Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Litfin at Large: Handicapping Spa's Saturday Stakes

Dave Litfin handicaps six top stakes races at Saratoga Race Course.

Anyone who's anyone is running at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 26, where the 148th running of the Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) brings together three different winners of the three Triple Crown races for the first time since 1982.

There are six other stakes on the star-studded program that gets underway at 11:35 a.m. ET, all of which carry grade 1 status except for the Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa (G2T). In this case, that is just a matter of semantics, since the indomitable Lady Eli is one of four grade 1 winners in that lineup.

The H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes (G1), formerly the King's Bishop, begins a pick four with a $1 million guaranteed pool.

For your mixing-and-matching pleasure, here are some thoughts and opinions in race order:

Personal Ensign Stakes (Sar, race 6, 2:23 p.m.): There's no saving the best for last when you've got Songbird leading off the stakes parade. Whether she's as good as last year remains to be seen, but in retrospect, sending her 1 1/4 miles in the Delaware Handicap (G1) in her second start of the season was a big ask, and she found enough to prevail. Some believe her Ogden Phipps (G1) was a bit underwhelming, too, but keep in mind that second finisher Paid Up Subscriber came back to win the Shuvee (G3) by better than 32 lengths.

The clear second choice is Forever Unbridled, who was just a length or so behind Beholder and Songbird in the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) last fall. But Forever Unbridled was running for the fourth time last year when a close third in the Personal Ensign, and this year she has been out only once, winning the Fleur De Lis Handicap (G2) over a rival who was then beaten a city block by Paid Up Subscriber.

There are no rankings here. Songbird (2) is loose on the lead and that's all she wrote.

Ketel One Ballerina Stakes (Sar, race 7, 2:59): By the Moon (4), Carina Mia (5) and Paulassilverlining (3) ran second, third, and fifth in last year's Ballerina, and there's really not much separating the trio on their best efforts.

Carina Mia and Paulassilverling have since been transferred to Chad Brown, and have yet to lose under his guidance. The latter has won three straight by margins of a neck, capped by the Honorable Miss (G2) first time back from a May-to-July break. Playing devil's advocate, she returned with a hard-fought effort in last year's Honorable Miss as well, and then weakened late in the Ballerina.

I'm going to fool around with Highway Star (7), who has three wins from her past four starts in graded stakes, the lone defeat a third in the Ogden Phipps behind Songbird and Paid Up Subscriber when last seen 11 weeks ago. She is 3 for 3 at seven furlongs, and all of those wins came off workouts.

Curlin's Approval (2) has shipped away from Gulfstream Park twice to no avail, but her best race puts her in the mix.

A - 3, 7
B - 4
C - 2, 5

H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes (Sar, race 8, 3:35): Last year, Drefong won this race from the outside post off a 54-day layoff for Bob Baffert, and the white-haired trainer will try to win it again with American Anthem (9), who drew the outside post for his first appearance since winning the Woody Stephens Stakes (G2) on June 10.

American Anthem got a comfortable trip stalking from outside in the Woody Stephens, and a similar journey may be in store if Takaful (2) and Coal Front (7) hook up early. Those two posted front-running wins early at the meet with similar half-mile times (45.81 and 45.90), and while the latter improved to 3 for 3 by winning the Amsterdam (G2), keep in mind his opponents in that race are a collective 0 for 11 in graded stakes.

I don't like the post, but I like the cutback for Practical Joke  (1), who was bottled up at the quarter pole in the Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) and finished gamely between horses when clear. He is 4 for 4 in one-turn races, including the Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1) stakes at 2, and the Dwyer Stakes (G3) two back.

A - 1, 9
B - 2, 7

Forego Stakes (Sar, race 9, 4:12 p.m.): For a $600,000 grade 1 that offers a ticket to the TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1), this race has an astonishing lack of early speed. As previously mentioned, Drefong won the King's Bishop from the outside post last year, and school was out after he shook loose through a dawdling first quarter-mile in 23.11 seconds. It may be a case of deja vu all over again, because Drefong (10) is outside again in another paceless match-up. He probably wouldn't even be here had he not ducked in to the gap and unseated Mike Smith in the Bing Crosby Stakes (G1) four weeks ago.

The obvious two to use underneath the lone speed are Mind Your Biscuits (6) and Divining Rod  (4). The latter keeps threatening to be a really good horse, and won his seasonal debut two weeks back by running his last three furlongs in a sharp 35 seconds well in hand.

