When 7-year-old With Anticipation dug in and prevailed by a head over Denon in last year's Sword Dancer Invitational (gr. I), he became the oldest horse to win back-to-back runnings of the race. On Saturday, on Saratoga's inner turf course, he will try to become the first horse to win the $500,000 1 1/2-mile grass marathon three times.
Following the 2002 Sword Dancer, With Anticipation went on to win the Man o' War at Belmont and finish second in the Breeders' Cup Turf. In three starts this year the veteran gray has yet to show the sharpness he displayed last year. He has finished no better than fifth in three grade Is.
The May 3rd Woodford Reserve was With Anticipation's first race in six months, the Manhattan was run over extremely soft turf and he lost the United Nations behind front-running Balto Star on a speed-favoring course.
"In my opinion, he hasn't had a chance to run his best race this year," Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard said. "His three runs have all been under extenuated circumstances. I can't say he's as good as he's ever been until he proves it in the afternoon, but it seems like he is in the mornings."
Wet conditions have prevailed through most of the Saratoga meet, making it difficult for Sheppard and With Anticipation to stay on schedule in the mornings. On Wednesday, the gelding worked a half-mile on the steeplechase gallop at the Oklahoma training track.
"We were planning to work him on the training turf Tuesday, but it was closed," Sheppard said. "We thought we'd wait one more day and it would dry up, but of course Wednesday it was even worse. He's popped some small jumps before, but went around them this time."
The turf division is lacking a standout, which makes Saturday's Sword Dancer a wide-open affair. Edmund Gann and Flaxman Stable's Denon could be the leader with his victory in the Manhattan this spring, his only win in three 2003 starts.
"I think the grass division is a little weaker," said Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, who will be looking for his 18th Grade 1 of the year this weekend. "I don't know what's coming in from Europe. Denon is a nice horse, but I don't know if he's a champion."
Denon just yielded to With Anticipation last summer; however, he has finished ahead of that rival in the Manhattan and United Nations this year.
"It was a weird-run race," Frankel said of the United Nations, where Denon was fifth beaten a length. "You hear 'pace makes the race' and that pace was screwed up. Denon doesn't have that real good turn of foot, especially on hard ground. He wanted to run, but [jockey Jerry Bailey] couldn't get out to let him make his run. When he finally got room, it really wasn't that much and they all quickened."
Balto Star took advantage of a speed-favoring course and controlled the United Nations pace en route to a half-length score at 37-1. The 5-year-old gelding is a tough horse to figure out, even for leading trainer Todd Pletcher. He looks awesome when he wins, but has thrown in numerous clunkers.
"He runs well on turf and dirt, so we're just looking for spots where we can find the best opportunities," Pletcher said. "He's a little hard to figure out. Sometimes he runs well on an off track and sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he runs well on the turf and sometimes he doesn't. I think he's a little pace susceptible. When the pace is right, he can be very good."
In two allowance races over Saratoga turf, Anstu Stable's Balto Star is undefeated.
George and Sandra Melillo's Macaw tops a list of alternates invited to the Sword Dancer. The 4-year-old colt finished a close fourth in the Manhattan and rallied well to be third in the Bowling Green. Those races were his first two with blinkers.
"Blinkers ease him a little bit," trainer Barclay Tagg said. "He's never needed them, but they seem to just work pretty good on him. I've run him eight times since I've had him, and he still hasn't won. Most horses get worse if that happens, but he's been getting better."
The Sword Dancer field should be a large one with the top two finishers from the Stars and Stripes: Ballingarry (IRE) and Dr. Brendler.
Kim Loves Bucky and Lunar Sovereign will try to avenge their losses in the United Nations while the top two finishers from the Bowling Green -- Whitmore's Conn and Quest Star -- will try for their first grade I wins.
PP, HORSE, TRAINER, JOCKEY, WGT.
1. Balto Star, Todd Pletcher, Jose A. Velez Jr., 119
2. Puerto Banus, Kristin Mulhall, Victor Espinoza, 115
3. With Anticipation, Jonathan Sheppard Pat Day, 118
4. Dr. Brendler, H. Graham Motion, Mark Guidry, 116
5a. Lunar Sovereign, Kiaran McLaughlin, Richard Migliore, 114
6. Whitmore's Conn, Randy Schulhofer, Jean-Luc Samyn, 115
7. Kim Loves Bucky, John Glenney, Shane Sellers, 115
8. Slew Valley, Gary Sciacca, Javier Castellano, 114
9. Ballingarry (Ire), Laura DeSeroux, John Velazquez, 119
10. Meridiana (Ger), Hans Blume, Mirco Demuro, 109
11. Macaw, Barclay Tagg, Shaun Bridgmohan, 114
12. Mariensky, Christophe Clement, Mike Luzzi, 110
13. Denon, Bobby Frankel, Jerry Bailey, 122
14. Quest Star, W. Elliott Walden, Robby Albarado, 115