By Ed McNamara
Saratoga is all about having fun unless you’re there to work. For trainers, jockeys and backstretch people, the year’s best meeting isn’t an endless party, it’s 6 1/2 weeks of focus and commitment. When it ended Labor Day, they needed a break after 40 high-pressure afternoons, and the New York Racing Association cooperated by scheduling nine consecutive dark days. Handicappers also needed that time to exhale and recharge.
What once was known as the Fall Championship Meeting began Thursday at Belmont Park and will continue through Oct. 31, five days before Del Mar hosts the 38th Breeders’ Cup. Before the Cup debuted in 1984, most Eclipse Awards were won at Belmont in September and October in tradition-rich stakes such as the Turf Classic, Champagne, Frizette, Vosburgh and Futurity. Those races still matter, but they’ve been reduced to lucrative preps for championship weekend, and all except the Turf Classic are “Win and You’re In” events for the Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, Sprint and Juvenile Turf Sprint, respectively.
Under the inspired leadership of Martin Panza, outgoing senior vice president of racing operations, NYRA created the Turf Triple Series. Belmont’s first Saturday program will feature its third and final legs, the Jockey Club Derby Invitational at 1 1/2 miles, a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and the 1 3/8-mile Jockey Club Oaks Invitational for the fillies. There’s also the 1 5/8-mile Grand Prix American Jockey Club Invitational on the dirt, a tune-up for the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance at the same distance on Del Mar’s Nov. 6 undercard.
Most of us didn’t turn a profit at Saratoga, so let’s try to hit these three races and start rebuilding the bankroll.
Marathon monster Lone Rock (4) will be odds-on and an almost universal single in multiple-race bets. His sire is Majestic Warrior, which is what he’s been in a four-race winning streak with a margin of 25 1/2 lengths. He cruised last time by four at 1 3/4 miles after sweeping three 12-furlong races, and he’s a neck away from winning eight in a row. Moretti (5) has lost to him by five and 12 lengths but still is the second-best horse in here.
Yes, France-based Harajuku (7) has lost four in a row, but whenever all-time great trainer Andre Fabre sends a horse across the Atlantic with a top rider (Stephane Pasquier), I pay close attention. She’s bred to handle any distance and won a Group 3 at 1 5/16 miles, and in her last three races, all stakes, she fell short by a total of only four lengths. With two Chad Brown runners in the field, Harajuku will be a decent price.
I think Creative Flair (1) is her best rival. Trainer Charlie Appleby has had a career year for Godolphin, and the race shape in the Grade 3 Saratoga Oaks was against Creative Flair, who went a sharp 16 3/5 seconds in the final three-sixteenths to be third. Closing into a slow pace isn’t her preferred style because she used front-running tactics to win three times at shorter distances in England. Higher Truth (2), second by 1 1/4 lengths to Creative Flair last out, is the better Brown entry.
I’m intrigued by the solid stayer Yibir (1), another Appleby production for Godolphin. He just won the 1 1/2-mile, Grade 2 Voltigeur Stakes at York, and he also took a Grade 3 at 1 5/8 miles. But Yibir’s best advertisement is his close third in a Grade 3 in late April, when he battled Alenquer, a two-time stakes winner, and stablemate Adayar, subsequent winner of the Epsom Derby and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, England’s two most important races. Yibir has tactical speed, which should help Englishman Jamie Spencer work out a decent trip.
He’ll have to beat Irish wizard Aidan O’Brien’s Bolshoi Ballet (8), a gifted in-and-outer. He faded to fourth at even-money in the Saratoga Derby after blasting home to take the Grade 1 Belmont Derby. Maybe he disliked Saratoga’s tight turns and will bounce back on a spacious course he handled well in June. A win would be no surprise, but his odds won’t be tempting.
Soldier Rising (4) was a fast-closing second in the Saratoga Derby and has a win and a second at 1 1/2 miles against lesser company in France. Stamina is no problem for this lightly raced son of superstar Frankel, and he belongs in exotic bets.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.