By Dave Litfin
Two-year-olds and turf racing are the lifeblood of Saratoga Race Course, and both categories are featured prominently through the first two days of the meet. The stakes action kicks off Friday with the Schuylerville (gr. III) and Lake George (gr. IIT) opening day, followed by the Sanford (gr. III) and Diana (gr. IT) Saturday.
While the Schuylerville and Lake George are the second and third legs of Friday's late pick four, the Sanford and Diana are spaced nearly four hours apart.
After some delightful weather earlier in the week, heat and humidity will be returning with a vengeance and the forecast calls for a chance of rain both days. As ever, keep an eye to the sky and be ready to adjust on the fly.
Schuylerville (Fri., race 8, 5:02)
The nine juvenile fillies in the lineup were unveiled at five different tracks and won at first asking without exception, so please pass the Advil.
Lightning Dove (#3) and Harlands Thunder (#9) were subsequently fifth and sixth in the Astoria Stakes, while the rest start for just the second time, headed by morning-line favorite Made Me Shiver (#5) and second choice Olive Branch (#1).
Remarkably, six have already won without the early lead—a good quality to have, as every edition of the Schuylerville from 2003-12 was won from off the pace (it was not run in 2005). After a dead-heat between pacesetter Brazen Persuasion and favored Bahnah in 2013, the last two renewals went to Fashion Alert and Off the Tracks, who pressed early from second position.
Some additional points to ponder:
The prospects of Olive Branch and Made Me Shiver can be evaluated further based on what transpires in race 6, a maiden race featuring Special Risk, third to Olive Branch at Belmont Park, and La Coronel, fourth at 2-5 behind Made Me Shiver at Churchill Downs.
Olive Branch was subsequently a late scratch from the Astoria after falling into a rail in the saddling area. She emerged from the incident largely unscathed and worked a half-mile five days later.
Lightning Dove and Made Me Shiver were rocket-quick from the gate first out. Lightning Dove did not fare as well in the Astoria, however, breaking in a tangle and racing in traffic around the turn. If those two get away cleanly and hook up for the lead, that could benefit Sweet Loretta (#4) and/or Platinum Spark (#7).
What to do: If it sounds like we're waffling in a situation where no one has been six furlongs as yet, that's because we are. Spreading in multi-race wagers with an A-B-C ranking strategy may be worthwhile.
A – 1, 5
B – 3, 4, 7
Lake George (Fri., race 9, 5:40)
To the surprise of no one, Chad Brown—who won this race last year with Diana entrant Mrs McDougal—sends out a pair of prominent contenders in Elysea's World (#2) and Ancient Secret (#5). The former displayed a terrific late kick winning her United States debut after 11 months on the sidelines, and may have been feeling the effects of that effort when off the board in the Wonder Again Stakes soon afterward. She has had nearly seven weeks to regroup and is a candidate to rebound. Ancient Secret, meanwhile, is unbeaten after three starts, but the New York-bred has a pedigree that suggests brilliance more than stamina. Moreover, she stretches out after getting up to nail Thundering Sky (#1) in the Wild Applause Stakes at level weights, and must now give that rival six pounds.
Despite a tough draw, Tin Type Gal (#11) may offer some value (pegged at 8-1 by new Saratoga line-maker Travis Stone). As added incentive, she picks up Jose Ortiz, who is fresh off a dominating riding title at Belmont. A fifth-place finish in the Wild Applause marked this filly's first appearance since taking the Miss Grillo (gr. IIIT) last fall, and trainer Graham Motion has won this race three times, most recently in 2014 with Daring Dancer, so continued improvement would not be a shocker.
Lending international intrigue is Diamond Fields (#3), who ran back on short rest and finished second—of 21—in the Sandringham Handicap at Royal Ascot. Including the Sandringham, she has been on soft turf in each of two tries beyond six furlongs.
What to do: She needs racing luck from out there, but Tin Type Gal should benefit from her recent return and can turn the tables on Ancient Secret and Thundering Sky. At 5-1 or better she is worth keying on. As a caveat, there is minimal form to go on if the ground is yielding/soft.
A – 2, 11
B – 1, 3, 5
Sanford (Sat., race 3, 2:04)
What is essentially an “a-other-than” with a $150,000 purse and black type attracted five last-out maiden winners.
While Zartara (#1) and Random Walk (#2) were clear throughout their respective debuts in shorter sprints, it appears that Bitumen (#5) could have an edge in experience as the lone entrant to have been six furlongs.
It was quite a performance at that. Bitumen came through along the rail under his own power to get the lead midway down the backstretch, was challenged by two rivals around the turn, and repelled them readily while running his final quarter in a little more than 23 seconds. He moves to the outside, which will give his new rider, Javier Castellano, all sorts of options depending on the break.
What to do: The primary contenders are ranked as follows for pick five or early pick four purposes:
A – 5
B – 1, 2
C - 4
Diana (Sat., race 10, 5:55)
Recent editions of the Diana have yielded good-priced winners such as Forever Together ($20.00), Zagora ($13.60), Laughing ($15.80), Somali Lemonade ($24.60) and Hard Not to Like ($14.40), and the competition once again runs deep among this group of 10 fillies and mares–four of which are trained by Chad Brown.
All four of Brown's runners—Wekeela (#4), Mrs McDougal (#5), Dacita (#6) and Rainha Da Bateria (#9)—employ rate-and-finish tactics, and there should be ample pace up front due to the presence of Onus (#8) and Isabella Sings (#10).
Dacita won her U.S. debut on this same Mellon turf course last year, getting up to nip the champion mare Tepin, who has not lost since then. Dacita likes firm ground, and in fact, the only one of Brown's runners with more than token experience on rain-softened turf is Wekeela.
The weather is a huge key for Onus, who has set course records at Laurel Park and Belmont Park on very firm going, while disappointing in three starts on ground rated good or yielding.
Another contender who would prefer to hear her feet rattle is Miss Temple City (#2), who comes off a respectable try on soft turf at Royal Ascot but previously beat the boys in the Makers 46 Mile (gr. IT) in a scintillating performance.
In with a chance, likely at a square ticket, is Recepta (#7), who got back to her best form finishing second in the Just A Game behind Celestine, who missed the Widener course record for a mile by one one-hundreth of a second.
The odds on Sandiva (#1) will be generous as well, and only Dacita has more career wins and earnings.
What to do: This is the third leg of the late pick four, and a likely place to cast a wide net.
A – 2, 4, 6
B – 1, 5, 7
C – 8 (firm turf only)