Both Saratoga and Del Mar had positive opening weeks with high quality races, interesting debuts by promising 2-year-olds and strong early performances by a handful of familiar trainers and jockeys.
On Saturday at Saratoga for instance, the Todd Pletcher trained Sombeyay narrowly defeated the highly regarded Strike Silver in a slowly run version of the 6 furlong Sanford Stakes – a $150K, Grade-3 event for 2-year-olds that has been run at Saratoga for more than a century. Despite the rather ordinary 70 Beyer Speed Figure, this was only the first of many stakes for 2-year-olds to be run at Saratoga this summer. Slow time or no, the Sanford has a special place in racing history, having been won by several Hall of Famers, most notably Tom Fool in 1951 and the great Secretariat in 1972.
On the same Saturday Saratoga card, this historic upstate New York track also offered the $500K Diana stakes at 1-1/8 miles on the turf for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up. In keeping with several close finishes that occurred during Saratoga’s opening week, a photograph was needed to determine the winner was the Chad Brown trained Sistercharlie over the Graham Motion trained Ultra Brat. Both fillies earned solid 102 Beyer Figures for their gritty performances.
John Velazquez rode the 4-year-old winner and Joel Rosario rode the 5-year-old Ultra Brat. Of equal import, this was another race with a long history, having first been run in 1939. It also has been won twice by seven different fillies or mares, including Hall of Famer Shuvee.
At Del Mar, similar highlights helped kick off the 2018 season, as two popular Southern California based trainers – Doug O’Neill and Keith Desormeaux, continued their recent hot streaks with each scoring twice on the Friday, July 20 card. Likewise on Saturday, the highly popular trainer John Sadler took the $200K, Grade-2 San Diego Handicap with lightly raced Catalina Cruiser, who earned a strong 107 Beyer while red hot trainer Peter Miller scored a promising victory with War Heroine in the $200K, Grade-2 San Clemente stakes.
That stakes – for 3-year-old fillies – was run at one mile on a fast and firm Del Mar turf course. Please take note that War Heroine was not only dropping out of a winning stakes at Santa Anita in which she defeated older fillies and mares but she perfectly fit the prescription for possible early season Del Mar success that I spelled out in last week’s column.
In that piece, I said horseplayers should give preference to horses who previously had won a Del Mar race in 2017 over horses in good current form. War Heroine actually came into Saturday’s San Clemente in very good form. She also won her career debut at Del Mar last Nov. 12. Frankly, I was shocked to see her go to the post at 8-1!
Moving on at both Saratoga and Del Mar, we should expect to see some more winners from the trainers named above who started each meet so well. Meanwhile, we also should give a natural advantage to horses of all ages and sexes who have good overall speed and solid local workouts.
Horses with those specific credentials are likely to be among the easiest-to-spot potential winners at most distances on each track’s respective main racing surfaces. Likewise, we should expect Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert will unleash several of his best bred, fast working juveniles during the next two weeks.
Baffert annually looks to Del Mar to get his stable of young, talented horses started on their relative paths to stakes competition and he already took his first positive step at the new meet when he unveiled Mother Mother, a flashy 2-year-old maiden race winner on the Sunday card by 6-1/2 lengths with Drayden Van Dyke aboard at 3-5 odds. Before that victory, the most impressive winner of a maiden race for 2-year-olds at either track was scored by Brill, who earned a respectable 88 in a Del Mar maiden sprint.
Aside from the natural accent on promising 2-year-olds that will be in play at Saratoga and Del Mar, there is one extremely popular Baffert trained horse we are not likely to see in competition during the 2018 Del Mar season. That horse is the undefeated Triple Crown winner Justify. Providing a realistic update before Del Mar opened, Baffert explained, “Justify is still recovering from an ankle injury,” and will be watched closely during August.
“We think he’s making nice progress,” Baffert added. “And, I expect to put him through a series of workouts later in the meet, hoping to get him ready for the rich Breeders’ Cup Classic in early November. If he does not look 100% ready for that big race, we will have some tough decisions to make. Everybody has to realize that very few horses have accomplished what he did and he’s worth a sizeable fortune as a stud prospect.”