showed last time out, when she faded to sixth in the mud earlier in the meet. She’s no fan of wet racetracks, and she reeled off three wins in a row over fast surfaces prior to that misfire; #4 BEHIND THE COUCH: Earned her first win in quite a while last time out after several close calls following a claim by John Salzman. This is her first start against New York-bred competition since last June, and perhaps the lightbulb has gone off; #8 OUT FIRST: Just never seemed like she was interested last time out, and I have no problem drawing a line through that clunker. She’s been competitive at this level many times, and she’d benefit from a pace meltdown.
Causin’ Mayhem (MTO)
#7 OHTWOOHTHREEFIVE: Was very impressive when second in his debut downstate. He rated well off of a slow pace but made up enough ground to finish second, beaten just two lengths. He’s bred to love two turns and will be formidable if he holds his form; #10 DOCTOR DAVIS: Has been working very fast for a Bill Mott trainee ahead of his debut. Mott’s first-time starters don’t usually turn in bullet drills, as he did on July 2nd, and he may be talented enough to have a say in this one at a bit of a price; #1 SWEEPING GIANT: Is one of two Todd Pletcher runners that will debut here. I prefer this one over #4 ROYAL SPIRIT. His dam was ultra-classy turf runner Isabella Sings, who did her best work going long.
Trumpet Lilly (MTO)
Love And Thunder
#2 INVINCIBLE GAL: Was favored in the Tepin Stakes but went up against a very unfavorable race shape, as the wire-to-wire winner coasted on an easy pace. Blinkers go on, she gets Lasix for the first time, and these waters certainly seem shallower; #8 LOVE AND THUNDER: Is a logical favorite after a tough beat last time out. She nearly overcame a pretty slow pace that day, and the third-place finisher from that event came back to win at next asking; #7 HIGH OPINION: Cuts back in distance after finishing second going a mile and a quarter at Belmont. She’s been second three times in four tries against winners, and while her figures give her a chance, sometimes horses turn into pack animals that have a tough time passing others late.
#9 SPECIAL RESERVE: Has really turned a corner since being claimed by Mike Maker in February. He’s won four of his last five starts, including two stakes races, and between his tactical speed and the cushy outside draw, I think he’s the one to beat in the Grade 1 A.G. Vanderbilt; #6 WHITMORE: Is one of the coolest horses in training and returns to Saratoga for another race or two at the summer place to be. He’s still competitive at the highest level as an 8-year-old, and any hesitation here is because it’s his first start off a layoff and he may need a race to get going; #1 LEXITONIAN: Is a nose and a head away from being a two-time Grade 1 winner. His Met Mile was too terrible to be true, but his two-back effort in the Grade 1 Churchill Downs was excellent, as was a recent local workout. If he’s right, he’s got a shot to take this at a big price.
#5 ESSENTIAL QUALITY: Is probably the top 3-year-old in training and looms large in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy. The three-time Grade 1 winner earned a 109 Beyer Speed Figure in winning the Belmont Stakes, and anything remotely close to that would easily dispatch this bunch; #2 MASQUEPARADE: Has moved forward significantly in his last several starts, one of which was a win in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby. He beat a decent field that day and has every right to be getting better midway through his 3-year-old season; #3 WEYBURN: Gave eventual Haskell winner Mandaloun all he could handle in the Pegasus at Monmouth last time out and has shown two turns is not a problem. The recent string of bullet drills can’t be ignored, and neither can the presence of Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Moon Over Miami
#5 CHANNEL MAKER: Emerged as the East Coast’s top turf horse a season ago and makes his first start following an expedition to the Arabian Peninsula. Between his back class and the fact that he looks like the lone speed, I think he’ll sit an ideal trip and be very tough to run down in the Grade 2 Bowling Green; #2 CROSS BORDER: Won this race a season ago by DQ and does his best running over this turf course. He hasn’t won in a while, but it isn’t like he hasn’t been competitive and perhaps he’ll relish a return to upstate New York; #7 MOON OVER MIAMI: Wants to sit back and make one run, and has done so to fair success this season with three in-the-money finishes in graded stakes races. That includes a close-up third last time out downstate, and he’s shown enough class to be respected here.
#3 MOROCCO: Takes a gigantic drop second off the claim, which can be seen as a good or bad thing. In this case, I think he’s coming back to the right level, and if he channels his form from this past winter, he could be more than good enough to beat this bunch; #8 HIEROGLYPHICS: Has won three of six at Saratoga, and the most recent score here last summer kick-started a run of four wins in six starts. One of them was a win at this level downstate, and if he brought his form to the barn of new trainer Dominick Schettino, he’ll have a big shot; #7 TIZZARUNNER: Was second last time out at this level at Churchill, and he put forth that effort despite having to close into a slow pace. He’s a major player here, but this isn’t an easy spot for the level and he may want more pace than he’s likely to get in the Saturday finale.