By Jarrod Horak
What a stellar week of stakes races at Saratoga. I don’t even know where to begin. Echo Zulu, Next, and New York Thunder were tremendous during the week, and Elite Power and Forte showed us why they are champions in a pair of determined victories over the weekend. It is almost impossible to single out a star of the week, but I would have to give the very slight nod to Echo Zulu. The champion 2-year-old filly of 2021 took her game to a whole new level in the Honorable Miss.
Grade 2 Honorable Miss Handicap – July 26 – 6 furlongs
Only a field of four but we were treated to a sensational performance. Echo Zulu was the overwhelming favorite and this one was never really in doubt. She made the lead from the inside post and Frank’s Rockette tried to apply some pressure. The opening quarter was 22.02 and the half was 44.45, and the lead was a half-length. Echo Zulu ($2.80) turned on the jets after that and broke this one wide open. She spurted clear by 5 lengths in the stretch and was geared down at the end in a facile 7 1/2 length victory under Florent Geroux. Dr. B was clearly second best and Frank’s Rockette weakened to third. Maryquitecontrary trailed throughout. The final time was 1:08.76. Echo Zulu’s trainer Steve Asmussen mentioned taking on the boys in the BC Sprint as a possible target this fall and I cannot blame him. She was outstanding in this race.
Birdstone – July 27 – 1 3/4 miles dirt
Sea Foam carved out moderate fractions for a mile and a quarter from the inside post (50.18, 1;14.75, 1:40.54, 2:06.28). Next ($3.20) was the strong post time favorite and he comfortably chased from second, took over with four furlongs to go, and was all by himself at the end in a strong victory by 11 3/4 lengths. Time for Trouble rallied from last to finish a clear second and Dash Attack stalked the pace and was best of the rest in third. The Skipper Two, a fading Sea Foam, Lone Rock, and Treasure Trove also ran. Luan Machado guided home the winner for William Cowans, and the final time was 2:57.59. Next is by far the best long distance dirt performer in this country. The Grade 2 Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance Stakes at Santa Anita Park is probably a goal for this talented marathoner. That 1 5/8 miles event on dirt is scheduled to be run on the Breeders’ Cup Saturday undercard.
Grade 2 Amsterdam – July 28 – 6 1/2 furlongs
On paper, it looked like there would be a speed duel between fleet sophomore sprinters Ryvit and New York Thunder, but they do not run races on paper. Ryvit stumbled at the start and that allowed New York Thunder to clear off early through fractions of 21.48 and 43.56. He was flying up front and race favorite Drew’s Gold tried to keep pace. The latter had a smooth beginning from the inside post under Jose Ortiz. He eased out and moved up to apply pressure. That is not the trip they anticipated. Instead of tracking two front runners, he had to do all of the pace dirty work, and New York Thunder ($13) had no intention of stopping. He went six panels in an eye-popping 1:07.77, and shrugged off Drew’s Gold and burst away to win by an impressive 7 1/2 lengths. Deer District was closing in on Drew’s Gold for the runner-up spot and he just did land the place by a nose. Drew’s Gold was miles clear of Gilmore, and Ryvit lost all chance at the start and ran last in a throwout race. The winner stopped the clock in 1:14.65 and this was his first start on conventional dirt. He is now 4-for-4 and this effort clearly makes him the horse to beat in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens at seven panels at Saratoga on Aug. 26.
Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap – July 29 – 6 furlongs dirt
The main track started out fast but afternoon showers made the footing sloppy (sealed) by the time this race came up. Dean Delivers broke fast and went straight to the front through a quarter in 22.64. Gunite was chasing from second and he took the lead after a half in 45.49. Post time favorite Elite Power started to move up and you just knew this one would be close at the end. Gunite opened up by a length and a half in the stretch but Elite Power ($4.20) angled out in the lane and was making up ground in a hurry, and he got up in the late stages to score by a head. Gunite ran a winning race and it took a big effort from the reigning sprint champ to deny him the win. It was more than 6 lengths back to Dean Delivers in the show spot and Gun It, Synthesis, Awesome Aaron, and Little Vic also ran. The final time was 1:09.22. Junior Alvarado rode the winner for Bill Mott, and this was his eighth consecutive victory.
