Belmont Park's leading jockey John Velazquez has ridden Saarland in all but one of the 4-year-old's 12 races. But when the colt faces an all-star cast in Saturday's $250,000 Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II) at nine furlongs, Saarland will be without Velazquez for the first time since his career debut two years ago.
Velazquez opted for multiple grade I winner Harlan's Holiday in the Brooklyn, a race that also features Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Volponi and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) victor Evening Attire.
The Brooklyn will start the NTRA's first "Summer Pick 3" of 2003, which also includes the $250,000 Leonard S. Richards (gr. III) from Delaware and the $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) from Churchill Downs. The races will be broadcast on CBS from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. EDT.
Cynthia Phipps' Saarland always had a large following in New York, but he was sent off at 8-1 in the Met Mile last month, his most recent start. Those who thought they were getting a bargain on Saarland in the Met were correct; unfortunately for them, the Unbridled colt fell just a neck short to Aldebaran.
Following his 10th-place Kentucky Derby run, Saarland was rested until the fall to recover from an injury and surgery. Since his comeback the colt has done nothing wrong, winning a pair of allowance races before the waters got deeper in stakes company. He ran a good second as the favorite in the Westchester (gr. III) behind a freakish performance by Najran, who covered a mile in 1:32 1/5.
"He's been a little unlucky in the stakes races this year," said trainer Shug McGaughey. "Najran set a world record in the Westchester and he just got beat a neck in the other one. Maybe this Saturday will be our day."
The late-running Saarland will need to bring his best to the track in the Brooklyn if he is to defeat three of the classiest handicap horses stabled here at Belmont. "Now that the distance is getting a little farther, we'll find out more about him," said McGaughey, who was a little surprised at least one of the Brooklyn starters would not try the richer Stephen Foster. "It's going to be an awfully tough race. We might as well see where we are."
Edgar Prado will replace Velazquez aboard Saarland, who with 115 pounds, will be getting seven pounds from Evening Attire, Harlan's Holiday and Volponi.
"That's no problem," McGaughey said of the switch. "He's easy to get along with." One possible edge for Saarland is that he has three recent starts under his belt while others have not been entered as consistently. Starlight Stable's Harlan's Holiday has not run since he was second beaten five lengths in the $6 million Dubai World Cup March 29. He won the Donn Handicap (gr. I) at Gulfstream in February. The Brooklyn will not be an easy spot for his return.
"It's coming up very salty," Todd Pletcher, Harlan's Holiday's trainer said. "On the calendar, it fit a lot of people's schedule well. You can argue that the race at Churchill isn't as deep, but there's still Mineshaft and Aldebaran in there. We felt that after traveling to Dubai and back, it made sense to stay home for this one."
Pletcher is downplaying Velazquez's decision to stick with Harlan's Holiday over Saarland.
"Considering where Saarland places himself early in the race, it doesn't really create a tactical advantage for us," Pletcher said.
Harlan's Holiday was defeated by a pair of elders last fall. In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he ran big in a third-place defeat to Evening Attire after contesting a quick pace inside. In his next start, the Breeders' Cup Classic, the colt finished a distant ninth behind Volponi. Amherst Stable's Volponi shocked racing fans in his last two starts. His huge Breeders' Cup Classic score at odds of 43-1 was Volponi's final start of 2002. In his first race this year, he was sent off at 2-5 and got beat a neck by Speightstown in a May 9 allowance going seven furlongs.
Volponi trailed through the opening three furlongs of the seven-furlong comeback race, rallied outside, put a neck in front at mid-stretch, but could not fend off a tenacious Speightstown, who came back inside after he was involved in a pace battle.
"His prep race was good," said Volponi's Hall of Fame trainer, P.G. Johnson. "He got beat by a first-class sprinter and he was probably not 100 percent. He ran out of training in the last furlong." Jockey Jose Santos and blinkers were on for the Breeders' Cup blowout. Since then Johnson has removed the blinkers but kept Santos. The veteran trainer was worried that blinkers would have Volponi too keyed up early in the season and wanted to make sure the 5-year-old son of Cryptoclearance would be fresh later in the year. Mrs. Joseph Grant's Evening Attire was one of the favorites for the Breeders' Cup Classic. He ran fourth that day, then finished out 2002 with a victory in the off-the-turf Red Smith Handicap at Aqueduct. The Brooklyn will be his first start of 2003. He is coming off a 203-day layoff. "We're just trying to get in action," trainer Pat Kelly said of the Brooklyn. "His last couple of works have been pretty good. He actually likes the water and snow. We've missed a few little things here and there, but for the most part we've been pretty lucky."
Evening Attire has been brilliant in his last two workouts. On June 3, the same day Funny Cide worked in :57 4/5, the older gelding went in :59 2/5. On Tuesday, Evening Attire went even quicker, coverig five furlongs in :58 3/5.
"He's an older horse now and it seems like it's pretty easy to get them back compared to younger horses," Kelly said of the 122-pound co-highweight. "This is going to be a tough race. He's carrying a lot of weight, but we've got to start somewhere." Post, Horse, Trainer, Jockey, Weight
1. Harlan's Holiday, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, 122
2. Iron Deputy, Jimmy Jerkens, Richard Migliore, 112
3. Volponi, P.G. Johnson, Jose Santos, 122
4. Evening Attire, Pat Kelly, Shaun Bridgmohan, 122
5. El Gran Papa, Bobby Frankel, Javier Castellano, 113
6. Saarland, Shug McGaughey, Edgar Prado, 115