The fun longshot is the European invader Ross (2), who drops 14 pounds after winning an allowance race on Deauville's all-weather course. He was a close second in the Godolphin Mile (G2) on dirt prior to that, finishing well to overtake Sharp Azteca under the lights at Meydan.

A - 10
B - 4, 6
C - 2

Sword Dancer Stakes (Sar, race 10, 4:49): In last year's Pattison Canadian International (G1T), Erupt pulled off a 12-1 upset, while Idaho (7) could do no better than fifth as the 7-5 choice.

Both have been somewhat erratic leading up to this rematch, but at least one of them figures to fire.

Erupt, who owns two of the field's three grade/group 1 victories, was "not persevered with" in the Gran Prix de Saint-Cloud (G1) last time out, but he ran second in that race last year after receiving an identical comment for a 43-length beating in the Prix d'Ispahan (G1) over soft ground. 

Idaho comes off a creditable third in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes (G1) behind Enable who subsequently won the Yorkshire Oaks (G1), and Ulysses, who then won the Juddmonte International (G1T). Behind him in fourth was the multiple grade 1 winner Highland Reel.

Money Multiplier (5) was an unlucky second behind $9.5 million earner Flintshire  in last year's Sword Dancer, and he looked good first time out this season, taking the Monmouth Stakes (G2T) with a last three-eighths of a mile in under 35 seconds.

Bigger Picture (2) has won more than $700,000 since Mike Maker claimed him for $32,000 late in 2015. The  United Nations Stakes (G1T) winner is capable of taking the lead if no one else wants it, which may well be the case.

A - 6, 7
B - 2, 5

Travers Stakes (Sar, race 11, 5:44): The last time the winners of the three Triple Crown races got together at the Spa 35 years ago, and they were all upended by the late-running Runaway Groom.

Maybe something similar happens here, because Always Dreaming (7), Cloud Computing (1) and Tapwrit (4) have all been capable of throwing in clunkers. In fact, as a whole, the most consistent thing about this crop of 3-year-olds has been its consistency as they've taken turns beating each other depending on circumstances.

At this point, I have no idea what to expect from Always Dreaming, but if I was inclined to draw a line through any of his races, it would be the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) over a sealed surface, in which case you'd be hard-pressed to make a case for him here.

And who knows which Tapwrit we'll see off an 11-week vacation. The one that looked so good winning the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and the Belmont Stakes Presented By NYRA Bets (G1)? Or the one that was up the track in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and the Derby?

I'd lean to Cloud Computing among the three, just because of the fact that Chad Brown doesn't give two nickels about the Jim Dandy, but if there's one race the native of nearby Mechanicville is dying to win, it is the Travers. 

I was kicking myself after Good Samaritan (5) smashed the field in the Jim Dandy first time on dirt, remembering too late that Bill Mott had some success changing things up with a fair-to-middling turf horse named Cigar. 

Mott sent out Elate to run big in the Coaching Club Oaks (G1) at 1 1/8 miles, and she came back with an effort just as good, perhaps better, to win the 1 1/4-mile Alabama Stakes (G1), so that is somewhat reassuring in terms of what to expect from Good Samaritan's encore performance.

West Coast (3) is on par with these, and if you factor in ground-loss, his Los Alamitos Derby (G2) win looks even better.

A - 1, 5
B - 3, 4
C - 7

Ballston Spa Stakes (Sar, race 12, 6:20): As with last year, don't tune out after the Travers, because Lady Eli is running. Last year, though, she was making her first start back from a year-long battle with laminitis, and now she is in peak form after a hard-fought win in the Diana Stakes (G1T). The main reason she is running back in five weeks is that Chad Brown doesn't want to be caught between a rock and a hard place if he waits for the Flower Bowl (G1T) in October, and the turf comes up soft.

It's a good sign Lady Eli (1) has shown enough spunk in the mornings to get a second start at the meet, and her main opposition seems like Antonoe (5), who has been her training partner all summer. The latter was caught in tight quarters inside Lady Eli and Quidura in deep stretch in the Diana, and the Just A Game (G1T) winner looms a big threat with any semblance of racing luck.

Of the four others, Dickinson (6) was able to outkick Lady Eli in the Coolmore Jenny Wiley (G1T), but she wasn't as sharp in the Just A Game or the Diana.

A - 1, 5
B - 6