Grade 2 Jim Dandy – July 29 – 1 1/8 miles dirt
So much was going on in this 5-horse prep for the Travers. The track was sloppy (sealed) and Saudi Crown made the front as everyone expected. Angel of Empire was closer than anticipated from the outside post and he had Forte hemmed in along the fence. The latter was wearing blinkers for the first time and was always within a length or so of the early leader. Hit Show had an uncomfortable start and that cost him valuable early position. Disarm trailed for much of the running. Saudi Crown’s splits were 23.93, 48.10, 1:12.30, and 1:37.09. He was a length and a half in front early and remained a length to the good until the stretch. This is where things got complicated. Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard Forte appeared to be full of run and he was just waiting for a seam. He was still hemmed in at this stage. Ortiz Jr. was deciding what to do. He thought about going inside if Saudi Crown came off the rail but that did not happen right away, so he decided to bully his way through a tight spot while splitting horses. Shortly after he committed to that move, Saudi Crown started to drift out, and Forte continued to be stuck in a squeeze play, and Ortiz Jr. tried to hold his ground. Saudi Crown was still drifting out and Angel of Empire was still there on the outside. Forte ($3.50) found just enough space in the late going to make a serious run at Saudi Crown and he prevailed by a nose, and the latter ended up a half-length in front of Angel of Empire. Disarm swung outside in the stretch and tried to make a belated bid, but the pace was soft and the top three were not coming back to the field. He ended up a bit more than two lengths behind the top finishers, and Hit Show lost contact with the others and trailed. There was an inquiry into the stretch run but the stewards rightfully made no change. Forte was definitely best and he would have won by more with a smoother journey. Saudi Crown had everything his own way and had every chance to pull clear but was unable to. He got a bit weary in the stretch in his first try around two turns. Solid effort but I am still not sure how far he really wants to go, especially if he does not get an easy trip up front. Angel of Empire was taken out of his game. He likes to sit back behind honest fractions. That did not happen in this spot. He prompted the pace from the outside post and failed to quicken in the lane. He will likely return for the Travers. Disarm got the wrong setup and still had some energy at the end. Hit Show got taken out of his tactical game and this race is a toss for him, but he has not won since February and probably needs an easier spot or some time off. The final time was 1:49.61 and Forte has to be considered a solid Travers contender following this useful prep. I would consider Disarm for the exotics if he opts for the Travers. Added ground and pace help might help his cause.
Grade 2 Bowling Green – July 30 – 1 3/8 miles inner turf
Everything about this race was odd, and you can just draw a line through this race for multiple runners. The turf was listed as good and there were two scratches (Rockemperor, Strong Quality). Soldier Rising (GB) was mistakenly listed as a scratch and ended up running for purse money only. Strong favorite Rebel’s Romance (IRE) clipped heels with Tawny Port and lost his rider Richard Mullen, and Highest Honors, Soldier Rising, and The Grey Wizard (IRE) got caught up behind that incident. Wily veteran Channel Maker ($32.40) had no idea all of that was going on behind him. He was out there controlling the pace through splits of 25.40, 50.85, 1:16.15, 1:39.53, and 2:03.36. He was able to last all the way around and ended up scoring by two lengths under Manny Franco. Verstappen saved ground stalking the pace and just did grab second by a head over Never Explain. Daunt won a battle for fourth over Tawny Port and Highest Honors. Soldier Rising and The Grey Wizard were next, and Rebel’s Romance walked off after the outrider caught him. The final time was 2:15.21. I would be willing to play against just about every entrant from this race if they show up in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer later in the meet, with the possible exception of Rebel’s Romance.
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