Race of the Week: Sword Dancer Stakes, by Joe Wulffe

Saturday August 25th: Race 10 at Saratoga. The $1,000,000 Grade 1 Sword Dancer Stakes run at 1 ½ miles on the inner turf for three year olds and upward. (Post Time: 4:49 EDT).

 

Joseph Wulffe

Twitter: @Whtnbourbonguy

 

Selections: 3-10-6

 

(3) Funtastic: The barn of trainer Chad Brown sends out this four year old colt out of More Than Ready looking to capture his second consecutive Grade 1 victory. Very lightly raced, Funtastic’s last outing in the 11 furlong United Nations Stakes (G1T) back on June 30th at Monmouth was his first attempt against graded stakes competition. He was favorably positioned breaking from along the rail, on a day when there was an extreme bias towards inside speed on Monmouth’s turf course. After breaking very alertly under the guidance of jockey Antonio Gallardo, Funtastic went straight to the front and led the field gate to wire, a performance in which he was never really challenged for the lead. For his efforts in that race he earned a 103 Bris Speed Rating (BSR) which ranks as the highest last out speed figure amongst the entire field. Saturday will mark Funtastic’s second attempt at racing at 12 furlongs; in his first try at the distance, he convincingly won a $62.5K Optional Claimer at Belmont back in May, again in gate to wire fashion, by one and a quarter lengths. In fact the second and fourth place finishers that he beat in that race will be contesting a nine and a half furlong $62.5K Optional Claiming race earlier in the card on Saturday at Saratoga so pay attention to how well those horses run if unsure about Funtastic’s abilities.

Funtastic’s preferred running style is fairly versatile. In the early stages of his career, he showed a preference for sitting back and stalking the pace before trying to close down the stretch. However, as mentioned previously, in his last two races, Funtastic has demonstrated a desire to play the role of pacesetter and try and wire the field. Now as to which running style Funtastic will display on Saturday that is somewhat up in the air. He certainly has the ability to adapt to whatever pace scenario unfolds and even if he is not on the lead contesting the initial fractions, it is very likely that he will be forwardly placed. As there are several other horses entered into this very competitive field that have displayed good early speed in the past, it would certainly be to Funtastic’s advantage if he were restrained at the start and allowed to rate just off the pace rather than becoming involved in an unnecessary speed duel early on. Additionally, such tactics would give Funtastic an excellent opportunity to be able to be in a great position to make the first run at the leaders should they begin to falter in the latter stages of the race. Finally, it is very likely that the initial fractions of this race will be modest at best, if not fairly slow, and this could also work to a forwardly placed Funtastic’s advantage.

Chad Brown has been having himself a phenomenal meet thus far at Saratoga as he has won 30% of and finished in the money in 63% of the first 103 races he’s contested so far. Furthermore, Brown has an outstanding record over the past three years of bringing trainees that won their last race back into the winner’s circle as he has been winning at a 27% rate from 662 starts. Although, Funtastic has not raced in 56 days that should be of no concern as Brown has been firing with runners coming in off of layoffs between 46-90 days (28% win rate from 736 starts). On Saturday, Funtastic will once again have Jose Ortiz in the irons; when riding Funtastic for Brown, Ortiz has finished in the money in five of his six starts. Ortiz has been doing fairly well this year when riding in turf races as he currently holds an 18% win rate from 526 starts. Moreover, Ortiz does well when riding E/P type horses such as Funtastic as he has been winning with that type of mount at a 20% clip.

Funtastic’s two most recent workouts at Saratoga over four furlongs were fairly workmanlike and suggest that he is in good form heading into this race. There is no question that Funtastic is talented and has a very versatile running style that should fit in well in this year’s edition of the Sword Dancer. If he is able to revert to his older pace stalking form and produce a speed figure that is at least comparable to the 103 BSR he earned in the United Nations, then he certainly will be dangerous against this field. As this race is part of the Breeder’s Cup Challenge Series and carries with it a guaranteed entry into the Longines Breeder’s Cup Turf in November, this additional incentive may be all that Brown needs to have his runner primed to fire off another huge effort on Saturday. Consider Funtastic as the most likely candidate to win the Sword Dancer, but as his ML odds are 9/2, make sure to demand a fair price when betting him.

