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Post Time: Spa's first Grade 1 is loaded

By Gene Kershner

     The first Grade 1 race on the Saratoga racing schedule this summer is Saturday's Coaching Club American Oaks (CCAO), the second leg of the Triple Tiara for 3-year-old fillies. The series has had four configurations of races over the years. This is the second year of the Acorn-CCAO-Alabama combination sponsored by Betfair TVG. The first leg, the Acorn Stakes, was won on Belmont Stakes day by 5-It's Tricky, who beat the highly regarded Turbulent Descent.

The CCAO may have only five horses in the starting gate Saturday, but the field is loaded with the year's top fillies. The race will feature the winners of the Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan, Acorn, Mother Goose and Fantasy Stakes. Let's just say that's impressive in itself.

 The CCAO will be making its first ever appearance at Saratoga Race Course. The biggest change in NYRA's schedule this year was moving this race from Belmont to the Spa. The 95th renewal of the race will be run for $250,000 over 1 1/8-miles on the dirt.

The race will be televised live nationally by NBC from 5 to 6 p.m. as the first of eight broadcasts in the "Summer at Saratoga" series to be presented on the network or its sister station Versus this summer.
Let's take a look at the CCAO challengers attempting to take leg two of the Triple Tiara (trainer, jockey, morning line odds in parenthesis):

1 -- Buster's Ready (Pletcher, Velazquez, 7-2) -- The Pletcher/Velazquez combo has captured this race four times in the past 10 years, an amazing feat. Pletcher would tie the legendary Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons with his fifth CCAO title Saturday and Johnny V would sit atop the jockeys with his fifth victory. The filly won going away in the Grade 1 Mother Goose at 9 furlongs. Her only effort at the Spa was her first maiden race when she finished fourth last September.  It's hard to dismiss the jockey/trainer combination here as well as their past success in the race (Devil May Care won last year's edition). Serious contender.

2 -- Plum Pretty (Baffert, Garcia, 3-1) -- After running four straight solid efforts on the dirt, she finished second to the very good Zazu in the American Oaks on the Cushion Track at Hollywood last month. The Kentucky Oaks winner ships in for west coast trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Martin Garcia flies east to ride her in this solid Grade 1. She looks ready to run after spitting out a bullet July 17 at Hollywood. The pick.

3 -- Joyful Victory (Jones, Dominguez, 6-1) -- The Grade 2 Fantasy Stakes winner at Oaklawn has found the going a little rougher in her last two. She hasn't responded after her two dominating wins in Arkansas for trainer Larry Jones. She also rattled off a bullet at Delaware Park on July 18 and is looking to rebound off her last two losing efforts. We'll be looking elsewhere.

4 -- Royal Delta (Mott, Lezcano, 2-1) -- Lightly raced filly has been off since winning the Black-Eyed Susan during Preakness weekend in May over a late closing 1-Buster's Ready. She missed the Mother Goose due to a foot bruise, but conditioner Bill Mott doesn't think this will be a problem Saturday. I'm going to wait one race on this filly, who could use it as a nice prep for the Alabama later in the meet.

5 -- It's Tricky (McLauglin, Castro, 3-1) -- Winner of the Acorn and only horse with a shot at the Triple Tiara looks to be better at the mile distance. This trainer/jockey combo in the last 60 days is white hot, winning at a 42 percent clip. McLaughlin doesn't believe the 9 furlongs is an issue. "We've always felt she'd want the distance because she's by Mineshaft, and she won the Busher and the allowance going two turns at Aqueduct," said McLaughlin. Godolphin has had big opening weekends at the Spa in the past so don't hastily dismiss this filly.

This race is extremely tough to call, but will go with Baffert's confidence in shipping his star filly east to take on the best of this coast's 3-year-old filly crop. This will be one terrific horse race and I'll be taking it in from the Saratoga press box.

Post Time Outlook:

     1 -- Plum Pretty; 2 -- It's Tricky; 3 -- Buster's Ready.

Good luck and let's go cash some tickets!

Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace.

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