Multiple graded stakes winner Phola and Mekong Melody, a four-time winner in five North American starts since arriving from Great Britain last year, head the field in the $200,000 Ballston Spa Handicap (gr. IIT) on the Saratoga inner turf course Aug. 28.
The Ballston Spa, at 1 1/16 miles, attracted 10 older fillies and mares. Phola and Mekong Melody are top-weighted at 120 pounds. The rest of the horses in the field will carry 118. One of five graded events on the Shadell Travers Stakes (gr. I) undercard, the Ballston Spa is the eighth race with a 3:30 p.m. EDT post.
Phola, trained by Todd Pletcher for owner Graydon Patterson, attempts to rebound from a sixth-place showing in Saratoga's Diana Stakes (gr. IT) when well-backed July 31. The 4-year-old Johannesburg filly was slow to get it going that day while closing well belatedly. She lost by 1 1/4 lengths to the streaking Proviso.
She had a three-race winning streak earlier this year, including a victory in the Hillsborough Stakes (gr. IIIT) by 4 1/4 lengths over a Tampa Bay Downs turf course that had a little give to it in March. Phola followed that effort with a 1 1/4-length triumph in the Distaff Turf Mile (gr. IIT) over a yielding Churchill Downs layout May 1. The dark bay filly missed a grade I win in the one-mile Just A Game Stakes June 5 at Belmont Park by a half-length to Proviso.
“She’s had a very productive year,” Pletcher said. “It’s kind of been a matter of identifying her running style, getting her back off the pace and making one run. It’s seemed to make a difference.”
Ramon Dominguez maintains the mount on Phola, who breaks from post 3.
Mekong Melody, one of two entered by trainer Roger Attfield, comes off a nose victory over Ave in the Dance Smartly Stakes (Can-IIT) July 18 at Woodbine, where all of her recent races have been. David Egan's 5-year-old Irish-bred mare was listed stakes-placed in England, where she had one victory in 12 starts. The daughter of Cape Cross last raced there in September 2008 and was off for more than nine months before winning an allowance race on the Woodbine turf.
John Velazquez takes over on Mekong Melody, who leaves from the far outside post.
Attfield also entered the Irish-bred Miss Keller, who displayed a powerful late kick in registering a one-length triumph over Keertana in Saratoga's De La Rose Stakes over a good inner turf course Aug. 4. Owned by Three Chimneys Racing, the 4-year-old Montjeu filly was second by a half-length in Woodbine's Nassau Stakes (Can-IIT) two months earlier. She is the 7-2 morning line favorite.
Live Oak Plantation's Dynaslew very nearly scored an 18-1 upset in the Diana for trainer Seth Benzel, dictating a moderate pace with Eibar Coa before being collared in deep stretch. She was a game fourth, beaten by just a neck in a blanket finish to the 1 1/8-mile test. Coa rides again.
“She came out of the race in super shape,” Benzel said. “Going in, there were a lot of people who didn’t really think she fit with those kinds of mares, but we had a lot of confidence in her. I was just happy for her that she proved she belonged, and we’re looking forward to her showing up again in the Ballston Spa.”
Bred in Florida by Live Oak Stud, Dynaslew was second, beaten a length in the All Along (gr. IIIT) at Colonial Downs, after opening the year with back-to-back wins that included the Beaugay (gr. IIIT) in May at Belmont Park.
“We definitely looked at this race as an option coming out of the Diana,” Benzel said. “The distance, I think, is perfect for her. It’s a Grade 2, and that would be a great thing to add to her resume. All systems are go. She looks great, and she’s ready to tackle these horses.”
Dynaslew may not be able to get an easy lead this time due to the presence of Silver Reunion, who dominated Saratoga's Riskaverse Stakes a year ago on the front end. Silver Reunion, a 4-year-old Harlan's Holiday filly trained by Graham Motion for Brereton C. Jones, has not been out since last October. Rajiv Maragh has the call.
Also coming out of the Diana is Karen N. Woods' Maram, who was out-finished while fifth, beaten only a half-length. Chad Brown trains the 4-year-old daughter of Sahm, who rallied from far back for an eye-catching victory in the Miss Liberty Stakes at Monmouth Park prior to the Diana. Maram captured the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in 2008. Regular rider Jose Lezcano is aboard.
“For a couple of days there, she looked tired (after the Diana), and then she was back on her toes,” Brown said. “I thought it was a real good effort. She’s doing really well.”
Marty Wolfson is represented by multiple stakes winner Cherokee Queen, who lost rider Elvis Trujillo when she stumbled badly as the favorite in Monmouth's Matchmaker Stakes (gr. IIIT) Aug. 1. Julien Leparoux regains the mount.
Also worthy of attention is Danzon, winner of the Locust Grove Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Churchill Downs last month. Strike the Bell, who missed by a head to Maram in the Miss Liberty, and Scolara, fourth behind Cherokee Queen in a stakes at Philadelphia Park July 5, complete the field.
$200,000 Ballston Spa Handicap (gr. IIT, Race 8, 3:30 p.m.), Fillies & Mares 3 & Up, 1 1/16 Miles (Inner Turf)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Miss Keller (IRE), J Castellano, 118, R L Attfield
2. Danzon (KY), A O Solis, 118, J E Baker
3. Phola (KY), R A Dominguez, 120, T A Pletcher
4. Silver Reunion (KY), R Maragh, 118, H G Motion
5. Strike the Bell (KY), E S Prado, 118, D G Donk
6. Scolara (FL), K J Desormeaux, 118, W I Mott
7. Dynaslew (FL), E Coa, 118, S Benzel
8. Cherokee Queen (KY), J R Leparoux, 118, M D Wolfson
9. Maram (KY), J Lezcano, 118, C C Brown
10. Mekong Melody (IRE), J R Velazquez, 120, R L Attfield