Pletcher Has The Morning-Line Favorites in Three Grade I Events Saturday

Pletcher Has The Morning-Line Favorites in Three Grade I Events Saturday

08/26/2011

 SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Two days before he is to send out, in rapid-fire succession, three morning-line favorites in three straight Grade 1’s – Hilda’s Passion in the Ballerina, Uncle Mo in the Foxwoods King’s Bishop and Stay Thirsty in the $1 million Travers – trainer Todd Pletcher stood outside his office at Saratoga Race Course and reflected on the upcoming day.

“It will,” he said, “be one of the more interesting days.”

Interesting, definitely, but not the most labor-intensive afternoon of Pletcher’s career. In 2006, for instance, he saddled 17 horses in the Breeders’ Cup, and in 2007 he sent out five starters in the Kentucky Derby. Travers Day, however, will be one of the more unusual, considering the high-profile status of Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty’s outspoken owner, Mike Repole, and the highly anticipated return to racing of Uncle Mo, who was the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby only to be scratched with what was later diagnosed as a liver disorder.

“It’s pretty rare that you’re going to have two 3-year-olds running in races where potentially the $1 million, Grade 1 focal race of the entire meet in some ways is going to be less popular than the one right before it,” said Pletcher. “Uncle Mo has had a lot of buildup since he came back to us on July 11. When we first started with him, a lot of people didn’t think it was going to happen. But we’ve gotten to this point exactly like we hoped we could have.”

Six timed workouts later (two of them bullets) and Uncle Mo is ready to return to action for the first time since his third-place finish in the Grade 1 Resorts World New York Casino Wood Memorial, which was the first loss of his career. The buildup to his return has been intense, with videographers, photographers and reporters attending each of his workouts.

“We’ve had enough experience on Kentucky Derby days or in the Breeders’ Cup, where it’s not intimidating,” he said. “You have to prepare yourself for all the potential results. Hopefully we’re prepared so that we can enjoy it.”

As for Repole, who scored his first Grade 1 victory last October when Uncle Mo won the Champagne, Pletcher said the experience of having Uncle Mo, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and 2010’s champion Two-Year-Old Male, knocked off the Triple Crown trail was a learning experience for the owner.

“This spring, he’s gotten a good taste of the ups and downs of horse racing,” he said. “It showed him how tough it can be.”

As if to underscore that, Pletcher confirmed that Repole’s star 2-year-old, Grade 2 Sanford winner Overdriven, would not make the Grade 1 Three Chimneys Hopeful on September 5.

 “We’re still waiting on X-ray results to be read by Dr. [Larry] Bramlage, but right now the only thing we know for sure is that he’s not going to run in the Hopeful,” said Pletcher.

The trainer added that Hour Glass, 12-1 on the morning line for the Ballerina, likely will not run against her stablemate in the seven-furlong race.

“If there are some defections, that could change,” he said. “But we’re probably not going to run.”

 

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For trainer Dale Romans, the final pieces of what he hopes will be a spectacular weekend at Saratoga Race Course are just about in place. With all the ancient and storied stakes races that populate the track’s racing calendar, Travers Day is the unquestioned centerpiece of the meet.

Romans, a native of Louisville, Ky. who has spent 19 summers at Saratoga, has his star 3-year-old Shackleford for the Grade 1, $1 million Travers, multiple graded stakes-winning sprinter Sassy Image in the Grade 1, $250,000 Ballerina and 2009 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filly Turf winner Tapitsfly in the Grade 2, $200,000 Ballston Spa.

Asked if he gets extra excited for weekends like this, Romans said, “You do, but it depends on the situation. This is exciting. There hasn’t been a lot of stress involved because there hasn’t been a problem.”

The lone blip in the plans came in the second race Wednesday afternoon, when Shackleford’s jockey, Jesus Castanon, went down in a spill on the grass when his mount, The Point Is, clipped heels with Meghan’s Fury, ridden by Jamie Rodriguez. Neither horse nor the jockeys were hurt injured, and Castanon was back at work Thursday morning, galloping Shackleford a mile and a half.

Castanon gave the thumbs up when asked how he felt, and Romans enjoyed ribbing him.

“He said the track felt soft yesterday,” Romans said. “He can literally tell you how it feels.”

“I’ve still got a little grass on me,” Castanon said.

