By Jarrod Horak
We are rapidly wrapping up the month of July and the weekday stakes action at Saratoga kicks off with Echo Zulu in the Grade 2 Honorable Miss. She is 2-for-2 at the Spa and looks tough to deny on Wednesday. Next is the one to catch in the Birdstone, and Drew’s Gold tries to get back on the winning track in the Grade 2 Amsterdam.
Grade 2 Honorable Miss Handicap – July 26 – Race 4 – 6 furlongs dirt
This race surprisingly only drew four horses and morning line favorite Echo Zulu is back at the Spa for the first time since 2021. She began her career with a sharp maiden win at Saratoga and cruised in the Grade 1 Spinaway second time out. In her next two juvenile starts, she romped in the Frizette (G1) and BC Juvenile Fillies (G1), and she was the champion 2-year-old filly that year. Her sophomore campaign began with a nose victory as the overwhelming favorite in the FG Oaks (G2), and she pressed the pace and finished fourth in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks. She returned four months later and cruised in the Dogwood (G3) at seven furlongs, and ended 2022 with a solid runner-up finish in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint. Her first start this year was strong. She was the heavy favorite in the Winning Colors (G3) on May 29, and she dueled on the lead and kicked away to score by 5 3/4 lengths at six panels. She figures to be aggressively handled from the inside post under Florent Geroux, and she will probably wire the field at short odds.
Frank’s Rockette is a 12-for-27 pro for Bill Mott. The versatile mare usually finishes in the top three and fired exacta shots in all four local starts. She is a 10-time stakes winner and should be in a position to pounce if the favorite stubs her toe.
Maryquitecontrary is 6-for-8 with a pair of runner-up finishes. She moved to the Shug McGaughey barn and was clearly second best in the Grade 1 Madison on April 8. The extended sprint specialist probably won’t get enough pace help to set up her late charge.
Dr B is the longest shot at 6-1. She captured three races last year including the Grade 3 Go for Wand in the slop. She started her current campaign with a troubled runner-up finish as the beaten favorite in the Vagrancy (G3), and exits a well-beaten fourth in the Bed o’ Roses (G2). She figures to chase the pace from the outside post under her winning rider Irad Ortiz Jr.
Echo Zulu looks tough to beat in this spot. It is not a great betting race and the favorite looks formidable.
Birdstone – July 27 – Race 8 – 1 3/4 miles dirt
This endurance test looks like a very good spot for Next. The 5-year-old gelding really elevated his game when he started running in dirt marathons. He used to be a turf runner and he was 3-for-7 on that surface. The 2022 Cape Henlopen Stakes at a mile and a half was supposed to be run on turf but it was moved to a wet fast track at Delaware Park, and this one pressed from second, took over, and won by an impressive 18 lengths. He lost lasix in his next fast track start in the Turnback the Alarm (G2) at Keeneland last fall, and he set the pace and rolled home by 6 1/2 lengths in that 1 5/8 miles contest. He was out of action for half a year and resurfaced in the Isaac Murphy at 1 1/2 miles on May 3, and he made the lead and ended up a clear third in a race he likely needed. Last time, he was pressured on the lead and got back on the winning track in the Grade 2 Brooklyn at a mile and a half on June 10. He is the fastest horse in the race on his best day and might make short work of this group.
Lone Rock was very good in 2021 and 2022. He won the Isaac Murphy, Brooklyn (G2), Birdstone, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (G2), and Tinsel Stakes in 2021. He captured the Temperence Hill and Isaac Murphy in 2022, and completed the trifecta in the Brooklyn (G2) and Birdstone. He was second in the 2023 Temperence Hill on April 2 and was up the track in the Isaac Murphy last time. The 8-year-old gelding needs to rediscover his top form and should stalk the pace under his new rider Luis Saez.
The Skipper Too earned decent speed ratings in his last two Gulfstream Park wins at a mile and 1 1/6 miles. The added ground of this race might be out of reach.
The field is completed by Treasure Trove, Dash Attack, and Time for Trouble. The latter returns to dirt, has a bit of stamina, and might surprise.
I do not want to go against Next in this spot. He is the “now” horse in this division. Lone Rock might be worth playing against. He has the class to win this but seems to have lost a step. Maybe Time for Trouble can complete the exacta behind Next.
Grade 2 Amsterdam – July 28 – Race 10 – 6 1/2 furlongs
This sophomore sprint stakes is a prep for the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial at seven panels on Aug. 26. Six runners passed the entry box and the two outside horses probably have the most early speed.
Drew’s Gold will break from the rail and he looks tough to beat on paper. He is 4-for-5 overall and his lone loss was a runner-up finish behind talented Bob Baffert trainee Arabian Lion in the Grade 1 Woody Stephens. He stalked and scored in his first two starts, and dueled and kicked away in his next two stakes scores. In the aforementioned Woody Stephens, he lunged at the start from the outside post, chased wide from second, took the lead in the stretch, and held off Gilmore for the place spot in a solid effort. Jose Ortiz is his new rider and he is recovering from bruised ribs after a spill in the opening race at Saratoga on July 21. He has not ridden since and is targeting a return to riding on July 26. The strategy might be to let the outside pair go early while stalking the pace from the rail.
Ryvit is one of the aforementioned speed horses. Steve Asmussen’s colt won his last five starts and was all over the pace in four of those races. He won stakes races in his last three outings but must avoid a speed duel.
New York Thunder romped in his all-weather debut last fall at Gulfstream Park, and dueled and scored in a turf sprint second time out. In his lone 2023 outing, he got loose early and won the Woodstock Stakes on the all-weather surface at Woodbine on April 30. This is his first start on conventional dirt and he meets some salty sprinters.
Gilmore is the most likely upsetter. He was previously in the Bob Baffert barn and he was second in the El Camino Real Derby on Feb. 11. He moved to the Brendan Walsh shedrow and split a 12-horse field in the Battaglia Memorial on March 4. That was the end of the all-weather route game for him. He turned back and returned to dirt in the Bay Shore (G3) on April 8, and he finished nicely for the place. He rallied wide from post 10 and picked up the show in the Pat Day Mile (G2) on the Kentucky Derby undercard, and stalked from an outer post and finished less than a length behind Drew’s Gold in a show finish in the Woody Stephens last time. He figures to stalk the pace under Irad Ortiz Jr. and might gets there if the pace heats up. He is just 1-for-7 on the win end and that makes him eligible for an entry level allowance event.
Joey Freshwater adds blinkers for Linda Rice. He defeated Gilmore in the Bay Shore earlier this year, but Drew’s Gold handled him rather easily in a pair of stakes races. He was a decent $50k claim late last year but seems up against it in this spot.
Deer District is the final entrant for Dale Romans, and he fired trifecta shots in his last seven starts. He is definitely on the upswing after a blowout victory in the optional claiming ranks at Churchill Downs on May 28. He will try to get involved from off the pace.
Playing an exacta with Drew’s Gold over Gilmore might be the way to go in this event.
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