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Any Given Saturday
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Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: Brooklyn Was a Given, But What About Classic?

Saturday, Sept. 22 was a holiday of sorts for trainer Todd Pletcher. He was all prepared to celebrate the end of a two-month slump that has seen his normally lofty winning percentage of around 25% drop to 11%.

This was to be his big break-out day, with Any Given Saturday, Octave, and Fairbanks all odds-on favorites in stakes at three different tracks. But following the defeats of 1-5 Octave in the Fitz Dixon Cotillion Stakes (gr. II) at Philadelphia Park and 3-5 Fairbanks in the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs, it was the old reliable Any Given Saturday who saved the day by defeating a less-than-stellar field in the Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II) at odds of 1-10.

Any Given Saturday and Lawyer Ron have become the aces in Pletcher’s hand, whom he can count on to put a temporary halt to any slump.

In Any Given Saturday’s case, every day he steps foot on the track is a holiday…literally. The son of Distorted Humor  finished second in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) two days after Thanksgiving, won the Sam F. Davis three days after Valentine’s Day, was beaten a nose in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) on St. Patrick’s Day, finished third in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) the day before Easter, won the Dwyer (gr. II) on Independence Day, and won the Brooklyn Handicap on Yom Kippur. And of course, the Breeders’ Cup this year is four days before Halloween.

The once-prestigious Brooklyn, which now floats aimlessly between the grade I Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, merely served as a vehicle to keep Any Given Saturday sharp for the Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I).

When you add the fact that the Brooklyn, once the final leg of the Handicap Triple Crown, fell on the same day as the rejuvenated Massachusetts Handicap, it should have come as no surprise that only four were entered against Any Given Saturday (two of them 3-year-olds), only one of whom had ever won a stakes, and that was Sightseeing, who just got up to win the grade II Peter Pan by a nose.

Because of the conflicting races, which had the same conditions and were run at the same distance, it also was no surprise that the weights for the Mass Cap ranged from a paltry 116 pounds down to 112. Once you got past Brass Hat, who was trying to rebound off a pair of dismal performances at Saratoga, and the speedy Fairbanks, there really wasn’t much in the way of BC Classic possibilities, although it was fun seeing the 9-year-old Evening Attire making his third start in the race.

One of the great feel-good stories of the year was the Cinderella horse, Brass Hat, defeating Fairbanks and re-establishing his reputation as one of the top older horses in the country. But, trainer Buff Bradley wasted no time in informing the world that the hard-knocking gelding would not be supplemented to the Classic.

In the Super Derby (gr. II), Travers (gr. I) runner-up Grasshopper faced a field of 3-year-olds that had a combined total of five starts in graded stakes company on dirt, and finished out of the money in all of them. But it was Going Ballistic, coming off a fast-closing second in the American Derby (gr. IIT) and a third in the Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT), both on turf, who came flying down the stretch to defeat the 1-5 Grasshopper by a length.

The plethora of stakes races today, many of which conflict with each other, has managed to dilute almost every division, and as a result, the leading contenders are free to roam all over the country looking for the easiest spot in which to prep for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. But Saturday proved that even the easiest spots aren’t that easy this time of year. Just ask Pletcher.

Whatever the reason behind Pletcher’s slumping stats, just remember the roll he was on last year at this time and then went 0-for-17 in the Breeders’ Cup. And remember how strong he looked in this year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) only to have all five of his starters finish out of the money. Perhaps the pattern will be reversed for this year’s Breeders’ Cup and Pletcher is getting his funk out of the way now and will have a big day on Oct. 27.

As far as his actual “slump,” over the past two months, Rags to Riches, English Channel, Sunriver, Red Giant, Ready’s Image, and Unbridled Belle all finished second in grade I stakes, while Fairbanks, Octave, and Twilight Meteor finished second in other major stakes. Only by Pletcher’s standards can that be considered a slump. And this year, he just hasn’t had the 2-year-olds (his bread and butter at Saratoga) he’s had in recent years. Now watch The Roundhouse or Ready’s Image win the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I).

It’s true that in most of these races, his horses were expected to win, and, yes, his overall stats are far below his usual figures, so this definitely is a down period in the Pletcher barn. Rather than speculate, let’s see if he can build on Any Given Saturday’s victory, and with Lawyer Ron, Wait a While, English Channel, and Unbridled Belle all running at Belmont this weekend, there is no reason to think he won’t be in great shape for the Breeders’ Cup.

But this space is not intended as a platform, from which expound on the obvious; it is mostly about Any Given Saturday and his chances in the Classic. Having been on this grand-looking colt’s bandwagon since last fall, it is safe to say the opinion here is that, no matter how one interprets his Brooklyn victory, it’s going to take a big effort to defeat him at Monmouth Park, where he ran the best race of his career in the Haskell Invitational.

Coming off a seven-week layoff, Any Given Saturday appeared rusty in the Brooklyn, as he was hard-ridden through most of the stretch run to defeat Tasteyville by 2 1/2 lengths in an oddly run race that saw the field of five stretched out nearly 20 lengths nearing the half-mile pole, with gaps of a half-dozen or so lengths between several of the horses.

Any Given Saturday, who hit the side of the gate and broke awkwardly, allowed Tasteyville to open six lengths on him down the backstretch before he finally was put in gear by jockey Garrett Gomez approaching the quarter pole. He methodically wore down the pacesetter while under pressure from Gomez and drew clear late, covering the 1 1/8 miles in a solid enough 1:48.31. This wasn't a pretty win, as Gomez was all over him in the stretch, shifting his weight back and forth, and the two were never in sync.