A couple hours after his gallop, Shackleford had a schooling session in the paddock at 11 a.m., and he will stand in the starting gate tomorrow. Even when his horses act like pros, Romans likes to reinforce good habits to keep them calm and in a routine.

Romans has had major horses in the past, but Shackleford is the one to give him his first American Classic victory.

“He’s up there with the tops, right up there with Kitten’s Joy and Roses in May,” Romans said. “Personally, there are three or four up there at the top at a different level. It’s not just the way they run but the way they train and act. Roses in May won the Dubai World Cup; Kitten’s Joy was a champion.”

Shackleford’s co-owner, Michael Lauffer, added, “We’re just excited to be here. Saratoga is a special place, and the Travers is a special race. I owned half of Rachel Alexandra, but next to her, Shackleford’s the best.”

Shackleford, the Preakness winner, has looked good in the mornings at Saratoga, showing no ill effects of his demanding campaign, which featured appearances in all three Triple Crown races and a second-place finish behind Coil in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Questions remain whether he is up to the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Travers, but Romans expects a top effort.

“That’s what makes the game great – everybody has an opinion,” he said. “He just has to prove everyone wrong. My horse can overcome a lot. If someone wants to go [to the lead], we’ll just sit off of them. I think he likes that, anyway, having a target, so he can keep clocking them. Going a mile and a quarter, there will be very few of them that will be out fast there early.”

While not considered in the same class as older stars Blind Luck and Havre de Grace because she is primarily a sprinter, Romans’ Sassy Image is nevertheless in position to win her third Grade 1 race in her past four starts in the Ballerina.

Tuning up on August 14, the daughter of Broken Vow turned in a scintillating five-furlong breeze in 59.97 seconds over the Saratoga main track, delighting Romans.

“When she works like that, she usually runs,” he said. “She touts herself. She’s special because she’s owned by my brother [Jerry Romans].”

Romans knows that the connections of Blind Luck and Havre de Grace are considering runs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this fall. Havre de Grace, owned by Rick Porter and trained by Larry Jones, will run against males on September 3 in the Grade 1, $750,000 Woodward at the Spa.

In response, Romans said he is considering stretching out Sassy Image in distance if all goes well in the Ballerina for a possible run in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic. Sassy Image won going two turns as a 2-year-old, taking the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill Downs.

In the weeks leading up to the Travers, Romans has engaged in a long, friendly text-message conversation with trainer Bob Baffert, who runs Coil in the Travers. After Coil’s work Tuesday morning, Romans texted suggesting the colt skip the Travers for the Pennsylvania Derby. “It’s always fun,” said Romans, clearly having a lot of it this meet. “We have a good time.”

 

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Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert reported that his Travers contender Coil was doing well Thursday morning.

“He’s doing great. The main job is to have him ready and [Jockey] Martin [Garcia] knows what to do,” Baffert said. “I don’t tell him too much. When Martin has a lot of confidence in a horse is when he does his best riding. Being a jockey and making those calls like that in those big races, he handles big race pressure really well.”

Coil’s first race on dirt came in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on July 31, which he won by a neck over Preakness hero Shackleford. Despite never being worse than third at any call of his previous five races, all on synthetic surfaces, he broke very slowly in his dirt debut, something Baffert does not want to see this weekend.

“I don’t want him dead last like he was in the Haskell,” Baffert said. “I told Martin, ‘When you were last going down the backside I had already given up and was so upset,’ and he said, ‘Señor, it’s not where you are on the backside, it’s where you are right here [in the winner’s circle].’ So he will just put him in a spot where he feels comfortable. He needs a target, though.”

Baffert – whose first and only Travers victory came in 2001 with Coil’s sire, Point Given – also spent some time sizing up the competition.

“Shackleford is a grinder,” he said. “He has that high cruising speed, goes goes goes and tries hard the entire way. Stay Thirsty, the way he ran last time, he likes this track. He’s had a race over it and that is a big edge.”

When asked about similarities that he sees between Coil and his sire, Baffert responded whimsically.

“They are the same color,” he remarked. “You know what, he’s actually a better looking horse [than his sire Point Given]. Point Given was just a big slab-sided horse. This horse has a great mind but also has Point Given’s potential.”

