Friday, August 18, 2017

Handicapper's Corner: Alabama Stakes (G1)

Elated About the Alabama Stakes

By: Nick Costa, Trackside with Trackman


Another summer weekend is upon us, which can only mean one thing, top stakes action from Saratoga Race Course. In fact, make that two weekends. With the meet in full swing at the upstate New York track, the 'SPA' as Saratoga is affectionately known as, will hold the two biggest Grade 1 races in the country for three-year-old thoroughbreds.

Next Saturday, August 26th, the $1.2 million Travers Stakes, aka the 'Mid-Summer Derby' will see colts race 10-furlongs. Always a major race on the 3-year old summer calendar, the 2017 edition of the Travers will be of significant importance as the current male sophomore division is up in the air.  Entries won’t be taken until next week, but there’s a strong chance all three winners of the 2017 Triple Crown will converge here. Toss in a few other horses who have turned up the heat with sparkling performances recently, and next week's winner will no doubt make a persuasive argument for the top spot in the division. Stay tuned.

But our focus this weekend is on the fillies competing in the $600,000 Alabama Stakes, also run at 10-furlongs. The good news is, this division, unlike its male counterpart has a clear leader, and her name is Abel Tasman. The Bob Baffert-trained runner is entrenched in the number-one spot by virtue of her three consecutive Grade 1 wins, including the Kentucky Oaks in May.

Now for the bad news. Abel Tasman has not been entered in the Alabama. Her connections have decided to keep the outstanding star runner at her home base in California and point for another race. 

The daughter of Quality Road was in position to sweep the 'Triple Tiara', which is a set of three races in New York open to three-year-old fillies. The other two races in the series are the Acorn Stakes run in June at Belmont Park at a distance of 1-mile and the Coaching Club American Oaks, run opening weekend in July at Saratoga at a distance of 1⅛ miles.  In the former, Abel Tasman was a one-length winner and in the latter event, she recorded a head victory after waiting out an inquiry for alleged interference in the stretch run.

Despite the absence of the top 3-year old filly in the land, the Alabama Stakes is not short on talent. Elate and Salty, the second and third place finishers respectively behind Abel Tasman here last month in the aforementioned, are certain to get much focus and attention.

Eclipse award winning trainer, Chad Brown, who topped all Saratoga trainers with a record 40 wins last year, and is the co-leader at the current meet, has entered New Money Honey, the winner of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner. The turf sensation is the lone entrant in the race with a G1 victory, in fact, she has two on her resume.

In addition, Juddmonte Farm's Lockdown, a winner in her sophomore debut back in April in the Busanda Stakes at Aqueduct, and third in the Kentucky Oaks two starts later, comes up to the race off a string of bullet works following her runner-up placing the G2 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont. The multiple stakes-placed runner has displayed flashes of talent and is trained by Bill Mott, who also conditions Elate, giving the Hall-of-Famer a double threat in the Alabama. 

Also in to challenge is Holy Helena. The 3-year old Ghostzapper filly registered back-to-back stakes wins over the Woodbine polytrack, including a decisive win by 3 1/2-lengths against males in the mile-and-a-quarter Queen's Plate, the first leg of Canada's Triple Crown.

The Alabama, run for the first time in 1872, is the longest running stakes race for 3-year-old fillies in the United States. The race has been run at its current distance of 1 ¼ miles since 1917. Go for Wand holds the stakes record time of 2:00 set in the 1990 Alabama.

Post time is set for 5:40pm. From the rail out, here is a capsule look at the 9 horse lineup.

PP - Horse - Jockey/Trainer
1 - New Money Honey – Javier Castellano/Chad Brown--Winner of last year’s Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf scored a narrow victory last out in the Belmont Oaks at 10-furlongs, and has now won four of her six career races. This will be the first dirt start for this multiple G1 winning filly who has been training splendidly on the main track.

2 - Holy Helena – John Velazquez/James Jerkens--Canadian invader makes her Spa debut. Has success at the distance, albeit on synthetic, but also has a win on dirt. She continues to improve leaps and bounds and gets a firm class test here.

3 - It Tiz Well – Drayden Van Dyke/Jerry Hollendorfer--California-based filly shipped east last month for the Delaware Oaks, where she was made the 4-5 betting favorite, and didn't disappoint her backers as she came away with a half-length win. That marked her second G3 victory having also been successful in the Honeybee in March.

4 - Lockdown – Manuel Franco/Bill Mott--Talented Mother Goose Stakes runner-up has factored in every race in her career, having never finished worse than third in six starts. Had a horrendous trip in the Kentucky Oaks, but despite the dreadful journey, she still managed to rally to finish third. Churchill visit was the only time she competed outside of New York. Still seeking her first graded win.

5 - Unchained Melody - Joel Rosario/Brian Lynch--Has won 3 of her 4 races since debuting in March. She quickly and easily disposed of allowance foes two starts back, before making a substantial, yet successful rise in class last out to win the G2 Mother Goose Stakes in front-end fashion despite drifting out very wide in the lane, before angling back in. Gets her first two-turn test.

6 - Salty – Tyler Gaffalione/Mark Casse--She’s finished behind Abel Tasman in three consecutive races, so connections of this filly are either thrilled that her nemesis was not entered, or they’re disappointed because they were hoping their runner could get revenge on that foe.  Last time out in the C.C.A.O, she was tardy out of the gate, traveled wide around the far turn and finished third. Kentucky Oaks effort in May was the only race this gal didn’t finish in the top three.

7 - Elate – Jose Ortiz/Bill Mott--Charged up the rail in the Coaching Club American Oaks to challenge Abel Tasman, but was held in tight by that rival all the way through their spirited stretch battle to the wire, and suffered an agonizing defeat by a head. Only out-of-the-money finish came when she was pulled up in the G1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland in the spring.

8- Mopotism – Florent Geroux/Doug O'Neill--Most experienced horse in the race with ten starts. Hasn’t found the winner circle often, but has made a habit of being in the superfecta. She’s only missed a top four placing in her debut, and then in the Kentucky Oaks where she endured a wide trip on a rail favoring muddy track.

9 - Actress – Irad Ortiz Jr/Jason Servis--Unraced as a juvenile, this gal broke her maiden when coming from far back to take the G2 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes on the Preakness undercard in her third start. She's had only four races, but has finished in-the-money every time.

Analysis: The 1 ¼-mile distance is the great unknown. It’s uncharted waters, making this event a wide-open affair.  None of these horses, except for New Money Honey and Holy Helena, have raced this far. It’s encouraging that both runners each had success racing 10-furlongs, albeit over turf and synthetic respectively, but form from those surfaces cannot be counted on to transfer with any certainty or reliability to the dirt track. 

Speed has done extremely well in routes on the Saratoga main track., winning nearly 80% of the time. Playing the percentages and assuming the surface will be favorable to speed again on Saturday, I’ll stay away from those horses that are void of any early speed and side with a horse that possesses some early foot and is able to stay within striking distance by the second call. 

Play: In a competitive race that is certainly up for grabs, I’ve decided to back Elate here for the win. The daughter of Medaglia D’Oro showed signs of her talent when she was a debut winner by 12-lengths last fall. Although, for the most part, she has disappointed in subsequent starts.

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