Using the horse for course angle at Saratoga

Goodnight Olive wins the 2022 Ballerina at Saratoga (NYRA Photo)

By Jarrod Horak

Saratoga, known as the The Graveyard of Champions, is one of those tracks that horses seem to love or hate. Favorites tend to get overbet in stakes races, and the horse for course angle can be a strong handicapping tool. 

The great Man o’ War lost just once in 21 races and that lone setback was at Saratoga Race Course in 1919. Upset pulled off the upset that day.   

Triple Crown hero Gallant Fox was expected to win the 1930 Travers Stakes but Jim Dandy had other ideas and pulled off a massive 100-1 surprise in the mud. The Jim Dandy Stakes for 3-year-olds has been run continuously at Saratoga since 1964. 

1973 Triple Crown hero Secretariat showed up at Saratoga later that summer in the Whitney but Onion had his number that day. 

American Pharoah, the winner of the 2015 Triple Crown, was the overwhelming favorite in the Travers Stakes but 16-1 outsider Keen Ice got past him in late stretch to prevail by a bit less than a length. 

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On the other end of the spectrum, Native Dancer was a Saratoga legend in the 1950’s. He won the Flash Stakes, Saratoga Special, Grand Union Hotel, and Hopeful during the month of August in 1952. In 1953, he won the Travers at the Spa. 

I could not talk about Saratoga legends without mentioning Fourstardave, the “Sultan of Saratoga.” He won at least one race at the Spa from 1987-1994 including the Grade 3 Daryl’s Joy Stakes in 1991. That race would later become the Fourstardave Handicap and it was upgraded to Grade 1 status in 2016. 

More recently, Lady Eli left her mark on the turf course. She captured her career debut at Saratoga in 2014 and was second in the 2016 Ballston Spa. She had a big summer at the Spa in 2017 with back-to-back stakes wins in the Grade 1 Diana and Ballston Spa. 

Surprising results are the norm at Saratoga with large, competitive fields, but big efforts from horses for the course should also be expected. Below, I will go through five horses with proven form at the Spa, and each of those runners are targeting local races this summer. 

5 Horses to Watch at Saratoga in 2023

Echo Zulu: Steve Asmussen’s filly won her first two career starts at Saratoga in 2021 including the Grade 1 Spinaway. She was named 2-year-old champion after wrapping up her juvenile season with a smart victory in the Breeders’s Cup Juvenile Fillies. Her abbreviated sophomore campaign included a pair of graded wins but more was expected. She returned with a promising score earlier this spring in the Grade 3 Winning Colors at Churchill Downs. She is currently training at Saratoga and is targeting the Grade 2 Honorable Miss at the Spa on July 26. 

Goodnight Olive: Chad Brown’s talented mare raced twice at Saratoga last summer and won both of those starts including the Grade 1 Ballerina. In 2023, she finished a troubled third in the Derby City Distaff (G1) and captured the Bed o’ Roses (G2) on June 17. She is expected to attempt a repeat in the Ballerina on Aug. 26, and her final target this year is the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita in November. 

Love Reigns: Wesley Ward’s turf sprinter stalked from second and kicked away in the Bolton Landing Stakes at Saratoga last summer. She was up the track in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint last fall and returned with a nice late running score in the Limestone at Keeneland on April 14. She is entered in the Coronation Cup (race 9) at Saratoga on July 14, and the Galway at the Spa on Aug. 12 would be a logical spot if she runs well on Friday.  

Nest: She was a perfect 2-for-2 at Saratoga last summer and won big both times. She scored by 12 1/4 lengths in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks and won the Grade 1 Alabama by an easy 4 1/4 lengths. She has been in steady training at Belmont Park since May 13 and is scheduled to make her much anticipated 4-year-old bow in the Shuvee at Saratoga on July 23.  

Technical Analysis: Chad Brown’s consistent turf router won the Lake George (G3) and Lake Placid (G2) at Saratoga in 2021. Last year, she was second in the Diana (G1) and first in the Ballston Spa (G2). She was away from the races for more than eight months and returned with a clear runner-up finish in the Perfect Sting at Belmont on July 2. The Ballston Spa will be run this year on Aug. 24 and she will probably attempt a repeat in that race. 

Are you interested in more Saratoga content? Check out the links below:

Saratoga track profile and post position stats

Saratoga 2023: Owners to Watch

Saratoga 2023: Trainers to watch

Saratoga 2023: Jockeys to watch