In his second major upset in a row, Eugene and Laura Melnyk's Strong Hope led from start to finish and held off 1-5 favorite Empire Maker to win Sunday's Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga. Congrats closed in the stretch to be third.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Strong Hope took the early lead while being stalked by During and Tafaseel. After setting moderate fractions of :23 3/5 and :47 for the first half mile, Strong Hope continued to lead into the stretch.
Empire Maker, making his first start since upsetting Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes, was far back early, some seven lengths off the leader down the backstretch. The colt ridden by Jerry Bailey unleashed a strong drive on the outside rounding the far turn and gradually gained on Strong Hope but the rally came up short.
Strong Hope, a son of Grand Slam -- Shining Through, paid $15.40, $3.30, and $2.10 in winning his fifth straight race. Previous to the Jim Dandy, Strong Hope had upset Sky Mesa in the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II). Empire Maker, who went past the winner after the finish, paid $2.30 and $2.10, and Congrats was worth $2.10. Tafaseel, Nacheezmo and During completed the order of finish. Nacheezmo was vanned off the track after the race, with early indications from the American Association of Equine Practitioners vet on call that it was heat-related.
Strong Hope, who did not race at age two, has won five of six career starts and earned $472,360. Bred in Kentucky by Trackside Farm, G A Seelbinder and Liberation Farm, Strong Hope was a $1.7 million Fasig-Tipton August Yearling purchase at Saratoga.
"You've got to give this horse a lot of credit, he runs hard and keeps going," Pletcher said. "Empire Maker was revving up at the top of the stretch. He had the length of the stretch to get by and couldn't."
"I asked him for his best off the turn," winning rider John Velazquez said. "I could see Empire Maker on my outside. My horse was running hard. I hit him a few times; sometimes he handles the whip better than other times."
Trainer Bobby Frankel was not too upset up about Empire Maker's race: "He was wide and had to make a big run to catch up. Then he hung before seeing Strong Hope in front of him where he made another run. Still, he ran hard. His numbers will come back good. I don't that feel bad about losing this race. I think this race will set him up for the Travers."