Trainer Todd Pletcher swept last year's Matron and Futurity stakes for 2-year-olds last year at Belmont Park with Kauai Katie and Overanalyze, and is well positioned to do it again Sept. 29 in New York.
The five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer sends out Sweet Whiskey in the Matron against six opposing juvenile fillies, and has both grade II winner Corfu and impressive maiden winner Sound of Freedom entered in the six-horse Futurity.
The grade II races, worth $200,000 apiece, are contested at six furlongs and are back-to-back on Belmont's Sunday card. The Matron, race 8, is scheduled for a 4:45 p.m. EDT post, while the Futurity is set to go off at 5:17 p.m. as race 9.
Alto Racing's Sweet Whiskey debuted with a front-running 5 1/4-length romp Aug. 11 at Saratoga Race Course, prompting Pletcher to bring the daughter of Old Fashioned back relatively quickly for the Sept. 1 Spinaway Stakes (gr. I). She went off the 19-10 favorite over a sloppy track in a field of nine. Pressing the pace for a half-mile, which went in :45.78, she weakened in the stretch and wound up fourth, 16 lengths behind the victorious Sweet Reason.
The Matron will mean a cutback in distance from seven furlongs for Sweet Whiskey, to be ridden by John Velazquez from post 3.
"Johnny seemed to think she didn't handle the sloppy track very well," said Pletcher in reference to the Spinaway effort. "Not only had he ridden her in her maiden win, he'd also breezed her a few times, and he didn't feel like she handled it like she does a fast track. I don't think it mattered that it was seven furlongs that day; I think it was more about the track."
The lone stakes winner in the Matron field is Cal MacWilliams and Neil Teitelbaum's unbeaten Miss Behaviour, who drew the top weight assignment of 121 pounds, four more than each of her rivals. The Pennsylvania-bred daughter of Jump Start romped in the listed Sorority Stakes at Monmouth Park Sept. 1 by 8 1/4 lengths for trainer Phil Schoenthal after a 2 1/2-length success in her maiden debut at Parx Racing July 22.
"She's just a lovely, classy filly," Schoenthal said. "She had come to us early in the year and pulled a muscle behind. We gave her a couple of months off, and by her final workout before her first race we felt we had a nice horse."
Court Dancer, Gracer, Miss Narcissist, and Ocean Boulevard all enter the Matron off maiden victories, while Nick Zito-trained Art of the Game comes off an eighth-place finish in the Spinaway.
Pletcher will also be counting on a turnaround from Coolmore's Corfu. The Malibu Moon colt scored by a nose over Futurity rival Wired Bryan in the Saratoga Special (gr. II) Aug. 11. But he was stymied by muddy Saratoga track conditions in the seven-furlong Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) Sept. 2, fading to ninth after setting a swift pace (:22.47, :45.15) as the slight favorite in a 10-horse field.
"I think (the wet track) did have a little something to do with it, which was a little bit frustrating because we'd actually breezed him on a little bit of an off track on the Oklahoma (training track) prior to that and he seemed to handle it well," Pletcher said. "He never looked truly comfortable in the Hopeful and, even though he was on the lead, he didn't seem like he was doing it as easy as he normally does."
Corfu, to be ridden from post 3 by Velazquez, turned in a solid half-mile breeze in :48.63 over the Belmont training track Sept. 23 in preparation for the Futurity.
The sleek bay, out of Fashion Cat, a half sister to multiple grade I winner Peace Rules, brought $675,000 as the sales topper at the Barretts juvenile sale in March. He was purchased by Coolmore's bloodstock agent, Demi O'Byrne, from Breaking Point Farm, which acquired him as a yearling at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July sale for $185,000 from Gainesway. He races for Michael Tabor, John Magnier, and Derrick Smith.
Pletcher's other Futurity entrant, Sound of Freedom, makes his third start for Twin Creeks Racing Stables following a three-length maiden triumph on a muddy Saratoga strip on the Hopeful card. Javier Castellano rides for the son War Front for the first time.
"He actually ran well over the wet track, and his first start was good even though he didn't win," said Pletcher. "He's come back and trained well, so it's a logical step for him. At this stage, you have pretty limited options. There aren't many allowance races around, so you're kind of giving up a little bit of experience to some horses but having two races under his belt should help."
The horse that beat Sound of Freedom in his initial start, In Trouble, returns as well in the Futurity. The bay son of Tiz Wonderful is the 5-2 top choice off that debut victory at Saratoga by three-quarters of a length for trainer Tony Dutrow.
"He was really good the first time. I felt good about taking him to Saratoga and running him," said Dutrow of the Team D Stable-owned colt.
Anstu Stables' Wired Bryan won Saratoga's Sanford Stakes (gr. II) impressively prior to his tough loss to Corfu in the Special. He, too, weakened in the muddy Hopeful to finish fifth after pressing Corfu on the pace. Luis Saez takes the mount for trainer Michael Dilger on the son of Stormy Atlantic, who drew the outside post.
Other Futurity contenders are J. Kirk Robison's Big Sugar Soda, fourth in the Hopeful after a dominating maiden performance earlier in the Saratoga meeting for trainer Steve Asmussen, and recent Saratoga maiden winner Financial Mogul.
$200,000 Matron Stakes (gr. II, Race 8, 4:45 p.m.), 2YO Fillies, 6 Furlongs
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. Court Dancer (NY), J Castellano, 117, G Weaver, 5/1
2. Art of the Game (KY), L Saez, 117, N P Zito, 12/1
3. Sweet Whiskey (KY), J R Velazquez, 117, T A Pletcher, 2/1
4. Miss Narcissist (NY), J Alvarado, 117, L Rice, 15/1
5. Miss Behaviour (PA), G Cruise, 121, P Schoenthal, 5/2
6. Ocean Boulevard (KY), E S Prado, 117, I R Wilkes, 12/1
7. Gracer (PA), J Rocco Jr., 117, A W Dutrow, 3/1
$200,000 Futurity Stakes (gr. II, Race 9, 5:17 p.m.), 2YOs, 6 Furlongs
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. In Trouble (KY), J Rocco Jr., 118, A W Dutrow, 5/2
2. Sound of Freedom (KY), J Castellano, 118, T A Pletcher, 6/1
3. Corfu (KY), J R Velazquez, 122, T A Pletcher, 3/1
4. Financial Mogul (KY), J L Ortiz, 118, R A Violette Jr., 6/1
5. Big Sugar Soda (KY), J Lezcano, 118, S M Asmussen, 4/1
6. Wired Bryan (NY), L Saez, 122, M Dilger, 7/2