 

(10) Sadler’s Joy: Trainer Thomas Albertrani sends out the defending champion of this race looking to improve upon a somewhat disappointing last out effort. A five year old son of Kitten’s Joy, Sadler’s Joy has really enjoyed racing not only at Saratoga where he has hit the board in four out of his five starts but also at the 12 furlong distance where he has won three times and finished second once in seven career starts. In his last race, the 11 furlong Bowling Green Stakes (G2T) on July 28th at Saratoga, Sadler’s Joy ran well enough to finish third, half a length behind the two dead heating winners. Yet, he was likely compromised by the incredibly soft going of the turf course that day and was unable to really get going even at the end. Although, Sadler’s Joy has yet to run back to the triple digit BSR that he produced in the Man O War Stakes (G1T) at Belmont back on May 12th, the speed figures that he has earned throughout his career at the 12 furlong distance, including a sensational 119 BSR from last year’s Breeder’s Cup Turf, makes him a major contender in this race if he can regain that brilliant form he displayed last year and at the beginning of this year as well.

Sadler’s Joy is a closer, plain and simple. He has arguably the best closing kick in the field, as evidenced by some of his Brisnet Late Pace Figures produced over the past year and a half. He is quite adaptable in terms of pace scenario as he has proven that he can close well regardless of the initial fractions being moderate or more glacial. This is crucial as it appears that even though there are several horses entered into this field with good early speed, the pace of the race early on may be modest at best. It appears that Sadler’s Joy does his best running when he is covered up for as long as possible and then allowed to unleash that devastating kick of his as the field is making its way down the stretch. His former rider, Julien Leparoux, was a master of using this technique to his utmost advantage; however, it seems that Sadler’s Joy’s new rider, Javier Castellano, has yet to figure out how to employ this strategy. That inability could mean the difference between a victory and having to settle for a minor award on Saturday.

Thomas Albertrani has been having a fairly quiet meet thus far at Saratoga as he has won just 15% of his first 26 starts. Furthermore, over the past three years, Albertrani has done alright when entering his runners into turf races as he has won 11% of his 535 starts over that time period. On Saturday, Sadler’s Joy will once again have Javier Castellano onboard; Castellano has finished second once and third twice in his three most recent starts aboard Sadler’s Joy. Thus far this year, Castellano has done quite well not only when riding in turf races (21% win rate from 383 starts) but also when riding closer type horses such as Sadler’s Joy (21% from 365 starts).

Sadler’s Joy’s two most recent works over the Saratoga main train were not very flashy or noteworthy in any aspect; however, the vast majority of his workouts are run in this same manner and it would be more telling that something was amiss if he fired off a bullet prior to this race. Without question Sadler’s Joy is the best closer in this field and it could be argued that in prime form, he is the best horse in the field. However, Sadler’s Joy has not won a race since the Mac Diarmida Stakes (G2T) at Gulfstream Park at the beginning of March. Additionally, it appears that Castellano has not quite figured out how to effectively keep Sadler’s Joy covered up and then employ that fantastic turn of foot that he possesses at the most opportune time in order to drive past his rivals down the stretch. Thus while it would be no surprise to see Sadler’s Joy win on Saturday, unless he can find a way to return to that brilliant form he displayed last year (especially in the 2017 edition of this race) he may have to settle once again for a minor placing.

 

(6) Bigger Picture: The barn of trainer Michael Maker sends out this seven year old son of Badge of Silver looking to rebound from a string of disappointing finishes. It is very likely that Bigger Picture did not take to the soft going of the Saratoga turf course in the Bowling Green (G2T) and although he ran well to finish fourth, beaten by just a length, he simply was not able to produce a quality enough effort to win. Bigger Picture’s third place performance in the United Nations (G1T) was actually fairly good as he made a late bid on the outside and nearly caught the second place finisher, Money Multiplier, at the wire. However, despite these less than desirable finishes in his two most recent races, there is hope for Bigger Picture. Over the course of his career, Bigger Picture has hit the board in three of his five starts at Saratoga and he has finished in the money in five of his seven tries at Saturday’s 12 furlong distance. Additionally the 111 BSR he earned in last year’s Breeder’s Cup Turf makes him incredibly dangerous if he can return to that form; while the 97 BSR he posted in his last out effort makes him competitive at the very least against the field for this year’s edition of the Sword Dancer.

