Highlights of this week's report from Saratoga: Redemption for Lukas and Azeri...Anniversary of an historic Travers... No spa visit for Actxecutive... Stamina in the Family of Afleet Alex... Sir Shackleton, Zito's Sleeper.Redemption for Lukas and Azeri
There is an old saying that goes like this: The moon could not go on shining if it paid any attention to the dogs that bark at it.D. Wayne Lukas has attracted his share of barking dogs over the years, but he has never been one to pay any attention to them. Although his beacon may grow dim once in a while, history has shown he'll be back shining before too long. Hall of Famers have a way of doing that.When Lukas sent out Azeri in last Sunday's Go For Wand Stakes (gr. I), it looked to be a final chance for redemption for the two recently maligned heroes. Another defeat would have brought out the dogs in packs, demanding retirement for racing's fading queen.But the champion in both Lukas and Azeri emerged, as it often does at Saratoga, writing yet another memorable chapter in the track's unique history.With the untimely retirement of Smarty Jones and the defeat of Pleasantly Perfect at Del Mar, Azeri may very well have become racing's biggest box office draw -- a dramatic turnaround when you consider that just a few weeks ago most everyone was convinced she had heard her final cheers. On Aug. 1, the cheers were as a loud as ever, as the appreciative Saratoga fans paid tribute to a former Horse of the Year, future Hall of Famer, the new leading money-winning female of all time, and a true champion in every sense of the word. That sets up a much-anticipated rubber match between Azeri and Sightseek in the Personal Ensign (gr. I) that could turn out to be the race of the meet. Everyone knows by now that Sightseek's trainer, Bobby Frankel, was not happy with the weight assignments for the Go For Wand. Next time, that should even itself out, and we should be treated to quite a battle.Zito on Lukas: 'Never Count Him Out'
Trainer Nick Zito, when asked by "a bunch of guys" about Lukas' so-called declining fortunes, answered, "Don't ever count this guy out. Let me tell you about Wayne Lukas. Wayne can fall off a building and nothing will happen to him."A Memorable Travers Anniversary
This year marks the 25th anniversary of General Assembly's track record, 15-length victory in the 1979 Travers Stakes (gr. I), a record that still stands. General Assembly, who finished second to Spectacular Bid in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), was trained by Leroy Jolley, who dominated racing from 1975 to 1980, saddling numerous stars, such as Kentucky Derby winners Genuine Risk and Foolish Pleasure. Despite all the top-class horses who have captured the Travers since, none has even come close to General Assembly's record of 2:00 flat over a sloppy track. The previous 1 1/4-mile track record at Saratoga was 2:00 1/5 held by Honest Pleasure...also trained by Leroy Jolley.Speaking of the Travers, of the six horses in the last eight years to have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (gr. I), none made it to the "Midsummer Derby." Charismatic and Smarty Jones were retired after the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), Silver Charm and Real Quiet called it quits for the remainder of the year, War Emblem stayed out West to run in the Pacific Classic (gr. I) after winning the Haskell (gr. I), and Funny Cide withdrew due to an infection.New Appreciation of Funny Cide
What will be the most profound race run at Saratoga this year? Sunday's Go For Wand? Perhaps. The Travers? Doubtful. The answer could very well be the Saratoga Breeders' Cup (gr. II), only because of the presence of Funny Cide, a horse whose appreciation should multiply many times over since the retirement of Smarty Jones (note: the term early retirement in regard to our top horses has now become redundant). It seems as if the most fan-friendly word in the racing dictionary these days is gelding. Recently, we've seen so many equine heroes storm into Belmont Park with the force of a hurricane and create havoc as they attempt to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner. But they wind up passing harmlessly by and are gone by summer's end. Maybe now we can appreciate one such hurricane that at least continued on its course. Sure, it's lost some of its intensity, but it still packs enough of a wallop to rekindle memories of that special spring of 2003. No Spa Visit for Actxecutive
Bob Baffert has changed his mind about shipping Hollywood Juvenile (gr. III) runner-up Actxecutive to the Spa for the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I). Baffert does not want to ship the colt cross country only to run smack into one of those Saratoga monsoons. He'll now point the former Calder-based horse to the Best Pal Stakes (gr. III) at Del Mar, along with the exciting maiden winner Roman Ruler.Stamina in the Family of Afleet Alex
All those who believe Afleet Alex, who inhaled his field in the Sanford Stakes (gr. II), is destined for sprints and mile races strictly because he is a full-brother to sprinter/miler Unforgettable Max, may be in for a surprise next year. This colt has the right running style to go on; he has a beautiful way of moving; and a look at his female family shows a ton of stamina, mostly on grass. In fact, his broodmare sire, Hawkster, still holds the world record for 1 1/2 miles, set in 1989 on the Santa Anita turf course when he won the grade I Oak Tree Invitational (now the Clement Hirsch) in 2:22 4/5. His great-grandsire, Hawaii, was the champion turf horse of 1969, winning the 1 1/2-mile Man o'War Stakes in course-record time. Afleet Alex's dam, Maggy Hawk, is inbred to major class inluences Mahmoud and Turn-to.Sir Shackleton, Zito's Sleeper
Nick Zito, as everyone is aware, has two heavy hitters in Marylou Whitney's Birdstone and Robert LaPenta's The Cliff's Edge. But sitting just below them in the pecking order is his dark horse, Tracy Farmer's Sir Shackleton, who very quietly ran a sensational race in the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II), finishing a half-length behind The Cliff's Edge after having the unenviable task of chasing the victorious Medallist in second through blistering fractions. Horses in that position often take the worst of it, but he hung tough all the way, and was closing in on the winner, matching strides with his late-running stablemate. Last Saturday, the son of Miswaki drilled a sharp five furlongs in :59 3/5 at Saratoga, indicating he is sitting on a huge race in Saturday's West Virginia Derby (gr. III).Below Sir Shackleton and Farmer's other classy 3-year-old, Royal Assault, in the pecking order is Zito's potential bomb, Pies Prospect, who is a talented colt with an explosive kick on the far turn. All three times he's had the lead at the eighth pole he's won. He's capable of putting it all together one of these days and pulling off a stunner in a big race. Maybe Sunday will be that day, as he joins Royal Assault in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) against Rock Hard Ten and Lion Heart.Scheduling Conflict?
When asked for his take on having three stakes for 3-year-olds – Haskell, Jim Dandy (gr. II), and West Virginia Derby -- run on the same weekend, Lion Heart's trainer, Patrick Biancone, said, "That's a question for the NTRA, not me. I'm just a horse trainer. I don't do politics. I just take what's on my plate."