Saratoga Notebook: The Spa Hits the Homestretch

by Dick Powell
(Editor's Note: Content for this weekly handicapping notebook is provided by Brisnet).

Four down and two to go. The 2004 Saratoga race meet continues to fly by with record business and high-quality racing. And the fifth week should be the best one yet.

On Friday, two-year-old fillies were in action in the $250,000 Spinaway (G2) going seven furlongs on the main track. Patrick Biancone has had a terrific meet with his juvenile runners and SENSE OF STYLE (Thunder Gulch) was one of the more impressive maiden winners so far. She won first time out here going 6 1/2 furlongs in a fast time after pouncing on the early leaders, and the bay miss was bet down to 4-5 favoritism against six rivals whose credentials were rather suspect.

After a very rough start for many, PORTSEA (More Than Ready ) and Schuylerville S. (G2) winner CLASSIC ELEGANCE (Carson City) dueled for the lead down the backstretch through modest fractions of :22.73 and :45.70. Edgar Prado set up shop in third while clear on the outside with Sense of Style, who looked like she could pounce at any time as she cruised along.

As the leaders hit the top of the stretch, Sense of Style would wait no more and with a blink of an eye opened up a lead that increased to 6 3/4 lengths at the wire. Her winning time of 1:23.83 was very good. MISS MATCHED (Formal Gold), an impressive maiden winner at Monmouth Park who was recently purchased privately by John Oxley, finished a good second despite a very rough start.

On Saturday, two-year-old males were in action in the Hopeful (G1) and three-year-old fillies competed in the Alabama (G1). AFLEET ALEX (Northern Afleet ) was heavily favored in the Hopeful at 7-10 odds to run his win streak to four after romping in the Sanford (G2) at the beginning of the meet. However, the track came up very sloppy following heavy rains Friday night into Saturday, and front-end speed performed well in sprints all day.

WINNING EXPRESSION (Western Expression) and DEVILS DISCIPLE (Devil His Due) gunned to the front and screamed through a half in :44.79. FLAMENCO (Dance Master) pressed the pace three wide down the backside and Afleet Alex dropped in behind the leaders and tried to save ground with regular rider Jeremy Rose.

Like most of the sprint races on Saturday, the early pacesetters were not backing up and Devils Disciple and Flamenco turned for home in front with Afleet Alex giving chase. The winner of his first three starts by ridiculously easy and wide margins, Afleet Alex was now going to be put to the test and for about a furlong it looked like he was going to fail.

He ducked out to the far outside when hit left handed at the eighth pole and just when it looked like his win streak would come to an end, the bay colt straightened out as Rose went back to the right-hand whip. Afleet Alex got up in the final strides to nail Devils Disciple by a neck.

It was a terrific win for Afleet Alex on many counts. He overcame a pronounced speed bias, showed grit and determination when things did not go his way, and his final time of 1:23.58 was extremely fast. He may not go a foot beyond seven furlongs, but he's presently the top juvenile male on the East Coast.

With the extremely sloppy track, most handicappers conceded the Alabama to ASHADO (Saint Ballado), who was an amazing four for four on wet tracks and won both starts here in stakes company last year. The Todd Pletcher trainee was coming off a dominant win in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) in her last start going this distance and it all added up to heavy favoritism at the mutuel windows.

However, speed did not hold up going 10 furlongs. Even with a long run to the first turn, the field of eight did not unravel itself and was all bunched up on the first bend. SUSAN'S ANGEL (Cape Town) was used hard to reach the front from post 2, with YEARLY REPORT (General Meeting) and Ashado both applying early pressure.
John Velazquez kept Ashado on the outside, which is usually a position that enables a rider to lose some ground but keep his mount clear.

Unfortunately for Velazquez, Robby Albarado had STELLAR JAYNE (Wild Rush) pressing the trio of leaders even farther out on the track and Ashado never really got a chance to catch a breather.
After six furlongs in a quick 1:11.42, Albarado sent Stellar Jayne up on a mission around the far turn and Velazquez could wait no more. He had to move Ashado at the three-eighths pole, but the filly didn't have her usual push-button acceleration.

Instead, Ashado was grinding along and one could see that today was going to be a struggle. Stellar Jayne proved amazingly game fighting tooth and nail with Ashado through the lane. Neither filly was giving an inch. And just like earlier in the afternoon when a horse loomed boldly on the far outside, here came SOCIETY SELECTION (Coronado's Quest).

All week long Allen Jerkens was undecided about whether to run the winner of the seven-furlong Test S. (G1). In her recent efforts going longer than a mile, Society Selection had been coming up short and her brilliant win in the Test had Jerkens thinking she might be a one-turn, long sprinter. In fact, Jerkens said after the race that owners Irv and Marjorie Cowan were the ones responsible for entering the filly in the Alabama.

Despite Jerkens' reservations, the presence of a sloppy track gave reason for optimism. Like nearly all Jerkens' runners, she was equipped with mud caulks and seemed to benefit from the added traction when the running got serious. Cornelio Velasquez settled her far back but on the outside and was in a constant grind. The daughter of the 1998 Travers (G1) winner was still four wide turning for home and looked like she was going to hang in the drive.

But just like Afleet Alex, Society Selection found some good footing out near the crown of the track and swooped down to a 2 1/2-length win over a very stubborn Stellar Jayne with Ashado another half-length back in third. All three fillies distinguished themselves in the race and will now ready themselves for a fall campaign against older females.

By the way, had Ashado won the Alabama, which was the last leg of the Pick 6, the wager would have paid a paltry $51!

