Maybe the wet, opening day at Saratoga on Thursday could be written off as a last vestige of 2018.
Yes, 2018, when He caused it to rain seemingly all 40 days and 40 nights. Seemingly. With 50 races taken off the turf last year, it was an experience best forgotten by bettors.
Fortunately, the weather is forecast to be much, much better through the first weekend of this 151st Saratoga racing summer, which has started earlier than ever. That is good news for most of the fillies and mares racing Saturday at 5:46 p.m. EDT in the $500,000 Diana Stakes, the first Grade 1 of American racing’s most anticipated meet.
Wet, dry or otherwise, some things do not change. Like Chad Brown’s anticipated dominance on any U.S. turf course. He has loaded the Diana with four of the six starters drawn into the race, including perhaps the two best in this division – defending winner Sistercharlie (8-5 on the morning line) and four-time Grade 1 winner Rushing Fall (9-5). They have combined to earn nearly $4.5 million in purse money.
As good as they both are, they each bring question marks into the Diana, a 1⅛-mile race on Saratoga’s inner turf. The 5-year-old Sistercharlie, for instance, is making her first start since she won the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf last November at Churchill Downs. Brown said a sickness kept her from racing this spring.
“I wish I had a prep race for her, but she just ran out of time, unfortunately,” said Brown, who has won two of the last three Saratoga training titles. “It’s a tall order to start her back in a Grade 1, but she’s a champion, so we’re going to give her a shot.” John Velázquez keeps the ride on Sistercharlie, a characteristically deep closer.
If not for a neck loss more than a year ago at Churchill Downs, 4-year-old Rushing Fall would be 9-for-9, including last month’s Grade 1 Just A Game on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Even though she has won twice at nine furlongs, this distance is not her strongest suit.
“I wish it was a mile and not a little longer,” her owner Bob Edwards told VSiN. “She’s going against some real quality here and some older horses as well. It all comes down to how the race is controlled, how the pace is set up.”
Since she has led from gate to wire in her last three races, control will be up to Rushing Fall and her jockey Javier Castellano. They figure to be challenged for the early lead by Mitchell Road (8-1), a 4-year-old mare that has won all four of her races since December, including the Grade 3 Gallorette at Pimlico on Preakness day.
“She really stepped forward last time,” her trainer Bill Mott said. “She’ll need to step up again, but she’s been working well, and we’ll take our shot.” José Lezcano is Mitchell Road’s third different jockey in as many races.
Brown drew inside and outside with his other two Diana entries. Like Sistercharlie, Homerique (5-2) is a closer also owned by Peter Brant. She is 2-for-2 since coming to America from France, winning a thriller by a neck last month against yet another stable mate – Competitionofideas – in the Grade 2 New York Stakes at Belmont Park. She drew gate 6 and will be ridden by Írad Ortiz Jr.
The 5-year-old Thais (15-1) starts from gate 1 and gets blinkers in her long-shot bid. The closest she came to winning in the past year was a third-place finish at odds of 47-1 in last summer’s Grade 1 Beverly D. at Arlington Park. That was a race won by Sistercharlie with Brown horses finishing first, second, third and fifth. With Manny Franco riding and with the extra headgear, Thais (pronounced thigh-iss) might also contest the early pace.
Another horse previously vanquished by Sistercharlie completes the field. The 4-year-old closer Secret Message (12-1) was last seen winning the Grade 2 Nassau on a yielding course at Woodbine, and she is 2-for-2 with her current jockey Trevor McCarthy. Trained by Graham Motion, she finished sixth to Sistercharlie in last year’s QEII Cup at Keeneland.
Even if Brown has two of the three speed horses, he does not have them all. So Mott’s Mitchell Road could be the fly in the betting ointment. Taking the leap of faith that Castellano and Franco will not try to arm wrestle Sistercharlie and Thais into mid-pack submission, the guess here is that the early fractions will be fast – and that this race sets up for Homerique. But bettors would be well advised to keep Sistercharlie close in exotics.
Either way, it is hard to imagine Brown not winning the Diana for the fourth year in a row and the fifth time overall. It is a refrain similar to the one that may be heard a lot over the next 40 days and 40 nights of racing at Saratoga. And like him or not, Brown sure sounds better than Noah.
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Last year’s undefeated champion 2-year-old figures to break through Saturday on his fourth try to win for the first time as a 3-year-old. Game Winner (1-5 on the morning line) faces only three other horses – all overmatched – in the $150,000 Grade 3 Los Alamitos Derby. Trainer Bob Baffert is adding blinkers for the first time since Game Winner was a debut winner last year at Del Mar. That is where Baffert went 10-for-12 last summer with 2-year-olds making their first starts. This year Game Winner lost by a nose to Omaha Beach in the Rebel, was second by a half-length to Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby and sixth (promoted to fifth) making a wide and bumpy trip through the slop in the Kentucky Derby. This weekend’s other starters – the gelding Feeling Strong (10-1), Baffert’s California Derby winner Kingly (4-1) and the maiden Parsimony (10-1) – are a combined 4-for-29. With a seemingly certain minus pool, Game Winner will likely pay $2.10 to win at the end of the 1⅛-mile Los Al Derby, posted for Saturday at 6:28 p.m. EDT.
The bacchanal that is opening day at Del Mar is Wednesday, and while most of that crowd will be blissfully unaware of the day’s racing news, serious players will have some of their attention diverted to the ongoing Jerry Hollendorfer story. Reports stoked by his lawyer Drew Couto indicate that the 73-year-old Hall of Famer will not be allowed to bring his horses into the stables at Del Mar. Some reports also say that negotiations with track management may allow Hollendorfer to race his horses there either under his name or a licensed assistant. This goes back to last month’s edict from The Stronach Group that indefinitely banned Hollendorfer from its tracks after six of his horses died from injuries at Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields. The New York Racing Association did a 180 and finally decided to extend the ban to Saratoga. Couto believes that Hollendorfer has been denied due process. The one thing that seems certain is that this will wind up being decided by a man or woman wearing a robe.
Breeders’ Cup CEO Craig Fravel is on a public-relations tour to move the focus of this year’s championships at Santa Anita away from the 30 racehorses that died there during the winter-spring meet. Fravel did high-profile interviews in the past week with media that are not immersed in racing. His message is that the Breeders’ Cup will increase the number of veterinarians examining all horses before they set foot onto the dirt and turf at Santa Anita this fall. The fact that Fravel chose to do these interviews with USA Today nationally and with Jim Hill of KCBS-TV locally in Los Angeles is a clear sign that he is out to change the narrative with mainstream media that approach racing with a jaundiced point of view.
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. This week’s episode looks at opening week at Saratoga. Rushing Fall’s owner Bob Edwards discusses his filly’s run in Saturday’s Grade 1 Diana Stakes. Horseplayer and author Peter Thomas Fornatale talks about the year in racing and the evolution of some of his betting angles. The Diana gets a full preview, and there is Twitter feedback. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher.