With McKinzie, Thunder Snow and Vino Rosso lining up Saturday at Saratoga, is it too bold a statement to say that the $1 million Grade 1 Whitney Stakes is a bona fide preview of the Breeders’ Cup Classic? Perhaps.
So how about rephrasing the question to ask about this being a race that lured three of the top 10 betting choices in Breeders’ Cup futures, including the top two among older horses? Now we’re talking.
“This has always been a tremendous race,” said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Vino Rosso, one of those three horses. “Outside of maybe the Breeders’ Cup Classic, it’s probably the most prestigious race for older horses in the country.”
The key word being “older,” especially in the futures context. Of the first 35 runnings of the Classic, 23 were won by horses that were past age 3. In the last 10 runnings only three Classic winners were 3 years old. They were all trained by Bob Baffert, including Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.
So when Baffert brings a horse to the Whitney – and that would be an older horse – it is rare and noteworthy. Especially when it is 4-year-old McKinzie (7-5), the morning-line favorite Saturday at 5:46 p.m. EDT.
“It’s certainly a prestigious race,” Baffert said. “It would mean a lot to have it on McKinzie’s résumé.”
A two-time Grade 1 winner with $1.7 million in career earnings, McKinzie is not only the horse to beat in Saturday’s field of eight, he is also an off-shore favorite to finish first in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Bet Online lists him at 6-1 and Bovada at 7-1. US Racing has him at 10-1, a joint second choice behind Maximum Security at 9-1.
McKinzie finished a frustratingly close second nearly two months ago as the 8-5 favorite in the Grade 1 Met Mile on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Mike Smith, who gets the ride again Saturday, could not get McKinzie out of traffic that day until it was too late and after he covered too much ground finishing three-quarters of a length behind Mitole.
This time McKinzie stretches to two turns and 1⅛ miles, a distance at which he won last year’s Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby and finished second by a nose to Gift Box in this year’s Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap. He could bring Baffert his first victory in the Whitney.
“I’ve only run in the race once previously,” said Baffert, who saddled Sarava to a fourth-place finish in 2004. “That was with a horse we were just hoping we could finish in the money with. It’s nice to come in here among this good field with a shot at winning it.”
Another Met Mile graduate, two-time Dubai World Cup winner Thunder Snow (3-1), also got caught in traffic chasing Mitole to the wire at Belmont Park. His third-place finish with his regular rider Christophe Soumillon gave him his third consecutive in-the-money finish on a U.S. track since his embarrassing rodeo performance in the 2017 Kentucky Derby. Even though Thunder Snow remains winless in America, the Dubai-based 5-year-old is a top three Breeders’ Cup betting choice off shore, best priced at 12-1 at Bet Online.
“I think the two turns will be helpful,” said president Jimmy Bell of Godolphin, Thunder Snow’s owner. “He was able to hang on in a very contentious field in the Met Mile. A mile-and-a-quarter is right up his alley, but I think he’ll be very competitive going a mile-and-an-eighth.”
Coming off a two-month break, Vino Rosso (6-1) is getting significant backing in Breeders’ Cup futures thanks to his most recent impression. That was his victory in the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita, giving Pletcher and jockey John Velázquez a rare springtime win on the west coast. Now the 4-year-old colt sired by Curlin is 10-1 at Bovada, 16-1 at US Racing and 20-1 at Bet Online to win the Classic.
“I think he’s a much better 4-year-old than he was a 3-year-old,” Pletcher said. “He’s much more consistent in the mornings in training, and I thought his Gold Cup was a really big race. I think the nine-furlong distance is ideal for him if there’s an honest pace.”
That is a big “if.” There is no obvious speed in the field, and it may be left to the suddenly hot Preservationist (6-1) to provide it from his outside post. With only eight races on his past performances, the 6-year-old sired by Arch has won his last three, including a 4½-length victory last month in his stakes debut – the 1¼-mile Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont Park.
“He’s got a lot of talent, but he’s got stamina, too,” Preservationist’s trainer Jimmy Jerkens said. “He’s been very genuine so far. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain now.”
Although Preservationist could conceivably get out on a loose lead, McKinzie figures to keep up with him, especially if Smith tries to keep him out of the trouble that he ran into in the Met Mile. Vino Rosso may need a perfect trip, which he did not get finishing a listless fifth in last year’s Travers at Saratoga. And even though the added distance should help Thunder Snow, any bettor who figures he is overdue has been down that familiar road to futility.
