Familiar names, rematches christen new Saratoga season

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Monomoy Girl has won four graded stakes in a row, including three Grade 1 races, going into Sunday's Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga.

Las Vegas

Todd and Chad will combine to win about six dozen races – give or take. José and Írad will win more than 100. Now if we could just figure out exactly which races those are.

Welcome back for the 154th summer to Saratoga, where the rich get richer among trainers and jockeys, and bettors are enticed by consistently large fields chasing a record $18.85 million in purse money this summer. Friday’s first race at 1 p.m. EDT starts a six-day-a-week, seven-week racing orgy that has its traditional finish on Labor Day – followed by 10 months of withdrawal.

“It is the most competitive meet out there,” said Michael Dubb, who with his various partners has won the Saratoga owners title the last four years. “Everybody wants to win there.”

Todd Pletcher beat Chad Brown by just one victory last year to claim his 13th Saratoga training championship, each winning about a quarter of the time with their horses. José Ortiz rode five more winners to keep the riding title from his older brother Írad, each finishing first in 19 percent of his races.

Dubb is involved in the highest-profile race of opening weekend. His Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl will be favored to win a rematch with Midnight Bisou in the $300,000 Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks, a nine-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies at 5:40 p.m. EDT Sunday.

Trained by Steve Asmussen, Midnight Bisou won last month’s Grade 2 Mother Goose at Belmont Park, rebounding from being a beaten favorite in Kentucky. That is where she finished third to Monomoy Girl after being forced to go seven-wide in the stretch under jockey Mike Smith.

“All I do is read about the terrible trip that Midnight Bisou had in the Kentucky Oaks,” Dubb said. “But I never read about the fact that Monomoy Girl had the 14 post. That is worth several lengths in its own right. The fact that Florent (Geroux) navigated well from the 14 post is great, but nobody mentions that we overcame that.”

While Midnight Bisou came back to win the Grade 2 Mother Goose late last month at Belmont Park, Brad Cox has trained Monomoy Girl to four straight victories, the last three being Grade 1s including the Acorn Stakes on Belmont Stakes day.

“There’s the old saying that pace makes the race, and Monomoy Girl is so tractable and has the ability to adapt to all situations,” Dubb told VSiN. “The Ashland (in April at Keeneland): wire to wire, no problem. The Fair Grounds Oaks (the Rachel Alexandra in February): she missed the break and was a stone-cold closer. In terms of tractability, we may have a slight edge. We’ll have the ability to be on the pace or lay closer to the pace. It’s going to be a great race.”

And it is just one of five graded stakes the first three days of the Saratoga summer. Four of them feature the girls, including Saturday’s $500,000 Grade 1 Diana, a nine-furlong turf race for fillies and mares. Opening day Friday brings a pair of $150,000 Grade 3 races – the Schuylerville for 2-year-old on the dirt and the Lake George for 3-year-old on the turf.

Dubb’s dominance has come through a diverse crop of horses that he buys through claims and through sales both public and private. If he has a word of advice for bettors at Saratoga, it is to play horses that are coming down in class.

“You always have to watch the class dropdowns,” Dubb said. “Other times of the year you might pay attention to the ‘now’ horse, the in-form horse, even the horse that’s moving up a little bit. But I think a tremendous amount of races at Saratoga are won by class dropdowns. That’s because people want to win so desperately at Saratoga.”

Here are thumbnail previews of four other graded stakes Friday through Sunday:

Grade 3 Schuylerville (5:02 p.m. EDT Friday), 6 furlongs, 2-year-old fillies. Catherinethegreat (5-2) is a flawed, morning-line favorite, having gotten both her wins for trainer Mark Casse in the slop at Gulfstream Park. Nonna Madelina (7-2) will get a lot of backing just because Todd Pletcher has such a successful record training 2-year-olds. But the pick here is Eyeinthesky (6-1), another Casse trainee that distinguished herself with a five-wide run to finish third in last month’s Astoria.

Grade 3 Lake George (5:40 p.m. EDT Friday), 1 1/16 miles (turf), 3-year-old fillies. Daddy Is A Legend (9-5) may be a short-priced favorite, but she is winless in her last three races, all graded stakes. Altea (3-1) has turf guru Chad Brown on the trainer line, but she is 0-for-3 since coming over from France. The former Irish-based filly Punked (5-1) gets a long look here after finishing a stout second in the Wild Applause at Belmont Park.

Grade 3 Sanford (5:40 p.m. EDT Saturday), 6 furlongs, 2-year-olds. There is plenty of speed to lead the field. Again, a Pletcher trainee lures the attention. In this case it is not the morning-line favorite Sombeyay (2-1), the runner-up in last month’s Tremont at Belmont Park. Instead, it is Lexitonian (3-1), a maiden winner by Speightstown out of a Tapit broodmare.

Grade 1 Diana (6:18 p.m. EDT Saturday), 1 1/8 miles (turf), 3-year-olds and up, fillies and mares. This is a rematch of last month’s Just A Game, in which A Raving Beauty (2-1) beat Procter’s Ledge (4-1) by three-quarters of a length. This race is a furlong longer, so the big question here is whether Procter’s Ledge makes up the difference.

(The entire conversation with Dubb may be heard on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod at vsin.com/podcasts.)

Racing notes and opinions

Almost one year after Arrogate finished an indifferent fourth in the race, the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at 8 p.m. EDT Saturday at Del Mar offers last year’s winner Accelerate (8-5) a stage to make his case as one of the best older horses in the country. He comes into the race off an impressive victory Memorial Day weekend in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita. Instead of setting the pace, it looks like he will be chasing it this time. The stalking, turf specialist Sharp Samurai (6-1), last year’s Del Mar Derby winner – came off a seven-month break for a confidence-building win in a Santa Anita allowance last month. Mark Glatt puts him on the dirt for the first time in nearly a year-and-a-half. Although it is not desirable to chase chalk, this feels like it sets up for Accelerate to pick up the pieces of an early speed duel and win this one again. And one might throw in the lightly raced Catalina Cruiser (8-1) to make it a Sadler exacta.

Breeders’ Cup powers-that-be are taking their dear ol’ time announcing where the championships will be held after this November’s races at Churchill Downs. A tangible clue was dropped this week by Del Mar CEO Joe Harper. He told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the next three are likely to be held at Santa Anita, Keeneland and Del Mar. “Nothing’s on paper,” Harper said, “but I think we’re probably looking at 2021.” Del Mar justifiably got rave reviews for its staging of last year’s Breeders’ Cup. About the only complaint aside from a dead rail was that the course could hold only 37,500 each day, but on-track betting handle was a record $25,181,317. What is it that saying about how money talks?

Rick Dutrow, the classics-winning trainer who is in the middle of a 10-year drug suspension, lost his appeal to be reinstated by the New York State Gaming Commission. A vote of 4-2 kept a 2013 ruling in place, preventing Dutrow from resuming a career highlighted by Big Brown’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins 10 years ago. He was suspended and fined $50,000 for having a long record of drug violations involving his horses. Dutrow’s allies collected 2,424 on-line signatures calling for his reinstatement. They argue that Dutrow was unfairly singled out. Dutrow is now under bankruptcy protection, claiming last year he had no income and owed $1.76 million.

Something did not look right with Lady Aurelia last month at Royal Ascot. Now trainer Wesley Ward has confirmed her retirement to a breeding career at Kentucky’s Stonestreet Farm. She leaves behind a career that included victories in the 2016 Queen Mary for 2-year-olds and last year’s King’s Stand against the boys. The best memory of her from this corner was her runner-up finish by a nose to Marsha in last year’s Nunthorpe Stakes at York, England, probably one of the year’s 5-10 best races.

How good is business at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas? Next year it will be the first track to offer two $1 million preps for the Kentucky Derby. The Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 16 is being upped from $900,000 to join the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby as the state’s million-dollar races. Any doubt whether the family of the late track boss Charles Cella would carry on the traditions he established did not realize that heirs would double down on his investment of time, effort and, of course, money.

For the fifth time since 1985, 96-year-old Ellis Park in western Kentucky is changing hands – sort of. Saratoga Casino and Hospitality Group, the New York-based company that already had a 30 percent ownership share, is buying the other 70 percent from Ron Geary, 71, who has had control of the track for 12 years. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved the sale Tuesday. No dollar figures on the sale were revealed. Bottom line: It figures to be business as usual for summertime racing at Ellis Park.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Handicapper Anthony Stabile of the New York Racing Association and Horse Racing Radio Network breaks down all five graded stakes the first three days of the Saratoga summer. Six-time champion horse owner Michael Dubb talks about Sunday’s Coaching Club American Oaks and his thoughts on partnerships and betting Saratoga.

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