 

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Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has an all-systems-go perspective for Mill House’s Rattlesnake Bridge after the 3-year-old son of Tapit galloped over Saratoga’s main track this morning for the Travers.

“He was great yesterday when he schooled in the paddock; today, he galloped well and he’s ready to go,” said McLaughlin, who is hoping the 1 ¼ miles, an ideal pace scenario, and jockey John Velazquez will spell the difference for Rattlesnake Bridge.

Velazquez is back aboard Rattlesnake Bridge for the first time since his debut victory at Gulfstream Park on February 12. Following that race, Rattlesnake Bridge was second to Uncle Mo in the Timely Writer, fourth in the Grade 2 Jerome at Aqueduct Racetrack on April 23, second in an allowance on June 11 and then victorious in the Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 9.

“We’re happy to have Johnny back on him because he’s hard to get. He’s 1-for-1 on him,” McLaughlin said. “He’s a really nice horse and improving all of the time. He wants the distance, and we think he’ll get the distance, especially if there’s a decent pace.”

 

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After wearing blinkers in his four most recent starts, Stuart Grant’s J W Blue will race with blinkers off in Saturday’s Travers as trainer Tony Dutrow tries to help the colt live up to his potential.

J W Blue first wore blinkers in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in April at Oaklawn, finishing an even sixth. After reporting home third in the Federico Tesio at Pimlico in May, the son of Sky Mesa was second in two starts at Delaware Park, missing by a head in the Floor Show in June and falling short by a neck of the Barbaro in July.

“I’m not seeing the blinkers help him,” said Dutrow. “I’ve always thought, and I’m still thinking, that J W Blue is capable of more than we have seen. I tried blinkers to see if that would bring out the best in him. I don’t feel blinkers accomplished that. In his last two races, he made the lead, pulled himself up [and] got beat. I just don’t see the need for the blinkers. I think he’s better off without the blinkers than with them.”

Dutrow is eager to test Jealous Girl, winner of four straight, against graded competition in Saturday’s Grade 3 Victory Ride for 3-year-old filly sprinters. After easily clearing the maiden claiming, starter allowance, and allowance ranks, she drew off to take Penn National’s Femme Fatale by five lengths on July 29.

“I think Jealous Girl, arguably, has as much talent as anything in the race,” said Dutrow, who conditions Jealous Girl for Michael Dubb, Bethlehem Stables, and Stuart Grant. “She has to prove she has quality to go along with that talent, and she hasn’t had that opportunity yet.”

Jealous Girl, who drew post 2 for the Victory Ride, has set all the fractions in her four triumphs, but Dutrow isn’t sure whether she needs the lead.

“She has been superior to her foes so far, so I don’t know if she will sit off the pace somewhat or if she’s simply faster than these,” said Dutrow. “[Jockey] Jeremy [Rose] is down on the inside, the gates will open, and he’ll see how the race [goes]. We don’t have a game plan. Our game plan is the gates will open, and we’ll see how the race develops, and where we’re at and how she does.”

 

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Trainer Jeremiah Englehart will be saddling his first Grade 1 starter on Saturday at Saratoga when he sends out Tamarind Hall in the Ballerina. The filly, a former claimer, has already given him his first graded stakes victory in the Grade 3 Bed o’ Roses Handicap at Belmont Park in July and the young trainer, son of longtime Finger Lakes conditioner Chris Englehart, is excited at the prospect of testing her against top female sprinters.

“They told me that this is the same stall that the Test winner [Turbulent Descent] was in,” Englehart said Friday as he watched his star filly root around in the straw in her berth at trainer John Kimmel’s barn. “I even looked at [stats] on the two post and that’s the post you want in a seven-eighths race. I’m looking for any kind of karma I can get!”

If his father’s record on the NYRA circuit this year is any indication, karma could be on Englehart’s side. Chris Englehart, who recently passed the 3,000 win milestone, strung together seven consecutive victories at Aqueduct this past winter and has a record of 3-2-3 from 16 starters at the Saratoga meet through Wednesday.

“He’s got a great assistant down here and a great group of clients that are looking for the right type of horses for here,” Englehart said of his father. “Once he got settled in here, he’s always good at finding a level and staying. He’s been really happy the way things have turned out for [Tamarind Hall], and he’ll be up here on Saturday with my mom. It’ll be fun. It’s a great card. The Travers is anyone’s race – Stay Thirsty, Coil, all the horses who are running well right now are in it, then you’ve got Uncle Mo in the King’s Bishop.”

