I know you’re not supposed to regret the passing of summer when you live in Las Vegas, but I can’t help feeling a bit wistful when I think about Del Mar and Saratoga wrapping up their seasons with Monday’s Labor Day cards.
Both tracks are going out strong, with Saratoga serving up the Woodward and Spinaway stakes, both Grade 1s, and the Glen Falls (Grade 2) on Saturday, the Prioress (Grade 2) on Sunday and the Hopeful Stakes (Grade 1) and Bernard Baruch Handicap (Grade 2) on Monday.
Del Mar stakes offerings include the Del Mar Debutante (Grade 2) and John C. Mabee Stakes (Grade 2) on Saturday, the Del Mar Derby (Grade 2) on Sunday and the Del Mar Futurity (Grade 1) on Monday.
Both tracks reminded us why they are the gems of the American racing scene this summer. They put on competitive races with mostly full fields day after day and produced many memorable performances.
We also got to watch some new stars emerge, including jockey Drayden Van Dyke, vying for his first riding title at a major meet and threatening the record for stakes victories of 13 at Del Mar, and trainer Jonathan Thomas, who demonstrated the training touch of a savvy veteran in mapping out the campaign of Travers Stakes winner Catholic Boy.
We’ll see what the final numbers show, but I predict both meets will show solid increases in handle.
I could sing a happy song to try to lift my spirits, but instead I’ll focus on the fact that one of my new favorite racetracks – Kentucky Downs – opens Saturday. While I’m not wild about the overlap with the final weekend at Del Mar and Saratoga, this unique racing venue will definitely ease the pangs of their departure next weekend.
For those who aren’t familiar with the track outside Franklin, Kentucky, here’s the 411: The track, formerly known as Dueling Grounds, runs a five-day meet over two consecutive weekends and offers nothing but grass racing over the only European-style course in North America — an undulating 1 5/16-mile course that resembles a bent and stretched paper clip from the air.
Also, because it offers simulcasting and historical horse racing gambling machines year-round, it is able to offer strong purses and attract good horses to its boutique meet. Saturday’s Tourist Mile, for example, boasts a $750,000 purse.
We’ll return to Kentucky Downs next weekend for some handicapping, but first let’s turn to our “get-out” races at Del Mar and Saratoga.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The field for Saturday’s $750,000 Woodward Stakes, a Grade 1 test for 3-year-olds and up at 1⅛ mile on Saratoga’s main track, is not among the best assembled in its 65 runnings, but it could be one of the most evenly matched.
That’s reflected in the morning line, with the oddsmaker pegging Gunnevera, whose last stakes victory came in an ungraded race a year ago at Gulfstream Park, as the 4-1 favorite, with six other competitors in the 14-horse field at 10-1 or less.
The #RJhorseracing handicappers are narrowly backing the favorite over 9-2 second choice Seeking the Soul, with Leofric (20-1) and Yoshida (5-1) tied for third.
I’ll try my luck with Rally Cry (20-1), who drew a tough outside post but has the right humans in his corner — trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Mike Smith — to spring the upset. I’ll bet him to win and box him in exactas with Seeking the Soul and Gunnevera.
In contrast, the $200,000 John C. Mabee at Del Mar, which drew 12 horses for the 1⅛-mile turf test for fillies and mares, has a solid favorite in Cambodia, 5-2 on the morning line.
The crowd ’cappers like the chalk here, but there was a surge of support for 7-2 second choice Vasilika, winner of five straight who takes a big step up in class. Cordiality (12-1) was a distant third in the balloting.
While I agree that Cambodia will be tough, I see the sharp filly Fahan Mura (4-1) setting a hot pace and think that could set it up for an off-the-pace runner. I’ll swing for the fences again with Meal Ticket (20-1), who gets tested for class but was impressive winning her prep for this. I see Fahan Mura and Cambodia rounding out the trifecta
Ellis Starr’s Del Mar Debutante analysis
Brill may not be the fastest horse in the early stages of this race, but she may be the most talented filly in the group when all is said and done. After bobbling at the start in that debut on July 18, Brill relaxed off the pace and by the time the field of 10 hit the far turn she was in high gear, going by her foes easily in the last eighth of a mile. The kind of mental maturity to pass the field, particularly after a poor start, usually comes after a horse has raced a few times so considering Brill displayed that first time out it bodes very well for her chances. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has been down this road before, saddling champion Songbird to victory in 2015. Jockey Van Dyke rides Brill once more and appears to have chosen this filly over Mother Mother, who he also rode to victory in her debut.
Bellafina may be the fastest horse in the opening stages. She led from about 100 yards after the start of the Sorrento Stakes last month and never gave the other horses a chance to overtake her as she drew off to win by 4 lengths. Her outside post gives her a slight pace advantage in the Debutante. Bellafina closed slightly from third to second in her debut, in which she earned a 97 figure, improving to 101 in the Sorrento, and there is little doubt she can take another step forward with logical physical and mental improvement in her third career start. Additionally, trainer Simon Callaghan has been in this situation before, having saddled Moonshine Memories to win the 2017 Debutante.
Mother Mother won her debut with authority by 6 1/2 lengths on July 22, earning a field-high 102 figure which she can improve upon off the experience of a race. Trainer Bob Baffert has won this race seven times, most recently in 2012 with Executiveprivilege. Mother Mother’s sire is Pioneer of the Nile, sire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, who won the 2014 Del Mar Futurity, as well as sire of top 2-year-old of 2016 Classic Empire. Although jockey Van Dyke moves to Brill, Mother Mother gets an adequate replacement in Joe Talamo, who has won with three of just nine starters he’s ridden for Baffert at the current meeting.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.