The search for an overlay lands squarely on Yoshida (12-1). The 5-year-old trained by Bill Mott and ridden by José Ortiz is the embodiment of inscrutable, finishing sixth in all three of his 2019 starts – the Pegasus Turf, the Dubai World Cup and the Stephen Foster. His most recent win came last summer in the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga, where he also had two graded runner-up finishes two years ago. And yes, he also shows up in Breeders’ Cup futures; he is 20-1 at Bovada and US Racing.
The hope here is that McKinzie presses Preservationist into a more honest pace than he showed in the Suburban, Yoshida then may be able to make a decisive, closing move, and from here he appears to be the best chance to beat McKinzie. So I will box Yoshida and McKinzie on exacta tickets with Thunder Snow added to finish second or third on a trifecta play and the late entry Monongahela (12-1) filling out a superfecta wager
As for the Classic futures, 3-year-old Maximum Security is the 9-1 Breeders’ Cup Classic favorite at US Racing, the 8-1 second choice at Bovada and 10-1 at Bet Online. But he will not face older horses for the first time until November at Santa Anita.
So while the Whitney offers a quality field and a chance to find some value this weekend, it will also provide a welcome sharpening of the focus on older runners prepping for the Breeders’ Cup. Considering their track record in the Classic, the Whitney is likely to be a most important bellwether.
Racing news and opinions
With three Grade 1 victories, Bellafina (2-1) looks to avenge her only defeat of the year when she is rematched at Saratoga against Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress (7-2) in the $500,000 Grade 1 Test Stakes, a seven-furlong sprint Saturday at 5:06 p.m. EDT. The two millionaires were drawn to the inside of the field of seven 3-year-old fillies. Miss Preakness winner Covfefe (5-2) figures to set the pace in a field full of early speed, and Miss Preakness runner-up Please Flatter Me (15-1) could get the first run of the pace chasers. Trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Javier Castellano, Royal Charlotte (3-1) is best suited for this distance. She closed from fourth to win last month’s 6½-furlong Grade 3 Victory Ride by four lengths at Belmont Park. So Royal Charlotte will be my across-the-board play – and she will be singled into Yoshida and McKinzie on my ticket for the Test-Whitney double. Saturday’s forecast for Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is for a partly cloudy sky with a high of 84 degrees.
Brian Sears may hold the key for bettors who are wagering on this weekend’s 94th running of the $1 million Hambletonian, harness racing’s answer to the Kentucky Derby. He drives the favorite in each of the two elimination heats more than 1½ hours before Saturday’s 5:14 p.m. EDT final at the Meadowlands, N.J. Presuming both Gimpanzee and Greenshoe advance for trainer Marcus Melander, Sears will have to choose between the two. The best guess is that he will pilot Gimpanzee, a 12-for-12 colt trying to become the first undefeated Hambo winner since the groundbreaking Deweycheatumnhowe 11 years ago. Sixteen 3-year-olds have been split into the heats that start Saturday at 3:03 and 3:33 p.m. EDT. Not that it matters much for trotters, but rain is in the forecast for East Rutherford, N.J.
It is hard to imagine a more appropriately named horse than Deep Impact, the Japanese champion that died Wednesday at age 17. He was euthanized after suffering a fracture in his deteriorating neck. Sired by Sunday Silence, Deep Impact was born to be great. He lived up to expectations right away in 2005, when he became only the sixth of now seven horses to sweep the Japanese Triple Crown. Retired after a racing career that included seven Group 1 victories and two Horse of the Year awards, Deep Impact went to stud in 2007. Two-time Japanese champion Gentildonna remains the best of his offspring, earning more than $14 million in purse money. Responsible for 110 group-winners, Deep Impact died having won Japan’s last seven breeding titles with one crop yet to be foaled.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Saratoga takes center stage on the RFRP with a preview of Saturday’s Grade 1 races – the Whitney and the Test stakes. Hall of Fame jockey John Velázquez previews his ride on Vino Rosso in the Whitney. Horse Racing Radio Network’s Mike “The Baron” Penna looks ahead to the Whitney and the Test and also looks back at the path that led him to create HRRN. Twitter feedback includes reaction to the flashy sprint victories last week of Shancelot and Imperial Hint. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher.