While possibles Shackleford, Successful Dan, and To Honor and Serve are no go, three G1 winners and runners of all strengths and forms are lining the gate of the illustrious Whitney Handicap (I) at Saratoga. The conqueror of Wise Dan and the winner of two G1s this year, Ron the Greek, is poised to add another big win to his bankroll while Hymn Book wishes to make a big closing move. Pletcher and Mott both sport two entries each in the 9-horse field, Pletcher with 2 past wins while Mott is trying for his first.
The winner of this race will get a “free pass” to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (I) in November as part of the “Win and You’re In” incentive. This will be the fourth G1 race I get to catch in person, the first G1 for older horses on dirt, and my very first at Saratoga! The day is looking to get pretty hot and stay sunny.
$750,000 Whitney Invitational Handicap (I) - 3-Year-Olds & Up. 1 1/8 miles on dirt at Saratoga Race Course. Post Time: Saturday, August 4 at 5:45pm EST
[Post Position, Horse - Jockey, Impost, Trainer - Summary, Opinion in italics]
1) Rule - Joe Bravo, 117 lbs, Todd Pletcher - The Roman Ruler colt returned strong off a 9-month layoff to be victorious in the Monmouth Cup Stakes (II) over a mile. He was the winner of last year’s Birdstone Stakes at Saratoga, also at 1 1/8 miles and is likely to be a pacesetter from his usual running style and inside post. The Winstar colors are always a strong draw, but with low speed figures, the “Pletcher plop” effect, and better pacesetters in this crowd, the three-time graded winner is against the odds.
2) Hunters Bay - Emma Jayne Wilson, 115 lbs, Reade Baker - Stronach-owned, will this be the next Ghostzapper to keep that sire’s hot streak going? Winning 3 times and placing second once this year, Hunters Bay can handle the classic distance, but as expected with a Reade Baker horse, is chiefly a synthetic horse with strong multi-length wins over top company like Pender Harbour, Stately Victor, and Check Your Soul sitting behind the pace. He is 2-for-7 tries on dirt with no stakes experience on the surface. Obviously talented and fleet-footed, but Reade Baker has a lop-sided track record of shipping to American dirt… HOWEVER, before the hate train begins, I liked another Baker trainee who transferred his form well last year… Moonshine Mullin, second in the Jim Dandy (II). Add to this *both* parents were successful in the New York circuit and he’s a half to a dirt stakes runner and the nice grass up ‘n comer Grip Hands. Take him at long odds in your exotics!
3) Caixa Eletronica - Javier Castellano, 116 lbs, Todd Pletcher - The can-do-it-all horse of the bunch, the Arromanches ex-claimer has been on a roll this year winning 3 of 7 races this year including the G2 True North and the G2 Charles Town Classic— one at 6 furlongs, the other at 1 1/8 miles. He was sour in his last start to finish 5th in the 7-furlong James Marvin (II). By my checkup, he has won both attempts at this distance in the past, the best being of course the Charles Town where there were several nice graded winners in the field. Caixa has had some success at Saratoga in the past, but how much can we credit that Charles Town win? The track is just weird, being an odd 7 furlongs around instead of the usual 1 mile, making that race 3 turns. I feel like this is a one-turn horse who just got lucky… but eh! He’s got some nice speed figures, just the class issue…
4) Endorsement - Joel Rosario, 115 lbs, Eoin Harty - The non-Lasix entry, I was hopeful this Distorted Humor colt would shine through in the Suburban (II) last out, where he hesitated in his first off-the-board finish all year. No real excuse was given, and he has one :59 flat bullet work within the past two weeks followed by a more recent, relaxed breeze. Distance is not an issue, and neither is class, so perhaps he just threw a clunker last out after acting up in the paddock. This is not a need-the-lead type, but enjoys being close to the pace where he may have been cooked. He switches jockeys to Joel Rosario, and hopefully will breakthrough. I’m praying for even better odds than in the Suburban (18-1), mwahaha!
5) Trickmeister - Ramon Dominguez, 116 lbs, Rick Dutrow - Off the board just once in his 8-race career, the Proud Citizen speedster was a pace-setting, stubborn third last out in the Suburban (II) and is looking super fit in his fast works. He was a big winner in his lone Saratoga start in 2010 at this distance— a whopping 11 3/4 lengths in the Pleasant Colony Stakes. Dutrow is a New York force and with leading rider Dominguez in the irons, don’t expect the pacesetter Trickmeister to fizzle out. He’s tops in the speed figures and because he’s not expected to win, he’ll get some nice odds.
6) Ron the Greek - Jose Lezcano, 120 lbs, Bill Mott - The favorite of the bunch with two resounding G1 victories under his belt already this year, the Full Mandate son is the one to beat here with a sharp closing move that frequently lands him in the money. He is best as the distances go further, but cannot be left out of the exotics picture. Even when running traffic-laced races, Ron the Greek still often puts in a game effort. After mildly supporting him since the Florida Millions, he has really blossomed under Mott’s care and should at least place, if not win.
7) Flat Out - Rosie Napravnik, 116 lbs, Bill Mott - I never quite warmed up to the Flatter son last year, who won the Suburban (II) with ease and then won the Jockey Club Gold Cup (I). Since then he has swapped trainers for Bill Mott and is in his second start with Rosie Napravnik, who rode him in the Monmouth Cup (II) where he got caught on the inside. He looked plenty fit however, for that one mile race. He gets a ridiculous weight break for a past G1 winner, and was second last year in this race to Tizway. With higher past speed figures and 4 pounds less than Ron the Greek, this Mott entry could barrel his way through.
8) Hymn Book - John Velazquez, 118 lbs, Claude McGaughey - The Arch gelding was pretty awesome as the second choice last out in the Suburban Handicap (II) where he closed very well for second despite being too far behind at the start, supporting the notion that he is back to top form. The second of two G1 winners in the field, Hymn Book should hug the distance and has top jock Johnny V. With Trickmeister returning to help set a good pace with likely pressure, he will have time to catch up to be in the money.
9) Fort Larned - Brian Hernandez, 117 lbs, Ian Wilkes - My past secret weapon, the E Dubai son is only beginning to get the respect he really deserves as a graded winner/track record-setter. He was unchallenged while wiring the Cornhusker (III) last out over Successful Dan and company and has been looking amazing breezing up to this race at Saratoga— a nice bullet in :58 3/5 is hard to knock! He should be right up next to Trickmeister setting the pace in this race and really blossoms at this distance with no prior New York starts.
Top Picks in Order:
1) Hymn Book
2) Ron the Greek
3) Flat Out
G1 races typically offer few real surprises in their end result, and the Whitney should be no different. Tons of speed here even if one horse (mainly Trickmeister) should fail to jet to the lead, leaving the stretch vulnerable to a classy closer. I was super impressed with Hymn Book in his last start, and this time Ron the Greek could get beaten. I’ll favor the good Flat Out for third because of his connections, likely improving factor, and the fact he’s a G1 winner being taken lightly. A 9-furlong veteran with strong connections, great past performances, and speed, Trickmeister fills out the superfecta.
Value Pick: Trickmeister