Quality Road and Blame , atop the national handicap division for much of the year, square off in what shapes up as a superb lineup for Saratoga's $750,000 Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I) Aug. 7.
Six are entered in the 1 1/8-mile Whitney, the 10th race on a Saratoga program that also includes the Test Stakes (gr. I) for 3-year-old fillies. The probable post is 5:48 p.m. EDT.
Quality Road was made the 2-5 morning line choice. Both Quality Road, who won the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park May 31, and Blame, winner of the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs June 12, head into the Whitney off those grade I victories. Quality Road, who was assigned top weight of 126 pounds, drew post 3 in the compact field, with Blame, weighted at 121, breaking just to his inside. All of the starters in this year's Whitney are 4-year-olds.
Other contenders in the Whitney are Suburban Handicap (gr. II) victor Haynesfield , Metropolitan runner-up Musket Man , and Mine That Bird, still seeking his first win since capturing the 2009 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) by 6 3/4 lengths. The race comes with a berth in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs attached for the winner.
“That is perfect," trainer Todd Pletcher said in assessing the post position draw. "I wouldn’t think post position is important for anyone."
Quality Road, with his high cruising speed, will be the favorite after three consecutive wins so far in 2010. A Virginia homebred owned by Edward P. Evans, the son of Elusive Quality preceded his front-running 1 1/2-length Met Mile win with a visually stunning 12 3/4-length triumph in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) Feb. 6 at Gulfstream Park. It was by far his most powerful performance to date.
“I think Quality Road certainly belongs in any conversation about the best horse in training," Pletcher said. "I think if you look at his Donn Handicap, for example, that was just an unbelievable race, and then to come back with a similar performance in the Met Mile -- we believe he is the best horse in training.
Evans won a pair of major stakes at the Spa last weekend with homebreds A Little Warm in the $500,000 Jim Dandy (gr. II) and Malibu Prayer in the Ruffian Invitational (gr. I).
Pletcher said he is looking forward to matching Quality Road against a strong field in the Whitney.
“Blame is on a hot streak and he’s a very good horse. You have the Derby winner in there – we’re concerned about everyone.”
Quality Road ran twice at Saratoga last season, winning the 6 1/2-furlong Amsterdam Stakes (gr. II) before fading to third, five lengths behind Summer Bird, in the 1 1/4-mile Travers Stakes (gr. I) over a sloppy track.
An off-track is Velazquez's only concern.
"If the track comes up wet, he doesn’t run his best race," Velazquez said. "He runs well, but he doesn’t run his best race. I think he runs really well on the fast track, I think he’s just a little intimidated by the wet, the way it was last year on Travers Day. Other than that, I think he’s done everything very well. If we have the same horse that ran the last two races, he’ll be really tough.”
Quality Road, who also won the Florida Derby (gr. I) as a sophomore, comes into the Whitney with seven wins in 10 starts and earnings of $1,632,830.
Blame, who bloomed late in his 2009 campaign, enters the Whitney on a four-race winning streak dating back to the Fayette Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland and the Clark Handicap (gr. II) at Churchill last fall. In the 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster, which was his second start in 2010, the Arch colt scored by three-quarters of a length over the highly-regarded Battle Plan, using a four-wide rally from sixth and a big burst down the stretch. Garrett Gomez has the mount on the 4-1 morning line hope once again.
“He can handle anything," says trainer Albert Stall Jr. "Nothing bothers that horse. We’re ready for the task. This is his third race this year. We’re excited to be here and run in the Whitney. We are ready to take on all comers. I’m looking forward to it. If he (Quality Road) goes :45 flat (for a half mile), I’ll be smiling; Garrett will be smiling. We’ll be way off him, that’s for sure."
Stall expects an honest pace involving Quality Road and Haynesfield.
“I was happy to see Quality Road draw inside Haynesfield (post 4)," he said. "I’m sure Ramon (Dominguez, aboard Haynesfield) and Johnny will play a little bit of cat and mouse, and back it up a little bit. Garrett will have to use his own judgment to decide what he wants to do from there.”
Like Quality Road, Blame has won seven of 10 starts while earning $1,068,214 for owner Adele Dilschneider. He captured the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga a year ago.
Haynesfield sat just off the pace in the 1 1/8-mile Suburban at Belmont July 3 and drew clear when asked to score by 2 3/4 lengths. It was the biggest victory of his career, which includes a grade III triumph at Aqueduct last fall.
"He is a versatile horse with good tactical speed, and can be where he needs," Dominguez said. "We’ll be able to see what happens early on and go from there.”
A 4-year-old New York-bred son of Speightstown from the Steve Asmussen stable, Turtle Bird Stable's Haynesfield has eight wins in 11 starts -- including four over state-breds -- while banking $629,481. He is 12-1 on the early line.
In addition to the Met Mile, Musket Man, the 6-1 third choice, ran second in the Carter Handicap (gr. I) at Aqueduct April 3. The 4-year-old son of Yonaguska, owned by Eric Fein, is looking for his first graded win since last spring's Illinois Derby (gr. II). Rajiv Maragh replaces Dominguez, who was committed to Haynesfield, aboard the dark bay colt.
“The horse is doing very well and came out of his work in good shape," trainer Derek Ryan said. "He’s had some bad racing luck this year, so maybe he can turn it around.”
Mine That Bird (12-1) gets back on the main track after finishing eighth in the Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT) at Churchill Downs in his turf debut. It was also the Birdstone gelding's first start of the year. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who took over training duties this season, said he was "optimistic that maybe we can get him back to that Derby form."
Breaking from the rail, he won't be coming from as far back as in previous races, Lukas believes.
"I think we’ve got him a little sharper," he said. "We don’t have any grandiose ideas that we can run down Blame or Quality Road or some of these others, Musket Man, from left field. We’re going to have to stay a little bit closer. We’ve been training a little bit different and he’s showing a little bit more turn of foot, so we won’t be as far back hopefully."
Jardim, a Brazilian-bred colt, rounds out the field at 30-1.
“Number-wise he’s totally overmatched, but there aren’t many races for him to run in and we knew it was going to be a short field," trainer Eduardo Caramori explained. "This is the graveyard of favorites, and we’re not a favorite.”
$750,000 Whitney Invitational (gr. I, Race 10, 5:48 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Mine That Bird (KY), C H Borel, 118, D W Lukas
2. Blame (KY), G K Gomez, 121, A M Stall Jr.
3. Quality Road (VA), J R Velazquez, 126, T A Pletcher
4. Haynesfield (NY), R A Dominguez, 116, S M Asmussen
5. Jardim (BRZ), J R Leparoux, 113, E Caramori
6. Musket Man (KY), R Maragh, 117, D S Ryan