While the Brisnet Past Performances has Bigger Picture classified as a pace stalking type horse, this is simply not the case. Bigger Picture’s running style is more akin to that of a closer than a mid-pack pace stalker. That being said, Bigger Picture does possess a fairly good late closing kick and if given an ideal trip should be able to employ that kick to his advantage down the stretch. Additionally, Bigger Picture has proven himself to be very adaptable to a multitude of pace scenarios as he has demonstrated that he can close well whether the initial fractions are moderate or more crawling. However the key for a successful day for Bigger Picture comes down to positioning throughout the race. His jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr, simply cannot allow Bigger Picture to get caught up in traffic as the field is turning for home as this will likely force him to go very wide heading into the stretch and possibly check any momentum that he may have built up to that point. Rather it would behoove Ortiz to have his mount tactically positioned all the way through the initial stages of the race thus allowing him to conserve ground and momentum before making his move to drive past his rivals. Finally, Bigger Picture should certainly appreciate a return to running on firm turf as courses with a lot of give in the ground do not appear to be to his liking.

Mike Maker has found some success over the past three years when entering his trainees into graded stakes competition as he has won 11% of his last 299 starts over that time period. Yet, Maker has done quite well when sending his runners out to compete in turf races as he has been winning at a 19% rate (from 2213 starts). On Saturday, Bigger Picture will be receiving a massive upgrade in the jockey department as Maker has acquired the services of Saratoga’s leading rider, Irad Ortiz Jr, to ride. Ortiz has done exceptionally well this year when riding in turf races as he has been winning at a 23% rate (from 551 starts). In addition, Ortiz has been quite successful thus far in the current Saratoga meet has he has not only been winning 23% of all of his starts but also has finished in the money in 53% of his first 174 starts.

Bigger Picture’s most recent five furlong workout at Saratoga was an absolute bullet and should serve as a good indicator that he is in good form heading into this race. Although his last two races were disappointing in the sense that he was unable to win either of them, Bigger Picture did give a good account of himself in both starts and there is reason to believe that he will be able to fire off another quality effort again on Saturday. Furthermore, the addition of Ortiz may be just the catalyst that Bigger Picture needs in order to be able to return to that excellent form he displayed in 2017. While it certainly would be a surprise for Bigger Picture to win on Saturday against this extremely competitive field that has been assembled for this year’s Sword Dancer, it would be much more likely for him to hit the board and possibly at a big price too.

 

As mentioned several times throughout this column, this year’s edition of the Sword Dancer Stakes is incredibly competitive and thus if playing any exotic wagers or multi-race tickets, it would be very wise for the horseplayer to go quite deep in this race as there are a number of horses that are worthy of consideration. However, it would be remiss of me to not mention the (2) Spring Quality, trained by Graham Motion and ridden by veteran jockey Edgar Prado. Originally slated to contest the Arlington Million (G1T) two weeks ago, this six year old son of Quality Road did not ship well to Chicago and was consequently scratched the morning of the race. However, the Sword Dancer has always been the backup plan for Motion and thus Spring Quality finds himself drawn into this field of ten runners for Saturday. Although, Spring Quality is a relative newcomer to turf racing, he’s only raced over grass four times in his eleven career starts, he has managed to finish either first or second in his last three tries against graded stakes competition. Furthermore, his narrow last out victory in a wild finish in the Manhattan Handicap (G1T) was greatly flattered after the sixth place finisher, Robert Bruce, came back to win the Arlington Million while the fifth place finisher, Fashion Business, just won the Del Mar Handicap (G2T) last weekend. Spring Quality’s running style is fairly versatile in that he has demonstrated that he is just as capable of finishing well when rating from just off the pace as well as when stalking the leaders from further back. Both his running style and his recent speed figures make him a threat to contend on Saturday. However, Motion has been ice cold thus far when it comes to winning at Saratoga as he has won just one of his first 32 starts there. Yet, he has finished either second or third in 14 of those 32 starts and thus the logical way to use Spring Quality would be as an underneath play only.

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