While Englehart originally hadn’t wished to ship Tamarind Hall to Saratoga early, he wanted to school the 4-year-old daughter of Graeme Hall in the paddock and he has been pleased with her adjustment to life at the Spa since arriving on Monday evening.

“The first day she went to the track, [her behavior] was uncharacteristic,” Englehart said. “She wasn’t pumped up, but she had her head bowed, it was almost like she was letting everyone know that she was here. Yesterday she schooled in the paddock; she was really good. I purposely brought her over for the second race and that way she got to see a little bit of the crowd and everything like that. In the race at Penn National she flipped in the paddock up against the stall, and ever since then I’ve [saddled] her on the walk and I’ve schooled her before every one of the races. For the Bed o’ Roses I schooled her at Finger Lakes, but here I know it’s going to be brand new to her. I figured let her see it once, and actually she didn’t turn a hair.”

Win or lose, Englehart is just hoping his filly will run her race on Saturday.

“My main thing is, I want to see her run well,” Englehart said. “That could be fourth [getting beaten] two or three lengths in this. I’d be real happy with just a nice, positive effort. I do think that she’s training as well as she was going into the Bed o’ Roses, so in the back of my mind, I’m kind of thinking that she’s going to run her type of race, which is really all you can ask for.”

 

 

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Since its inception in 1993, just three Amsterdam winners have gone on to take the Grade 1 Foxwoods King’s Bishop: Chimes Band (1994), Secret Firm (1998) and Discreetly Mine (2010). This year, trainer Donnie Von Hemel is hoping Caleb’s Posse becomes the next 3-year-old to be added to that list after Saturday’s race.

Sent off at 12-1, Caleb’s Posse made a five-wide rally at the top of the stretch to win the Grade 2 Amsterdam by four lengths on August 1. This year’s Foxwoods King’s Bishop, which will be run for the 27th time, is shaping up as an extraordinarily competitive race with the return of juvenile champion Uncle Mo and graded stakes winners Flashpoint, Dominus, and Justin Phillip.

“The Amsterdam was probably the best race of his life. I thought he could compete in that race, but I was surprised that he dominated the last part of the race,” Von Hemel said. “Can he repeat that? The competition is a little tougher this time around. We’re going to see what he can do. He had a nice gallop at dawn, then schooled in the paddock. Everything looks good.”

 

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Seeking to bring To Honor and Serve back to his best form, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott will send out the Live Oak Plantation representative on Friday in an optional-claiming race at 1 1/8 miles.

Winner of the Grade 2 Nashua and Remsen at Aqueduct last fall, To Honor and Serve placed third in both the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and Grade 1 Florida Derby this past spring before being taken off the Triple Crown trail.

In his return to the races on August 1, the $575,000 son of Bernardini raced forwardly sprinting in the Grade 2 Amsterdam at Saratoga before backing off the pace and finishing sixth.

The race on Friday, eighth on the 10-race card, attracted graded stakes-placed runners Equestrio, Afleet Again and Gautier. It will be To Honor and Serve’s first run against older horses.

“Just hoping to find a spot where he can be competitive,” Mott said. “It’s here. We’re looking for a spot we can be competitive in and not have to travel out of our zip code. He’s a very good horse. There’s a lot left in him. We’re running against older horses, so it’s by no means an easy spot.”

 

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Travers contender and Haskell winner Coil will have over 3,200 new “owners” cheering him on this Saturday, as part of the Breeders’ Cup Classic Ownership Challenge. At the Haskell earlier this month, all fans in attendance of the Breeders’ Cup Classic qualifier could register to “own a champion.” If Coil goes on to win the Breeders’ Cup his ownership syndicate will share a $250,000 cash prize.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic Ownership Challenge is available to all fans in attendance of the six Classic qualifying races this Challenge series: Hollywood Gold Cup (First Dude), Haskell Invitational (Coil), Whitney Handicap (Tizway), TVG Pacific Classic, Goodwood Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Tizway, who won at Saratoga in the Whitney to qualify for the Classic, has nearly 3,000 new owners as part of the Classic Ownership Challenge. For more information or to follow the contenders, please visit www.thebreederscupclassic.com