Ron the Greek has risen through the handicap ranks from a horse that didn't win a graded stakes race last year to a multiple grade I winner in 2012. On Aug. 4, the 5-year-old son of Full Mandate will head a nine-horse field as the 3-1 morning line favorite for the $750,000 Whitney Invitational (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course.
The Whitney, a 1 1/8-mile contest, is part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” program, with the victor earning an automatic expenses-paid berth in the Nov. 3 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park.
The Classic is the year-end target for all top handicap runners. Ron the Greek, the 120-pound high weight in the Whitney, obviously falls into that category off a solid June 16 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) score at Churchill Downs. Earlier in the year he took the March 3 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and finished second in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) April 14 for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.
“He’s a real late-developing horse,” Mott remarked. “He’s a huge, gorgeous horse, actually, but a horse you could tell probably wasn’t going to get good until later in his career. I think it’s just a timing issue, as most things are in this business. He’s starting to come around at the right time and just landed in our hands at the right time.”
Mott inherited the big bay last July, and since then Ron the Greek has won five times in eight starts, never worse than second for Brous Stable, Wachtel Stable, and Jack Hammer. The latter bred the horse out of the Fortunate Prospect mare Flambe'. Ron the Greek breaks from post 6 under jockey Jose Lezcano.
Mott will also saddle Preston Stables’ Flat Out , second to Whitney opponent Rule last time in the July 7 Monmouth Cup Stakes (gr. II). The trainer assumed conditioning duties of the 6-year-old son of Flatter earlier this year. In 2011, Scooter Dickey sent Flat Out to win the Suburban Handicap (gr. I) and finish second in the Whitney and the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) before taking the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I).
“I thought the Monmouth Cup was a perfect race for Flat Out,” Mott said. “He probably didn’t get to run full out the whole way. He was kind of stuffed early in the race and got out late. He was closing on the winner. It was a useful race. I think it was the type of race you’d like going into a major race like the Whitney. It was enough, but it wasn’t too much.”
Rosie Napravnik will pilot Flat Out from post 7; she rode him for the first time in the Monmouth Cup.
Ron the Greek and Flat Out are both late closers. One anticipated to be nearer the front end is 7-2 second choice Fort Larned , Janis Whitham’s three-length winner of the June 30 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (gr. III).
The homebred 4-year-old son of E Dubai was the victim of bad racing luck a start before in the Stephen Foster, when he was carried out leaving the far turn, then tired to finish last of eight. It was an uncharacteristic result for him; in two preceding starts in graded company he won the March 31 Skip Away Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park, then ran second after being run down by Successful Dan in the May 4 Alysheba (gr. II) at Churchill.
“He really stepped it up,” trainer Ian Wilkes said of Fort Larned’s recent victory. “The blinkers really helped him. I went into the Stephen Foster with a pretty horse. I didn’t have a racehorse. So, he didn’t run much that day.”
Brian Hernandez Jr. rides Fort Larned from the outside post.
“It gives us a lot of options on what to do,” Wilkes said of post 9. “He doesn’t have to be in front. He can sit behind. He can do whatever he wants.”
Endorsement is also likely to head for the lead from post 4 under Joel Rosario. A 4-year-old son of Distorted Humor who won the Texas Mile Stakes (gr. III) earlier this year but finished seventh in the Suburban last time out, he'll will race without medication in the Whitney for owner Bill Casner and trainer Eoin Harty. At the beginning of the year he set the track record for 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park, wiring an optional claimer in 1:42.35 by 2 1/4 lengths.
“I think his best races are on the lead, or certainly very close to it,” Harty said. “He had a lot overcome in his last race, mental issues more than anything else. I think he’s changed, turned the corner, and I think he’ll run a very good race. I’m certainly going to use that post to my advantage. It’s close to the rail and the closest way around there, and if he breaks sharp he’ll be on the lead.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher sends out WinStar Farm’s Monmouth Cup winner Rule and Mike Repole’s Caixa Eletronica. Rule was making his first start since running seventh in last year’s Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) when he pressed the pace and drew clear to win the July 7 one-mile Monmouth Cup by 1 ½ lengths.
Caixa Eletronica, fifth in the July 20 James Marvin Stakes (gr. III) at the Spa, won the June 9 True North Handicap (gr. II) before that.
Rule, a 5-year-old son of Roman Ruler, breaks from post 1 under Joe Bravo at 5-1 on the morning line. Caixa Eletronica, a 7-year-old by Arromanches, drew post 3 under Javier Castellano at 15-1.
“The post positions are fine,” Pletcher said. “We’ll be able to save ground around the first turn. There appears to be plenty of pace in there so hopefully we’ll be able to save ground and work our way into a good position.”
One likely to be in the mix at the end is Stuart Janney III’s Donn Handicap (gr. I) winner Hymn Book, runner-up to Mucho Macho Man in the July 7 Suburban last time out after a rough break under jockey John Velazquez.
“I’m going to say he stumbled; I think that’s what he did,” Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey remarked. “I think he just broke hard, and his right front went out from under him. When it did, Johnny had to gather him up and sort of lost all position. I was pretty happy with the way he did finish. He came on against that group of horses. The winner is a very nice horse... and it’s hard when you give up that much ground to catch up to that kind of horse.”
The 6-year-old son of Arch drew post 8; Velazquez will ride again.
“If he gets away good, he’ll get a position going around that turn,” McGaughey said. “If the pace is fast, he’ll be laying back, and if the pace is slow, we’ll be laying up fairly close. The post position doesn’t bother me at all.”
Trickmeister , third in the Suburban and winner of the May 17 Vanlandingham Stakes, seeks his first Saratoga score since 2010. The 5-year-old Proud Citizen runner won the Pleasant Colony Stakes at the Spa in the middle of a four-race win streak for IEAH Stables, Pegasus Holdings Group Stables, Mark Frimmel, and trainer Rick Dutrow.
Stronach Stables’ Hunters Bay , a 20-1 shot, comes into the Whitney off a trio of victories that includes back-to-back stakes scores at Woodbine on the all-weather track in the May 26 Eclipse Stakes (Can-III) going 1 1/16 miles and the 1 1/4-mile Dominion Day Stakes (Can-III) July 1. The 4-year-old Ghostzapper colt broke his maiden on dirt at Belmont in 2010 and has a Monmouth Park dirt allowance score to his credit as well.
“I think he’s getting better,” trainer Reade Baker said. “He’s finally getting to go as far as he wants to go. We finally got a chance the other day to run a mile and a quarter, which is what he wants to do and was bred to do, and he probably has his best works on the dirt.
"We fit, sure we do. Historically, 15 years ago, horses used to come from Woodbine and do good here all the time. They haven’t recently run any good, but we were second last year in the Jim Dandy (gr. II) with a horse last year, Moonshine Mullin, so we think we have a real chance with a horse that wants to go this far.”
$750,000 Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I, 5:45 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles
PP., Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, Odds
1. Rule, J. Bravo, 117, T Pletcher, 5-1
2. Hunters Bay, 115, E.J. Wilson, R Baker, 20-1
3. Caixa Eletronica, J. Castellano, 116, T Pletcher, 15-1
4. Endorsement, J. Rosario, 115, E Harty, 20-1
5. Trickmeister, R. Dominguez, 116, R Dutrow, 15-1
6. Ron the Greek, J. Lezcano, 120, W L Mott, 3-1
7. Flat Out, R. Napravnik, 116, W L Mott, 4-1
8. Hymn Book, J. Velazquez, 118, 4-1
9. Fort Larned, B. Hernandez Jr., 117, I Wilkes, 7-2