With two previous winners of the Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap (gr. IT) slated to contest this year’s running at Saratoga Aug. 15, it’s safe to say the day will not be lacking in excitement.
Ten-year-old veteran Better Talk Now, who captured the race in 2004, will go up against the likes of another seasoned runner, Grand Couturier, who is looking for his third straight victory in the $500,000 turf event.
During an Aug. 11 National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference, trainer Graham Motion, who upset the Aug. 8 Whitney Handicap (gr. I) at the Spa with longshot Bullsbay, said despite the fact Better Talk Now hasn’t scored a win since the 2007 Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) at Belmont Park, he still feels good about the horse’s chances in the Sword Dancer.
Owned by Bushwood Stables, Better Talk Now most recently ran third under jockey Jeremy Rose to Gio Ponti in the June 6 Manhattan. Regular rider Ramon Dominguez will get the call in the Sword Dancer.
“I thought that (the Manhattan) was Gio Ponti’s most impressive race, so coming off our race against him, I would certainly think we stack up against the other horses on Saturday,” said Motion, adding that he has not yet felt any pressure to retire Better Talk Now, who has earned more than $4.2 million in during his remarkable 50-start career.
“We’ve always felt very comfortable with our decision to keep him going,” said Motion of the gelding by Talkin Man, who has won four other grade I races in addition to the Sword Dancer, the most prominent of which was the $2 million John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) in 2004.
“The owners of this horse are fantastic to deal with,” added Motion of Brent Johnson, Karl Barth, and Chris Dwyer of Bushwood. “We’ve felt like everything since the Breeders’ Cup has been gravy with this horse. He gave us a huge thrill that day, and there’s been no pressure to keep him in training. We’ve always said as long as he’s competitive and training well, which he seems to be in great form, we’ll keep him going. We’ll reevaluate after each race, but it’s not something I’m going to put pressure on myself about.”
Motion attributed Better Talk Now’s strong physical qualities, the fact he takes care of himself, and the way he has been rested for periods of time each year to his ability to endure a 10-year-old campaign.
“(Winning the Sword Dancer) would be tremendous if he achieved it,” said Motion. “It would go down in the history books, which I think he deserves.”
Facing two-time Sword Dancer winner Grand Couturier will be no easy task for Better Talk Now, however. The 6-year-old son of Grand Lodge, who also won last year’s Joe Hirsh Turf Classic Invitational Stakes (gr. IT), has dealt with some minor ailments with his feet and ankles throughout his career.
But according to trainer Robert Ribaudo, Grand Couturier is looking strong as of late and appears ready to fire in the Sword Dancer. Jockey Alan Garcia, who piloted the horse to his last Sword Dancer victory, will get the riding assignment.
“When (Grand Couturier) is right (physically), he can run with anybody, but when these things (injuries) occur, it’s tough to map out a course for him,” said Ribaudo of the horse, who most recently ran fifth in the July 11 Man O’ War Stakes (gr. IT) at Belmont.
A third consecutive Sword Dancer win would be an emotional experience for Ribaudo to say the least. “It would be hard to put into words…I have deep emotions about this game,” he said. "(Racing) takes on a new meaning when you work with these types of horses and go to the next level.”
Ribaudo described Grand Couturier, an earner of more than $1.2 million, as “a fighter in everything he does. He’s a character and is very aggressive at times. On the racetrack, with the grit and determination he has, you can see he’s a classy individual.”
But does Grand Couturier have as much class as Better Talk Now? The results of this year’s Sword Dancer will tell the story.
Entries for the race will be drawn Aug. 12.