After a comprehensive training apprenticeship, Michael Dilger has stepped out on his own this year. The Darley Flying Start graduate who spent seven years as an assistant to Todd Pletcher will make his Saratoga debut a big one, running his first horse at the storied New York track in the six-furlong Sanford.
Tim O'Donohue's Bashford Manor (gr. III) winner Debt Ceiling, undefeated in three starts for Maryland-based trainer John Robb, looms large over six others in the 99th running of the $200,000 Sanford Stakes (gr. II) July 21 at Saratoga Race Course.
The juvenile son of Discreet Cat won his first outing on the lead March 30 at Laurel Park and followed that up May 18 with a 2 1/2-length score in the May 18 Rollicking Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in which he raced far out in the center of the track and came from nine lengths back to win easily. In his most recent start, the 5-2 second choice in the Sanford made a sweeping move into fast fractions to crush the field in the Bashford Manor June 29 at Churchill Downs.
"His first start, I didn't have him cranked up to win first out, and he did it on his own," Robb said. "The Pimlico race was very impressive because he ducked out and stayed in the eight path the whole way. In the Bashford Manor, the move he made will make your jaw drop. He does everything nice; he acts like an old horse. He's the real deal. Every time he's won, he's won pulling up, so we've never got into him."
Debt Ceiling is the 122-pound highweight for the Sanford, and will be ridden from post 3 by jockey Eric Camacho.
Dilger, a 35-year-old native of Mullingar, Ireland, enters the Sanford for 2-year-olds with Wired Bryan, a promising gray son of Stormy Atlantic who blitzed a June 19 field of New York-breds by 7 1/4 lengths in a five-furlong race at Belmont Park. In his second start he'll break from post 4 carrying a 120-pound impost, including jockey Shaun Bridgmohan.
"Obviously, we were very pleased; he couldn't have done it any better than he did," Dilger said of Wired Bryan, an Anstu Stables homebred who is 5-1 on the morning line. "We never extended him in the morning. We knew he was good, but there was no reason to find out how good he was. We left a little bit for the race."
Before striking out on his own, Dilger worked the past four years overseeing Pletcher's string of runners at Delaware Park and also traveled to major races with his Triple Crown contenders. He will face his former boss in the Sanford as Pletcher is represented by 2-1 morning line favorite All in Blue along with the filly Yes Liz, 6-1, in an uncoupled entry. Yes Liz also is entered in the July 19 Schuylerville (gr. III) against other fillies (full preview here).
The Pletcher runners were debut maiden winners on back-to-back days, July 3 and 4, at Belmont. Yes Liz, a daughter of Yes It's True purchased at auction by Stonestreet Stables for $200,000 in April, was a 3 3/4-length winner in her five-furlong outing July 3, and All in Blue, a More Than Ready colt owned by Starlight Racing, won a five-furlong race at Belmont the following day by 6 1/4 lengths, earning a field-best 80 Beyer figure.
Trainer Eddie Kenneally enters the Sanford with Jake's Magic Hat, 8-1, a son of Tiz Wonderful who won his debut for Joseph Bucci June 21 by 2 1/4 lengths at Belmont. Kenneally liked the way Jake's Magic Hat raced comfortably behind dueling leaders and powered by.
"He ran a professional race the first time we ran him," the trainer said. "So, hopefully, he'll move forward again and be more professional when he goes over there on Sunday. It's a tough group of horses over a different track. The competition is solid; it's a grade II, it's a prestigious, historic race, and we're happy with our horse and excited to run in it."
The Sanford has been won by past champions such as Secretariat, Affirmed, Forty Niner, and Afleet Alex .
Completing the field are Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Bashford Manor runner-up Hollywood Talent, 6-1 for trainer Wesley Ward, and Southern Blessing, 15-1, a debut winner in May at Churchill Downs for owner Mike McCarty and trainer Steve Asmussen.
$200,000 Sanford Stakes (gr. II, Race 9, approximate post 5:20 p.m. EDT), 2YOs, six furlongs (dirt)
PP, Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, Odds
1. All in Blue (KY), J. Castellano, 120, T A Pletcher, 2-1
2. Southern Blessing (KY), R. Napravnik, 120, S M Asmussen, 15-1
3. Debt Ceiling (KY), E. Camacho, 122, J J Robb, 5-2
4. Wired Bryan (NY), S. Bridgmohan, 120, M Dilger, 5-1
5. Jake's Magic Hat (VA), J. Lezcano, 120, E Kenneally, 8-1
6. Hollywood Talent (PA), J. Rosario, 120, W A Ward, 6-1
7. Yes Liz (FL), J.R. Velazquez, 117, T A Pletcher, 6-1