(edited press release)
It’s time to step up. The June retirement of Invasor, the defending Horse of the Year and 2006 Whitney Handicap (gr. I) winner, has left a giant void at the top of the handicap division. The 12 older horses entered in Saturday’s 80th edition of the $750,000 Whitney have a simple agenda: fill it.
With the exception of a couple of horses here and there, nearly every top older horse from the bluegrass fields of Kentucky to the shores of Long Island was entered in this nine-furlong test. In fact, the size of this Whitney field crushes the decade average of 7.4 starters. The last time a Whitney had more than 12 starters was in 1971, when Cragwood Stable’s Protanto and Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez scored for Hall of Fame trainer Mack Miller.
“Everybody’s here that should be here,” said Belmont Park’s leading trainer, Gary Contessa, who entered Papi Chullo.
Contessa, armed with some 150 horses that have already compiled more than 650 starts this year, is one of New York’s “super trainers.” Although Contessa won his first and only grade I race 16 years ago with Do It With Style, he has a legitimate chance at taking the top prize Saturday with Papi Chullo.
Papi Chullo, a 5-year-old, enters the Whitney in career-best form after romping to back-to-back victories at Belmont in May and June. It is not a coincidence the May 4 allowance race and the June 9 Birdstone Stakes–races Papi Chullo won by a combined 12 1/4-lengths–were Papi Chullo’s first two starts for Contessa. In 2006 and early 2007, the horse bounced around from one low-profile barn to another.
“I bought the horse privately after the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II),” said Contessa, who trains Papi Chullo for a partnership that includes Winning Move Stable, Team Stallion Racing Corp., and IEAH Stable. “The first time we ran him, I told (Steve Sigler of IEAH) that he was probably about 75% fit. Then the horse just misses the Belmont track record for a mile and a sixteenth. He was equally as good in the Birdstone.”
Papi Chullo has breezed seven times since his Birdstone score. Contessa says there won’t be any fitness issues at crunch time. In fact, Papi Chullo stretched his legs early Thursday morning over Saratoga’s main track, working three furlongs in :37.43, breezing.
The ease of Papi Chullo’s last two victories have given Contessa and Sigler–New York’s leading trainer and owner in victories this year–reason to dream.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin won the Whitney a year ago with Invasor. Saturday, he’ll send out the much-improved Flashy Bull, a 4-year-old who is seeking his fifth straight victory. By 1994 Travers (gr. I) winner Holy Bull, Flashy Bull displayed a ton of heart taking the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill over Whitney rivals Magna Graduate, Diamond Stripes, and Wanderin Boy. He’s had six weeks to recoup from the effort.
“He’s doing great and he’ll run well, but it’s not like we’re beaming with ‘Let’s go get our picture taken, ” McLaughlin said. “We used to do that with Invasor.”
Flashy Bull, a stalker who is 2-1-2 from eight starts at nine furlongs, has drawn the rail with jockey Alan Garcia.
McLaughlin says he has a tough time zeroing in on the horse to beat. “I would have to think Todd Pletcher’s the horse to beat,” joked McLaughlin, who was a co-worker with Pletcher years ago in Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ operation. “As for Flashy Bull, his Foster was a very good effort; the move he made when he opened up was very impressive. This year he’s shown his talent every time. He’s become a fighter and a very nice horse.”
Flashy Bull, owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, is one of four co-highweighted horses at 118 pounds.
To most, Diamond Stripes’ third-place effort in the Stephen Foster, a half-length off Flashy Bull, appeared solid. The gelding was starting for just the second time in 2007, was making his grade I debut, and had never started at Churchill Downs. Trainer Rick Dutrow Jr., however, left Churchill disappointed.
“Extremely,” he added. “I was so confident going in and I thought he was the best horse in the race. I was very disappointed with his effort. We went over him and couldn’t find anything wrong after the race. I didn’t think it was a great field. I’m hoping he shows up with a better effort Saturday.”
