The Best Race
THE BEST RACE
The first Saturday in May no doubt provides the best show in racing, but the first Saturday of August - at least this year - will provide the best race.
That of course is the $750,000 Whitney Handicap before a packed Saratoga house clear skies over a lightning-fast dirt track.
Quality Road, riding a three-race Grade One streak for Todd Pletcher and Johnny V. was made the 2-5 favorite, which may be the shortest price we've seen in a male handicap in years. But, as the 126-pound highweight, Quality Road will be required to concede from five-to-13 pounds to an extremely talented field going a mile and an eighth.
Be it known that the only time QR has been asked to go a mile and a quarter in his 10-race career was in the Travers last year over the same track - and he dribbled home third, beaten five lengths by Summer Bird as the 3-2 favorite.
Quality Road has since developed into the premier older horse in the land, but, last time, out in the Met Mile, his margin of victory was a diminishing 1 ½ lengths over Musket Man. Reverse the post positions that day, and MM might have been the winner.
Musket Man is back for another crack at Quality Road, and you can tell his people mean business.
Last Monday morning, moments after NYRA permitted Pletcher to give QR unprecedented gate schooling in front of the stands, Derek Ryan, the trainer of Musket Man, screamed bloody murder, accusing management of giving Pletcher special treatment.
In this day and age on the racetrack, when everyone loves everyone, such reaction is highly unusual.
Musket Man, the victim of horrible racing luck in his last three starts, all with jockey Dominguez aboard, gets a switch to Maragh for the Whitney in which, at 117 pounds, he will be getting nine pounds from Quality Road.
The reason for the switch: Dominguez opted to ride Haynesfield, on whom he has won six stakes, including a last-out win in the Suburban (as the $9.90 best bet on John Piesen Racing (888 612 2283).
How strong is the Whitney?
Just look at the morning line.
Blame is 4-1 although he is exiting four straight graded-stakes victories, capped by the Stephen Foster (a JP Racing best bet at $9.80) at Churchill...and like Quality Road, is 7-for-10 lifetime.
But, unlike QR, Blame won his lone race at the Spa - the '09 Curlin Stakes, beating the multiple stakes-winner Gone Astray.
Haynesfield ? He's dismissed at 12-1...as is Mine That Bird, who merely won the Kentucky Derby last year, and is training lights-out for new trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Haynesfield and Mine That Bird are getting 10 and eight pounds, respectively from Quality Road. Pletcher is not happy about the weights, nor should he be.
Weight is very Important to The Toddster.
Just look at last weekend.
Pletcher would have preferred to run Super Saver at home in the Jim Dandy rather than ship SS to Monmouth for the Haskell, a much tougher spot. His reason: he was more comfortable with the Haskell weights than the Jim Dandy weights.
But Pletcher went for the money, and it was interesting that the betting public cold-watered his colt in the Haskell. Imagine a Derby winner going off 6-1 in a seven-horse field.
The only good news for TP was that SS came out of the Haskell reportedly in good shape, whereas Haskell winner Lookin at Lucky came down sick after the race, and will miss the Travers (as predicted in this space on Tuesday).
Warning: Baffert has another 3-year-old in the barn whom he is comparing favorably to Lookin at Lucky. That would be a gray colt named Concord Point, the odds-on favorite Saturday evening in the $750,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park.
Team Jones had been pointing Trickmeister, the unbeaten winner of the Barbaro Stakes, for the West Virginia Derby, but last month sold the 3-year-old to the IEAH, who turned him over to Rick Dutrow, who also has picked up Rail Trip and Boys At Toscanova along the way, as well as I Want Revenge, who is shooting for the Iselin for IEAH. These, of course, are the same folks who two years back gave us Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown.
Trickmeister obviously would be a worthy addition to your Horses to Watch list.
Back to Dominguez for a minute.
As we know, Ramon has won the last nine New York meetings, and was odds-on to make it 10 this month at Saratoga. But with only 10 winners (and 0-for-9 on Wednesday and Thursday), RD will have to pull off a Houdini act to keep his streak going.
Perhaps RD can kick-start a rally on Saturday when he will ride all 11 races, including five morning-line favorites, over a racetrack that is favoring speed - and chalk. The five chalks Saturday are Pistols at Dawn (race one); High Prize (race two); Dougie (race three); Yankee Empire (race seven), and Talk Therapy (race 11).
Moreover, Belle of the Hall, his mount in the $250,000 Test Stakes, will be a major player, especially, in view of the fact that likely favorite Franny Freud has already been scratched with a career-ending leg injury.
Back on June 12, Dominguez took off several live mounts at Belmont to ride Belle of the Hall (his only call) in the Jostle Stakes at Philadelphia Park, and the Belle was a sharp winner.
Belle can not afford any mistakes in the Test against the likes of Pica Slew, Champagne d'Oro, Christine Daae, Buckleupbuttercup, Lovely Lil and Tidal Pool, the likely rank outsider from Team Lukas, the same Team Lukas that put over Wow Wow Wow a week back.
Speaking of trainers, you might want to check out the Florida-based David Fawkes this weekend.
Among others, Fawkes on Saturday has Little Drama in the Dr. Fager Stakes at Calder, Lila Louann in the Desert Vixen Stakes at the same track, and an appropriately-named first-time starter named Hot Summer at Monmouth Park.
And on Sunday, Fawkes will run his big horse, Big Drama, against Asmussen speedball Majesticperfection, in the Vanderbilt at Saratoga.
Speaking of Monmouth, did you realize that the Jersey Shore track will be operating only two days a week - Saturday and Sunday - after Labor Day? I don't ever recall a major racetrack running twice a week.
The major New York outfits thus will clear out soon after Labor Day, and the local guys (Broome, Orseno, Thompson, Harvatt come to mind) get their playground back, although the purses will be a lot slower, and the automatic $1500 to every starter will be eliminated.
During a visit Thursday to Monmouth, one-time super jock Herb McCauley reported that he just underwent a severe back operation. One mistake, he said, and he could have been paralyzed, but he seemed to be walking well, and was in good spirits.
Switching coasts, Zenyatta, 18-for-18 and counting, will shoot for a consecutive hat trick in the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar.
The Big Z will be 10 cents to the dollar - as was Rachel Alexandra last month in the Lady's Secret at Monmouth...and, if show betting is permitted, the Mad Bomber and wannabees may shatter the current show-pool record of $1.6 million, currently wagered on Medaglia d'Oro in the 2003 Oaklawn Handicap.
There's no bigger fan of Zenyatta than this columnist, but I have to wonder why Team Zenyatta isn't shooting for the $1 million Pacific Classic against the boys rather than this $300,000 gimmee against the girls.
An of course what's stopping Zenyatta for catching a Sutton jet to New York and facing Rachel in the Personal Ensign on Aug. 29 at Saratoga, the day after the Travers?
It might be a bit late in the game, but a Zenyatta-Rachel meeting at the Spa would create the biggest buzz since they took Affirmed's number down in the '78 Travers.
Hell, Seabiscuit would be on that plane in a New York minute.
Thanks for tuning in. Good luck this exciting racing weekend, and we'll see you back here Tuesday for a look back, and a look ahead.
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