If the horse racing calendar were more like the college basketball schedule in a normal year, it would be like we were about to move into the second half of conference play. Familiar opponents are getting rematches, others are meeting for the first time and serious candidates will emerge for the big dance. In this case, it would be the November madness known as the Breeders’ Cup.
Just look at what the next few weeks will offer (possible and probable starters courtesy of Horse Racing Nation):
Saturday: Grade 1 Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga. Can Whitmore find the magic at age 8 that he discovered last year in winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint? Or does 6-year-old Firenze Fire, an 11-time winner in New York, finally score in a graded stakes at Saratoga at a 6-furlong distance that might have been meant for him all along?
Saturday: Grade 1 Bing Crosby at Del Mar. Speaking of sprinters, this looks like a showdown between Peter Miller’s 7-year-old C Z Rocket, a winner seven times in his last nine starts, and Mark Glatt’s 4-year-old Collusion Illusion, who won this race last year but has gone 0-for-3 since. Oh, yes. There is also John Sadler’s 7-year-old Flagstaff, himself a Grade 1 winner this year.
Saturday: Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga. Essential Quality may be on his way to the 3-year-old championship. After that duel of the year with Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont Stakes, his encore finally puts him against Aqueduct stakes winners Weyburn and Risk Taking and streaking Ohio Derby winner Masqueparade.
Saturday: Grade 2 Bowling Green at Saratoga. This should be the best race of the weekend. Pegasus Turf victor Colonel Liam looks to reclaim the form he showed when he carried a four-race winning streak into last month’s Manhattan, where a wide trip left him finishing eighth. Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox has Arklow primed to rebound from a troubled sixth at Monmouth Park in the United Nations. Back from the Middle East, Channel Maker returns to the scene of two Grade 1s last summer. But since this is turf, Chad Brown commands respect, even if he is sneaking in with little-known Breakpoint, a three-time Group 1 winner in Chile.
Sunday: Grade 1 Clement Hirsch at Del Mar. Trying to go about his business quietly while medication battles light up courtrooms out of state, Bob Baffert enters As Time Goes By, a Coolmore filly who won Grade 2s in her last two starts. She will provide a worthy test for Shedaresthedevil, the Cox filly who upset Gamine last year in the Kentucky Oaks. She has since gone 2-for-3, finishing third to Letruska in the Ogden Phipps on Belmont Stakes day.
Sunday: Grade 2 Amsterdam at Saratoga. This 6½-furlong dash for 3-year-olds is like a heavyweight boxing rematch in Las Vegas, except in this case the first fight was not rigged. Drain The Clock scored a 7-2 upset of 7-5 favorite Jackie’s Warrior in the Grade 1 Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard. The difference at the end was a neck. The difference at the start was Drain The Clock got a clean break, and Jackie’s Warrior did not. If not for a broken iron last year at Delta Downs, Drain The Clock might be 7-for-7 in sprints. If not for the Woody Stephens, Jackie’s Warrior would be 6-for-6 going one turn.
Saturday, Aug. 7: Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga. Pegasus World Cup winner Knicks Go. Five-time graded-stakes victor Maxfield. Streaking Met Mile winner Silver State. These boys will be challenged by last year’s Preakness champion, Swiss Skydiver. The only thing missing is a curtain, a dance line and a stand-up comic to set the stage.
Saturday, Aug. 14: Grade 1 Mister D at Arlington Park. This used to be the Arlington Million. Next year it will not “be” at all, presuming Churchill Downs makes bad on its real-estate plans and shuts down Arlington. Brown won the last three runnings of this race when it was still worth $1 million. Even though the purse is now just $600,000, Brown is expected to ship in Domestic Spending, he of the 6-for-7 record with three Grade 1 victories and $1.3 million in earnings.
Saturday, Aug. 21: Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar. This was supposed to be the spot where Hot Rod Charlie finally made amends for being DQ’d in the Haskell and finishing a game second in the Belmont. That was before trainer Doug O’Neill hit the brakes this week. Now it looks Big ’Cap winner Idol will face leftovers from the San Diego Handicap. This race is very much a work in progress.
Saturday, Aug. 21: Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga. For anyone who did not get enough of Maracuja’s upset of a game Malathaat on Saturday in the Coaching Club American Oaks, they could have their encore in this race.
Saturday, Aug. 28: Grade 1 Personal Ensign at Saratoga. This is where trainer Fausto Gutierrez brings back Letruska, the clubhouse leader for Horse of the Year. Gutierrez has not been shy about laying out the mare’s schedule — the Personal Ensign next month, the Grade 1 Spinster at Keeneland in October, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Del Mar in November, the Saudi Cup next February and the Dubai World Cup next March. What racing fan does not enjoy some ambition?
Saturday, Aug. 28: Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga. This is where Baffert uses the “Get Out of NYRA Ban” card that he won from a federal judge in Brooklyn to drop in Gamine. Last year’s female sprint champion will be heavily favored to earn her fifth Grade 1 victory.
Saturday, Aug. 28: Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga. It is hard to imagine Cox putting both Essential Quality and Mandaloun into this race, but one of them should show up. After being moved from Baffert to Pletcher, former Kentucky Derby futures favorite Life Is Good could make his first start since he was injured in March. Midnight Bourbon and Masqueparade might also show up. No matter who lands in the Travers, it promises to put an exclamation point on a big month.
About 45 years ago I started a campaign to stamp out August. It had something to do with a bad breakup at a terribly young age. I always thought it was a month that was too hot and too humid. There are no holidays to speak of. And those annoying back-to-school sales were endless.
Now, when I see the calendar that racing has to offer, maybe I don’t have to stubbornly circle July 59 for Travers day.
In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features a preview of the Vanderbilt Handicap and the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga. John and Mike Baird remember the late Dale Baird, North America’s winningest trainer, whose record is about to fall to Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. Las Vegas horseplayer and bookmaker Paul Zilm handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.