Saratoga Starting Gate

Saratoga Starting Gate (Horsephotos.com)

Get ready! The much-anticipated Saratoga meet opens on Friday, and with the opening of Saratoga comes another fantastic summer of top-notch two-year-old racing.

Will we see the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner in action? Or the 2019 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner? Only time will tell, but there’s no doubt we’ll see plenty of promising young horses race at Saratoga this summer, so let’s kick things off by looking at some of the top juvenile races being held at Saratoga on Friday and Saturday.

The feature race for juveniles on Friday is the $150,000 Schuylerville Stakes (gr. III), a six-furlong sprint for fillies that serves as a very early prep race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). None of the ten entrants have won more than a maiden race—indeed, the majority will be facing winners for the first time—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few promising runners in the field.

In terms of speed figures, the horse to beat is clearly #1 Catherinethegreat, a Mark Casse-trained filly who fired off a 92 BRIS speed figure while breaking her maiden at Gulfstream last month by 10 ¼ lengths. But that was over a sloppy, sealed track, and there’s no guarantee that she can replicate that big figure on a dry track against tougher competition.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has won the Schuylerville six times and will be represented this year by #2 Nonna Madeline, a 3 ¼-length debut winner (84 BRIS) at Monmouth Park four weeks ago. Most of the remaining starters have posted similar BRIS speed figures in the 80-82 range, including #4 Fightress, who overcame a slow start to push a fast pace in her debut at Churchill Downs before drawing off to win by 4 3/4 lengths in an impressive debut.

But could the slowest horse in the field actually have a shot at victory? #3 Congrats Gal earned only a 76 BRIS speed figure when winning her debut at Laurel Park on June 10th, but I liked the way this daughter of Congrats performed. Congrats Gal flashed excellent speed out of the gate and rocketed to a clear lead while running the opening quarter in :22.58 seconds, then never gave her rivals a chance to get close, running the second quarter in :23.51 and the final furlong in :12.68 to draw off and win by 6 ¼ lengths.

Congrats Gal was a little bit green early in the homestretch and might benefit from having a race under her belt, which could be a scary proposition for her Schuylerville rivals since she doesn’t need to improve much to be competitive here. As a Laurel Park shipper with a modest speed figure, you’ll get a good price (she’s 12-1 on the morning line), and I’ll be tempted to feature her prominently in my plays.

Earlier on the card in race five, fillies with little to no racing experience will sprint 5 ½ furlongs in a maiden special weight. Many of the entrants are first-time starters, including the Pletcher-trained #2 Blahnik, a stoutly-bred daughter of Bernardini out of a Medaglia d’Oro mare. But my main interest would be in her stablemate, the also-eligible #1A Always Shopping owned by Repole Stable. Always Shopping’s dam is Stopshoppingmaria, who broke her maiden at Saratoga in 2011 before going on to place at the Grade 1 level, and Always Shopping strikes me as the type of filly who could be ready to win early in the meet.

Turning to Saturday, the featured juvenile race of the day is the $150,000 Sanford Stakes (gr. III), the open equivalent of the Schuylerville. We’ve already previewed that race separately, so we won’t rehash it here. Instead, we’ll turn our attention to the sixth race of the day, a 5 ½-furlong open maiden race that has drawn an excellent field.

Certainly the horse I’m most interested to see here is #2 Nitrous, a son of Tapit out of the stakes-winning sprinter Speedinthruthecity. A Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred trained by Steve Asmussen, Nitrous was heavily favored to win his debut at Churchill Downs last month, and although he was beaten a neck while finishing second, he was also extremely green in the run down the homestretch and might have won clearly if not for his antics. Even still, Nitrous earned a strong 87 BRIS speed figure in defeat, and if he runs more professionally on Saturday, I expect him to win.

The also-eligible #11 Coast would require a scratch in order to start, but this unraced Todd Pletcher runner boasts an impressive pedigree, being by Malibu Moon out of the 2012 Fantasy Stakes (gr. II) winner Mamma Kimbo, making Coast a half-brother to the stakes-winning sprinter Balandeen.

Also worth keeping an eye on is #8 Southern Phantom, who drew attention when he was born in 2016 thanks to his strikingly white head and blue eyes. Named via a contest at Bloodhorse.com, Southern Phantom already has a significant following and races for the partnership of Southern Equine Stable (his breeder) and Calumet Farm.

Lastly, if you’re looking for a change of pace, the second race of the day is an 8.5-furlong maiden race on the inner turf course, an ideal spot for horses with grass or two-turn pedigrees. In all likelihood the favorite will be Chad Brown’s unraced #8 Digital Footprint, who has been training steadily at Saratoga since May, but I’m just as interested in #4 Southern Bridge. Trained by Bill Mott, who has been very successful with first-time starters in two-turn turf maiden races at Saratoga, Southern Bridge doesn’t have the most eye-catching work tab, but is well-bred for the distance and could outrun his odds with top jockey Jose Ortiz in the saddle.

Have fun, and enjoy the races!