Diamond Stripes suffered his first and only loss in the Foster. Last summer at Saratoga, he easily won a Labor Day weekend allowance race around two turns.
“He likes it up there, and he’s trained good since the Foster,” said Dutrow, who won the meet’s opening stakes, the Schuylerville (gr. III), Wednesday with Subtle Aly. “He’s got no excuses going into it.”
Jockey Edgar Prado, a two-time winner of the Whitney, has the call from post 9.
Awesome Twist drew the outside post 12, but given his late-running style that shouldn’t be a problem.
By Awesome Again–the Whitney winner–Awesome Twist is making his second start of the season Saturday. His 2007 debut was solid, a hard-charging second-place finish to High Finance in Belmont’s seven-furlong Tom Fool Breeders' Cup (gr. II) July 4.
“He closed well and galloped out about 10 lengths in front of High Finance a little more than a sixteenth past the wire,” trainer John Kimmel said. “The horse couldn’t be doing better, and he’s a better, sounder horse than he was last year.”
Awesome Twist, who owns a pair of victories over Saratoga’s main track, has talent, but must prove he can handle top competition in a big two-turn event. Through this point, Awesome Twist has been best as a late-running sprinter.
“Nobody thinks he can handle two turns, but if you watch him breeze around two turns, he goes around that second turn better than the first one,” said Kimmel, who engineered Premium Tap’s huge upset in last year’s Woodward (gr. I) at Saratoga. “I think he had legit excuses when he tried two turns.
“For him to run that kind of race off the layoff in the Tom Fool was very encouraging, he galloped out strong and he’s worked two strong half miles. He’s obviously under the radar. I think he deserves a chance. They’ll be a good pace and he can stay within striking distance; he can go outside, insidem or in-between.”
Todd Pletcher, the nation’s champion trainer the last three years and the perennial leader at Saratoga, entered not one, but three horses in the Whitney. One of them, Magna Graduate, was installed as the tepid 7-2 morning line favorite. Lawyer Ron is listed at 6-1 and Fairbanks at 20-1
Pletcher is gunning for his second Whitney score after winning his first in 2002 with Left Bank.
Magna Graduate, an earner of $2.2 million, owns 2007 stakes wins in the Razorback (gr. III) and Excelsior (gr. III) Handicaps. He last ran second after closing like a wild horse in the StephenFoster. The Whitney marks Magna Graduate’s Saratoga debut.
Lawyer Ron, the beaten favorite in the Metropolitan (gr. I) and Salvator Mile (gr. III), has earned nearly $1.9 million. Although he has won 10 of 22 starts, the best horses he has beaten up to this point are Steppenwolfer and Private Vow. Lawyer Ron has drawn post 11 with jockey John Velazquez.
Fairbanks exits a second-place finish in Belmont’s Suburban (gr. I), but it was hardly a Suburban field for the ages with Political Force winning. A speed horse, he is likely to find life tough near or on the front due to the presence of Wanderin Boy.
Sun King, owned by Tracy Farmer, missed winning last year’s Whitney by the barest of noses to Invasor. He has not found the winner's circle since then, however, losing four straight. In fact, Sun King is only one for his last 10, his lone score coming in Keeneland’s 2006 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup (gr. II) at seven furlongs.
Whitney Handicap (gr. I) Race 10 Post 5:46
Post Horse Jockey Weight
1 Flashy Bull Alan Garcia 118
2 Papi Chullo Eibar Coa 115
3 Brass Hat Willie Martinez 118
4 Fairbanks Richard Migliore 116
5 Wanderin Boy Rafael Bejarano 117
6 Sun King Corey Nakatani 117
7 Magna Graduate Garrett Gomez 118
8 Student Council Robby Albarado 115
9 Diamond Stripes Edgar Prado 116
10 Dry Martini Cornelio Velasquez 115
11 Lawyer Ron John Velazquez 118
12 Awesome Twist Javier Castellano 114