FUNNY CIDE (Distorted Humor ) began his juvenile campaign two years ago after Saratoga was over. Last year, we went through the will-he-or-won't-he saga of Barclay Tagg trying to decide if he would race in the Travers after being soundly beaten in the Haskell Invitational (G1). He passed the Travers and this year passed the Whitney H. (G1) in favor of the Saratoga Breeders' Cup H. (G2) at 10 furlongs. Even then, many had their doubts whether Tagg would run the Derby/Preakness winner with the ever-present possibility of hot, humid weather.

The circumstances finally worked in Funny Cide's favor and the pride of Sackatoga Stable made his belated Saratoga debut on Sunday before a huge crowd. The weather finally broke and it was 71 degrees with low humidity for the first time in about a month here. NYRA was giving away a pair of Saratoga glasses and the presence of Funny Cide brought together all the ingredients for a spectacular day.

That developed as 70,175 people showed up on Sunday. Unlike other giveaway days when many go through the admission lines many times, get their merchandise, and then go home, many of Sunday's paid admissions stayed around for the Saratoga Breeders' Cup to see the horse who was foaled right down the street at McMahon Thoroughbreds.

A competitive group of six lined up against Funny Cide, who was the highweight at 118 pounds and even-money favorite. When the gate sprung, THE LADY'S GROOM (Runaway Groom) and CONGRATS (A.P. Indy) gunned to the front as expected. What wasn't expected was new rider Edgar Prado sending Funny Cide up after the early leaders while three wide on the first turn.

They covered the first half in :46.40 and just when Prado tried to give Funny Cide a breather, BOWMAN'S BAND (Dixieland Band) and SARAVA (Wild Again) moved up down the backstretch and surrounded him as they headed into the far turn. Prado had to move Funny Cide again and the chestnut went wide turning for home. Bowman's Band snuck through an opening on the turn and for a moment it looked like Jerkens would pull off another upset.

Funny Cide was having none of it and battled to a short lead in the deep stretch, but just as soon as track announcer Tom Durkin was able to get the words "Gutsy gelding" out his mouth, here came EVENING ATTIRE (Black Tie Affair) and Velasquez to sweep by to a five-length win. The race was over that quickly and a collective sigh went out of the huge crowd when Funny Cide was passed. He held on for second and considering the trip it was another quality performance that did not end up in the winner's circle.

When the track dried out over the weekend, most felt that Evening Attire's chances went with it. A confirmed wet-track specialist, approximately half of his $2.1 million bankroll going into the race had been earned on wet tracks and with his poor recent form, he was the fifth choice in the field of seven.

However, he was four for seven coming into the race over the Saratoga main track and had done some of his best running at 10 furlongs. There were lots of trends to consider, but we still had to conclude based on his last few races that he was showing signs of not being able to compete at this level anymore. How wrong could we be. His final time of 2:00.83 was sensational and the gray lost ground on both turns. He earned a terrific 109 BRIS Speed figure.

One other note about Evening Attire is worth mentioning. He is probably the only horse ever to win a graded stakes on the Saratoga main track, the Belmont main track, the Aqueduct main track and the Aqueduct inner dirt track. Most horses who win graded stakes in the winter at Aqueduct cannot win at Belmont or Saratoga, and most horses who can win graded stakes at Belmont and Saratoga do not compete in the winter on the Aqueduct inner dirt track. May fellow gelding Funny Cide enjoy as long and glorious career.

The race for the trainer and jockey titles continued along at a monotonous pace. Velazquez had another 10 wins and now owns 42 after four weeks of racing. Jerry Bailey and Prado are far back with 24 each. Pletcher had four wins for the week and now has 23 for the meet, 16 ahead of both Bobby Frankel and Mark Shuman, who were each shut out.

Pletcher had one of the more colorful wins of the week when CARMINOOCH (Tomorrow's Cat) won the 6TH race on Monday for the Three Amigos Stable. Leading him back to the winner's circle was none other than "Paulie Walnuts" himself, actor Tony Sirico of The Sopranos and "Chris-tuh-fuh," Michael Imperioli.

I hate to think what would have happened if the colt was beaten. I'm sorry, bad choice of words.


Wednesday (8/18)
4TH -- DIXIE BOOM (Dixie Union) was a first time starter that had a nightmare trip in her career debut but still was able to get second in a decent time. Watch for her stretching out in distance.

8TH -- BIG TEASE (Gold Token) had a rough trip stalking the pace from the far outside and still hung on grimly through the lane.

Thursday (8/19)
3RD -- RHEA OF VILLANOVA (Tiger Ridge) showed good speed when used hard from post 1 in her career debut on a very tiring track and should benefit with a race under her belt.

9TH -- COMANCHE STAR (Saint Ballado) has had many chances but showed a good stretch kick behind a runaway winner going seven furlongs.

Friday (8/20)
4TH -- GROUND GAME (Parade Ground) disappointed as the 7-5 favorite in his second start while between horses, but he should improve when stretched out in distance.

8TH -- Miss Matched lost all chance for the upset when she stumbled and then was bumped at the start, but she still was able to hold for second after rushing up to contest the pace in her first start for Ward.

Saturday (8/21)
4TH -- GRAND SCORE (Grand Slam) was a good second in only his third start of the year and might finally be living up to his potential.

6TH - RAFFIE'S STORM (Raffie's Storm) was a dead-game second in an off-the-turf event on a very sloppy track and is worth betting back.

Sunday (8/22)
6TH -- ROUSING VICTORY (Victory Gallop) held well for third going seven furlongs in a fast time when making his dirt debut.

Monday (8/23)
2ND -- AHPO HERE (Dehere) beat $35K claimers in a gusty effort and should be able to move up in class back at Belmont.

4TH -- GOLD MINISTER (Deputy Minister) showed nothing in his career debut on dirt but woke up in his first turf start with a terrific second.