By Gene Kershner
SARATOGA SPRINGS -- If you take a gander at the past seven winners of the Woodward Stakes, one would take note that the Horse of the Year title has come through the Spa’s turnstiles more than once over the same time period. Rachel Alexandra (2009), Curlin (2008), Saint Liam (2005) and Ghostzapper (2004) all won the Horse of the Year in the same season that they captured the Woodward.
This year’s field could produce the clubhouse leader, and possibly for the third year in a row, a filly or mare could take the title. On the heels of Zenyatta and Rachel’s titles the past two years, the 4-year-old filly Havre de Grace takes on seven males and looks to make a gigantic leap in the voters’ eyes in Saturday’s Woodward.
She is the 8-5 favorite and will be racing against the boys for the first time. The daughter of Saint Liam will gain a three pound weight break under the race conditions and she drew the six post in the $750,000 9-furlong Grade 1 race. She’s never missed the board in 12 career starts and has won over $1.5 million in career earnings. She lost a hard fought race against rival Blind Luck last month in one of the finest Delaware Handicaps ever run.
Her main challenger will be the son of Flatter (out of Cresta Lil), Flat Out, and the 5-2 second choice in the race. Flat Out finished second to Tizway in the Whitney Handicap and has won both the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap at Belmont at the same distance and the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap at 1-1/16 miles.
The race will be televised nationally on Versus (5 p.m.) as the final weekend broadcast of the NBC Group’s “Summer at Saratoga” series. The Grade 1 Forego will also be shown during the hour long show. NBC will continue to telecast racing with coverage of two weekends during Keeneland’s fall meet in October.
Here’s a look at the field for this year’s Woodward Stakes:
1 – Ice Box (12-1): Last year’s Kentucky Derby runner-up made his first appearance since last year’s Belmont Stakes earlier in the meet and finished a disappointing third behind 5-Convocation and Ron the Greek in a race where he uncharacteristically went to the lead before giving way. Trainer Nick Zito has been struggling as of late and he will need a fairly hot pace to become a factor in this race.
2 – Mission Impazible (10-1): My selection in the Whitney was hardly a factor for super trainer Todd Pletcher with Johnny V up, but oddly has seems to run well every other race. He had strong showings in the New Orleans Handicap and the Stephen Foster sandwiched around a clunker on the Kentucky Oaks undercard in the Alysheba. If his pattern holds, he’ll run a solid race at a better price in here.
3 – Giant Oak (8-1): The late closing son of Giant’s Causeway can run all day, but needs a very hot pace to make any noise against this crew. His effort was too little too late in the Whitney where he finished third by a nose behind Flat Out. Good to use in the exotics underneath based on his running style.
4 – Rule (5-1): Javier Castellano gets the call for Pletcher’s other horse in the race, not to be confused with the “other Pletcher,” a term familiar to horseplayers signifying when Todd’s second best horse wins the race. The son of Roman Ruler won an ungraded stake earlier in the meet and still is seeking his first career Grade 1 victory. He comes in third off the layoff, so we’ll look for him to hit the board at best.
5 – Convocation (20-1): The 5-year-old son of Pulpit won the aforementioned $75K optional claimer over 1-Ice Box in his last effort for trainer Jimmy Jerkens. The two times he has won at the 9-furlong distance is deceiving as he did not win those against graded company. Love that his trainer continues to give him a shot against deeper competition, but will be siding elsewhere.
6 – Havre de Grace (8-5): The heralded filly will take a lot of money at the windows on Saturday and makes an intriguing story for the nationally telecast. She has the talent and on paper stacks up with her race rivals without question. Her daddy won the 2005 Woodward (nice angle) and Larry Jones is one of the finest trainers around. While her last effort, the incredible stretch duel with Blind Luck in the Del Cap, could be considered taxing, Jones has picked this spot as one that could be the stepping stone to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, if all goes well. She has to be respected and will be in the mix at the wire.
7 – Flat Out (5-2): Everything points to this being his breakout race, and what better credential to add to his resume , but a win over one of the best horses currently in training. One of the few Whitney horses to run back here, that effort and his latest work shows that he’s ready to roll. I’m going to the window to send it in on this one.
8 – Mambo Meister (10-1): Fernando Jara gets his first mount of the meet, and it’s in a big one. One of the few speed horses in the race, look for him to be on the lead early. The 6-year-old King Cugat makes his first start outside of Florida this year and will look to steal the race in his second lifetime start at the Spa.
Post Time outlook:
1 – Flat Out
2 – Havre de Grace
3 – Mission Impazible
4 – Giant Oak
Good luck and let’s go cash some tickets!