The Nick Zito-trained Helsinki, coming off a well-beaten third in the Travers (gr. I), made a strong late run to finish third despite bolting from an ill-advised left-handed whip from Alan Garcia coming out of the turn. That is a dangerous place to hit a horse left-handed (remember Ramon Domiguez on Scrappy T), especially when there was no need for it. Helsinki was flying at that point, and likely would have finished no worse than second had he been left alone. This colt has made dramatic strides in the past month and is one to start taking seriously, although he was carrying only 112 pounds in the Brooklyn and was getting six pounds from the winner. But he did come home his last two fractions in :23 4/5 and :12 2/5, despite bolting, while making up almost a dozen lengths, something horses rarely do at Belmont. Zito said he is looking seriously at the BC Classic.

Some may have been slightly underwhelmed by Any Given Saturday’s performance, especially after his brilliant efforts in the Dwyer and Haskell Invitational (gr. I), but it’s important to remember that he hadn’t run in almost two months, was giving four actual pounds to a quick older horse loose on a big lead, and had to overcome a bad start and deviate from his normal running style. And we all know how deadly these small fields can be to odds-on favorites. But he will have to improve off this race, especially stretching out to 10 furlongs.

It is interesting to note that Any Given Saturday has been sent off at odds of  2-1, 2-1, 3-2, 8-5, and 9-5 during his career, and wasn’t favored in any of them. That bodes well for the competition he’d been facing.

Also, the Daily Racing Form comments on his past performance lines read: 6 wide run…sweeping rally 5 wide…4 wide…bid 3 wide…caught wide both turns…bumped backstretch…eased 3 wide…and in the Brooklyn chart, “broke awkwardly, hit the gate, was bumped after the start.” So, the bottom line is, this horse has never had a clean, ground-saving trip.

Any Given Saturday has now won six of his 10 career start, from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/8 miles, on “dirt” and Polytrack, and has won or placed at Turfway Park, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Tampa Bay, Aqueduct, Belmont, and Monmouth, winning at five of them.

And there has been a reason for all his defeats, if one is inclined to look for excuses. In his “dirt” debut in the grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, he pretty much cost himself the race because of greenness. After moving up to challenge Iroquois (gr. III) winner Tiz Wonderful at the top of the stretch, he drifted out, losing his momentum. He came on again and stuck his head in front inside the eighth pole, but again drifted out and was beaten a half-length. That was a race he should have won.

When he squared off against 2-year-old champ Street Sense in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), he took the outside route and was fanned three-wide turning for home, while Street Sense had another golden trip along the rail, saving all the ground. The two hooked up and eyeballed each other every step of the way, with Street Sense maintaining a slight advantage. Any Given Saturday gave one final surge at the wire, but fell a nose short.

He was scheduled to return to Polytrack in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), but when stablemate Circular Quay was forced to miss the Wood Memorial (gr. I), he was sent up to New York to deputize, which meant having to come back in only three weeks following his gut-wrencher at Tampa instead of the originally-planned four weeks. Hung five-wide on the first turn and four-wide on the second Turn, Any Given Saturday ran evenly down the stretch to finish a non-threatening third behind Nobiz Like Shobiz. A week later in the Blue Grass, Street Sense also was defeated, so the Tampa Derby may have taken some kind of toll on both horses.

In the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Any Given Saturday made a threatening move on the far outside turning for home, but flattened out, finishing eighth of 20 starters. That effort made more sense when it was discovered he came out of the race with a significant foot bruise.

Given two months off, he returned to crush Nobiz Like Shobiz by four lengths in the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II) in a blazing 1:40 3/5 for the 1 1/16 miles and then easily drew off from Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun and Preakness (gr. I) winner Curlin in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), winning by almost five lengths.

It also must be remembered that in his early days, Any Given Saturday had a tendency to run with his head held too high, thus giving him minimal push from behind. As a result, he wasn’t getting good extension to his stride. This was something he exhibited as a youngster on the farm, and he was assigned only the top exercise riders who had the skills and finesse to get the most out of him. But as he’s matured, and with some equipment changes, he’s learned to keep his head a bit lower and level off with more efficiency. He still carries it higher than most horses, but has been able to get enough push from behind to propel him to three straight open-length victories. His last two final eighths of :12 4/5 in the Haskell and :13 in the Brooklyn are just OK,  and he’ll likely need to improve on that in the Classic as well.

From a looks standpoint, he stands alone. He is all class, always on his toes, and carries himself like a champion. Like Bernardini last year, you can spot him a hundred yards away just by his demeanor. The Brooklyn should set him up better for the Classic than if he had blown away his competition with a perfect trip. There is little doubt he was vulnerable in the Brooklyn, but he still managed to win, luckily for him due to the lack of a major player in the field. Not having proven himself at 1 1/4 miles, he needed a race that would toughen him up and help him move forward for the Classic. Now he returns to a track he has proven he loves, and that makes him all the more dangerous. So, you can take away plusses and minuses from the Brooklyn. The bottom line is that he still remains a major force for the Classic.

Saturday’s Super Derby defeat by Grasshopper naturally leads one to try to draw conclusions regarding Street Sense’s Travers victory. But one race has nothing to do with the other, especially if that gut-wrencher in sweltering heat at Saratoga took something out of the horse. If anyone does care to partake in comparisons, they can also look at Helsinki, beaten almost 11 lengths by Street Sense, coming back and getting beaten 3 1/4 lengths by Any Given Saturday. And he should have been closer than that. So, with that said, all comparisons to Street Sense seem to have balanced out. In addition, Going Ballistic is a good horse with a powerful late kick who can run on any surface.

As for Fairbanks, Pletcher’s beaten favorite in the Mass Cap, he stumbled coming out of the gate, and then battled back gamely after being passed by Brass Hat. He’ll be pointed for the Clark Handicap (gr. I) in November.