Notes from the Spa: 1st Edition
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
by John Piassek
On the Tuesday dark days of Saratoga, we’ll be featuring a weekly column here on Danonymous Racing: Notes From the Spa. I, managing editor John Piassek, will be spending almost the entire meet up in Saratoga, working for NYRA’s “Bets Squad”. As such, I’ll be there every racing day, teaching people how to bet, helping customer sign up for NYRA Bets, and watching all the action. I’ll be chronicling any noteworthy observations right here in this column.
NO EXPERIENCE NEED NOT APPLY
Up until the last race on Monday, first-time-starters had been blanked at the Saratoga meet, including some high-profile defeats. On Friday, Todd Pletcher sent out nearly odds-on favorite Honey Gold in the fifth race, and she was up the track. Meanwhile, Sagamore Farm’s Southampton Way, who had struggled in her lone start at Pimlico, but was working well, battled in the stretch and won at 9/1. The next day, 4/5 Machismo was nowhere to be found in his debut, as Sporting Chance, the only one in the race to have a race under his belt, defeated that bunch of two-year-olds going away.
The trend was not limited to two-year-olds. Terrible Day was the only first-timer amongst seven older males in Saturday’s opener, and was a dismal last. Tapella came to the track with a lot of hype in Monday’s fifth race, but could only manage second behind second-time starter Covenant.
This is not terribly surprising. Outside of races comprised entirely of first-time starters, horses without experience tend to do poorly in maiden races. Experience is extremely important, and any horse who has it, no matter how good or bad, automatically gets upgraded in my book. It will become even more true as the year goes on. Unless a field is exceptionally weak, or the horse is a monster, be wary of first-timers, and give a look to horses who have raced before. It could pad your bankroll.
The horse that I was impressed with the most over the weekend was the dazzling Mr. Crow, the winner of Saturday’s first race. He earned a spectacular 109 Beyer Speed Figure as he annihilated a group of maidens at second asking by 11 1/2 lengths. The final time, 1:09.44 seconds for six furlongs, is the fastest time at the distance so far this meet.
After the race, there was speculation over whether or not he’d run in the Allen Jerkens Stakes (nee King’s Bishop) next time out. While he’s clearly a very fast horse, his inexperience may prove a hindrance against classy company.
In fact, there is a parallel to Mr. Crow’s situation. The day before the Whitney in 2015, I watched a first-time starter named Watershed come from far back to blow away the field. His final time for six furlongs, in fact, was identical to Mr. Crow’s. The flashiness of the performance inspired Godolphin to enter him in the King’s Bishop 22 days later. Off the maiden score, he was the 7/2 second favorite, but never fired and finished fourth.
With that example in mind, while it would be fun to see Mr. Crow tackle grade 1 competition, it might not be a bad idea for his connections to wait. Ideally, he’d go in a n/w1x allowance later in the meet, then tackle graded stakes competition in the fall (the Gallant Bob Stakes at Parx comes to mind). From there, the sky’s the limit.
PACE MAKES THE RACE
It’s no secret that jockeys in New York can be adverse to putting their mounts on the lead. I watched Belmont every day for a month, in order to prepare for Saratoga, and I would watch turf races with cartoonishly slow early fractions, followed by a mad dash to the finish with wildly fast final quarters.
Saturday at Saratoga, two jockeys proved while sometimes it’s not a bad thing to show early speed. In race 2, Jose Lezcano sent Voodoo Song, a horse not known for early speed, directly to the front end. He established a clear lead by the half-mile pole, and drew off to win by 5 1/4 lengths. Voodoo Song had shown a good closing punch in his lone grass start, but no one knew how his great late pace would play out. Once Lezcano had him on a loose lead, it was all over.
In race 11, Julien Leparoux pulled a similar maneuver with Glorious Empire. Primarily a closer who had shown only traces of early speed, he was put on the early lead, while expected front-runners Chiltern Street and Souperfast were rated. At the top of the stretch, Glorious Empire accelerated on, winning by 7 1/2 lengths and running 1 1/16 miles in an impressive 1:39.61.
Let this be a lesson to any jockeys out there: sometimes, being aggressive pays off big time.
WHO’S HOT, WHO’S NOT: TRAINERS
The other day on twitter, I posted about how some prominent trainers did not have a winner through two days at Saratoga, and I caught some (semi-deserved) flak for it. Well, now it’s been four days, so I can talk about it with a little more of a sample size.
Right now, Todd Pletcher holds the edge, with four winners from seventeen starts. Three of those wins have been with John Velazquez in the saddle: Orbulation in Sunday’s first race, Uncle Mojo in Sunday’s third, and Sugar Queen in Monday’s sixth.
Kiaran McLaughlin hasn’t been firing as many bullets, but they’ve been hitting: he’s got three winners from six starts. Two of those wins came on opening day; he added the third on Monday, with odds-on Dawn the Destroyer.
D. Wayne Lukas has two victories in four days, with the aforementioned Sporting Chance in Saturday’s fifth, and the 116/1 bomb Perplexed in Monday’s first race. Last year, in forty days, he had four victories. Lukas is already halfway there!
On the other end of the spectrum, some high-profile trainers are in a mini-slump right now. Mark Casse, trainer of Classic Empire, among others, has sent out fifteen horses so far at Saratoga, without a victory. He entered three in the Coaching Club American Oaks, and watched them finish third, fourth, and seventh, respectively. He’ll have two entries in Wednesday’s eighth: second-favorite Elenzee and Wicked Macho.
Steve Asmussen and Wesley Ward have been having a rough go of it early on: they’re a combined 23-0-0-2 on the year. Ward has five Saratoga entries over the next three days, while Asmussen has one. If all of them lose, the panic button can officially be pressed.
LET IT BE
We haven’t had a disqualification yet at Saratoga, but a not insignificant portion of racing fans think that there should have been at least one in this weekend’s grade 1 races. In the Diana Stakes, the stewards posted the inquiry sign against the game Lady Eli, but no change was made. They looked longer at Abel Tasman bearing in on Elate in the Coaching Club American Oaks, but the result stood.
In each case, leaving the result alone was the correct call. Any disqualification would have been a borderline call at best, and if it’s a borderline decision, in my opinion, it’s best to leave the result alone.
Little Jerry finished up the track in the second race on Monday. It was not until eight hours after the race that I connected the dots, and made the joke that if Little Jerry won, the bodega owner would have to take Jerry’s bounced check down from the wall. This was a bit of a “jerk store” moment, if you will: thinking of a funny joke way after the point of relevance.
The first steeplechase of the season at Saratoga will go on Wednesday. It’s the Jonathan Kiser Stakes, named after a promising young steeplechase rider who died just before the start of the 2000 Saratoga meet. Thursday marks one of two graded steeplechase races at the Spa: the A.P. Smithwick Memorial. That one is named after another prominent jockey who died young, and drew a field of 11. Among them is 2009 Kentucky Derby starter Mr. Hot Stuff, who won this race in 2013.
Maryland’s Sagamore Farm has been cruising at Saratoga thus far: they’ve had two victories from four starters. Prominent Maryland-based trainer Horacio dePaz trained both of those victors, and added another one with another stable, for a total of three winners. The duo will team up again in Thursday’s second, with Annapolis Class.
Saratoga is known as a melting pot of horses from all over, and this year has been no exception. Horses who last raced at nine different tracks have won so far this year. The trifecta in Monday’s sixth race was especially diverse: the top three came from Belmont Park, Indiana Grand, and Presque Isle Downs, respectively.