Todd Pletcher's powerful barn will be in early evidence during the Saratoga season when he saddles a pair of favorites, Chapel Royal and Heckle, in Thursday's $150,000 Sanford Stakes (gr. II) for 2-year-olds.Pletcher would like nothing better than to repeat his Saratoga training title in 2002 this summer. Unliike last season when he was repeatedly hit with misfortune, however, he'd rather do it without losing three of his barn's leading runners.He lost 2-year-old Freedom's Daughter after she won the Schuylerville (gr. II) on opening day, handicap veteran Left Bank after capturing the Whitney (gr. I) 10 days later and 3-year-old Warners following an impressive allowance score a few days after that. All three fell seriously ill following their victories. Within a couple of months, each died.But Pletcher and his strong stable rebounded from his devastating losses and won the 2002 Saratoga training title on the last day of the meet with Ocean Drive. It was his second title at the Spa."It was a fun accomplishment," the 36-year-old said. "Does that replace losing three of your best horses? Of course not."Pletcher has assembled another powerful group of runners. He'll show a couple of them in the six-furlong Sanford.Chapel Royal, owned by Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor, and Dogwood Stable's Heckle both won grade III stakes in their last start. Both horses are so good right now; Pletcher honestly has no idea which one is better."They've both done very well," said Pletcher, who started his stable in 1996. "A lot of it is going to depend on who gets the best trip and how much speed is in there. They're both very nice colts."Both runners have shown good early speed in their races, but Pletcher thinks Heckle is faster and should be on the lead. Heckle is 2-for-3 with a stakes victory in the Tremont (gr. III) at Belmont most recently. His only loss came in the Three Chimneys Juvenile at Churchill Downs in May."He got away badly and rushed up," Pletcher said of Heckle's loss. "He displaced his palate. We put a tongue tie on him and that seemed to take care of it."Chapel Royal is undefeated in two starts, breaking his maiden and winning the Flash (gr. III) at Belmont Park by better than five lengths as the 1-5 favorite. He has dueled and shaken off challengers."Heckle's real strength is that he's very quick," Pletcher said. "He's good from the gate and he's the likely pacesetter in the race. Chapel Royal has very good tactical speed, but he doesn't necessarily have to be on the lead. If a situation unfolds where Heckle is on the lead and Chapel Royal is laying off of it, we wouldn't mind that."
Pletcher wants to emulate the success he had at the recently completed Belmont Park spring meet. His 40 wins shattered Hall of Fame trainer Frank "Pancho" Martin's record of 36 in 1982. But he knows it isn't easy."Saratoga is such a tough place to win races to begin with," Pletcher said. "When you have a lot of horses stepping up in conditions off wins at Belmont, it's going to get a lot tougher. We've got some live horses and we'll be well represented in stakes. We should have a good meet. It's unlikely we're going to have the same kind of meet we had (at Belmont). It's statistically hard to do those things."One thing I try to keep in perspective in this business is that you've got to stay focused and grounded. As good as you're doing today, you might go 0-for-30 at Saratoga. You just don't know."While Chapel Royal and Heckle appear to be the standouts in the Sanford, a group of talented juveniles are prepared to take them on.Einar Robsham's Pretty Wild Again is a full brother to Pretty Wild who placed in the Hopeful and Futurity as a 2-year-old last year. Pretty Wild Again was steadied briefly on the turn of the Tremont and that probably cost him a few lengths, although it is doubtful the trouble was enough to prevent victory.Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum's Flushing Meadows was an impressive maiden winner at Hollywood Park June 22nd in his lone start. Trainer Eoin Harty has a reputation for doing excellent work with 2-year-olds and jockey David Flores will be in from California for the ride.Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has trained 29 winners of Saratoga juvenile stakes, has entered two in the Sanford, both owned by Overbrook Farm. Adage finished second, 3 ¼ lengths behind Heckle in the Tremont, while Boston Brahmin was an eye-catching maiden winner at Belmont July 5, drawing off to win by 9 ½ lengths with Lasix and blinkers on for the first time.William Pacella's Blushing Indian will try stakes for the first time after breaking his maiden at Churchill June 7th. The Cherokee Run colt hails from the barn of Dale Romans, who set a record for most winners at the Churchill spring-summer meet with 39. $150,000 Sanford (gr. II), 2-year-olds, 6 furlongs
PP. HORSE, TRAINER, JOCKEY, WGT.
1. Blushing Indian, Dale Romans, Robby Albarado, 118
2. Chapel Royal, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, 122
3a. Adage, D. Wayne Lukas, Edgar Prado, 118
4. Pretty Wild Again, Stanley Hough, Jorge Chavez, 118
5. Heckle, Todd Pletcher, Jerry Bailey, 122
6a. Boston Brahmin, D. Wayne Lukas, Cornelio Velasquez, 118
7. Flushing Meadows, Eoin Harty, David Flores, 118
a. (Overbrook Farm entry)