By Gene Kershner
OCEANPORT, N.J. -- Starting this afternoon at Saratoga, three days of big 3-year-old races on the East Coast will kick off a huge summer racing weekend. While the 3-year-old ranks have taken some hits with the year ending injuries by classic winners I’ll Have Another and Union Rags, and a fever-ridden Bodemeister, this weekend’s races will give several horses the opportunity to step forward.
The weekend of sophomore racing commences with the $100,000 Curlin Stakes at Saratoga, with eight 3-year-olds vying to step forward. This non-graded stakes race has produced some brilliant winners in the past three years, including Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic champ Blame (2009) and Grade 1 United Nations winner Turbo Compressor (2011).
The morning line favorite is Street Life (5-2) who is a deep closing type that finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes. He seems to me to be a horse who needs the right pace scenario to win, so we’ll try and beat him. Two horses I favor and will be playing in the top two spots are Easter Gift (7-2), a lightly raced Nick Zito-trained colt and Politicallycorrect (8-1), who draws Joel Rosario for the race. Politicallycorrect has also cross-entered in Sunday’s Grade 2 Amsterdam, so there is a chance he may scratch out of this race.
Easter Gift finished second behind Le Bernardin in the Grade 3 Pegasus and looks to step up and be a contender in the division. Politicallycorrect had Rosario in the irons when he ran second to Belmont Stakes show horse Atigun at Churchill on Derby day. I think he has faced solid competition all year long and this seems to be the right spot for him as a long shot possibility.
Saturday’s Spa card is highlighted by the $600,000 Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes, the traditional prep race for the $1 million Grade 1 Travers Stakes. The field has drawn three horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby, the favorite Alpha (5-2), third choice Liaison (7-2) and Ohio Derby winner Prospective (8-1).
Alpha returns after pulling out of the Belmont Stakes late that week with a fever and assumes the favorite role for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin who won the meet’s first Grade 1 last weekend with Questing. He’ll tackle the 1 1/8-mile track where he broke his maiden last September and will have the red-hot Ramon Dominguez aboard.
Liaison ships in for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and is winless in six graded stakes starts this year, the last two as a beaten favorite.
I am favoring Teeth of the Dog (5-1) who has won his last two races, the Easy Goer, on the Belmont Stakes undercard and the Grade 2 Dwyer. He looks ready to step forward and I’m hoping his odds stay at or above his morning line. Trainer Michael Matz also is bullish on the Bluegrass Cat colt that will be ridden by the talented Rosario. “His last two races were good, more so being that in one of then he was on the pace and in the other he came from behind,” said Matz of Teeth of the Dog. “We’ve asked a lot of him this year, and he’s handled himself pretty well. One of the great things about this horse is that he’s got a big heart and will give us his all. We’ll wait and see if he can propel himself into the Travers.”
I like Atigun (8-1) to complete the exacta, coming off an impressive performance in the Belmont Stakes for trainer Kenny McPeek. He has a bullet workout on July 22 and looks to have come out of the grueling Belmont in great shape. One horse that will be taking a lot of dough at the windows that I will be tossing is Neck n’ Neck who has two big speed figures out of his last two races. I feel he is a bounce candidate and with a jockey who is relatively inexperienced at the Spa, I’ll stick with Alpha and Fast Falcon to pick up the final spots in the trifecta and superfecta.
I will be at the biggest race of the weekend at Monmouth Park in New Jersey on Sunday afternoon, the $1 million Grade 1 Haskell Invitational which has a small, but star-studded field of six horses including Gemologist, Paynter and Dullahan. It will be my first trip to the track at the Jersey Shore since the Breeders’ Cup which was engulfed by monsoon-like weather in October 2007. My last Haskell in person was the 2006 edition, won by Bluegrass Cat, who was the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes that year.
The cast of trainers is also impressive in this short field that includes two Hall of Famers (Hollendorfer and Baffert), a trainer that has won this race twice and has nearly 3,100 career wins (Pletcher) and this year’s Kentucky Derby/Preakness winning trainer (O’Neill).
Pletcher will try to win his third Haskell Invitational with Gemologist, who returns after a disappointing effort in the Kentucky Derby. The Wood Memorial winner will look to rebound after his only loss in six starts. Javier Castellano will come down from Saratoga to ride him for the seventh straight time.
Paynter, who led nearly gate-to-wire in the Belmont, will return at the shorter distance as a big win threat in this short field. Bob Baffert has him pointed at the Travers should he come out the race in good form. Rafael Bejarano ships in for his first ride on the talented colt who has worked lights out since the Belmont. Baffert has won a record five Haskell Invitational’s in his career and will be looking for his third in a row (Lookin at Lucky, Coil).
Dale Romans will give Dullahan another shot on the dirt after his dismal performance at the Belmont. Castellano rode him in the third leg of the Triple Crown, but Kent Desormeaux will regain the mount with Javy riding Gemologist.
The other three horses entered are Nonios, a California shipper who finished second in the grade 2 Swaps; Handsome Mike, who has the same connections as I’ll Have Another; and Stealcase, a Lawyer Ron colt who is stepping up in class here.
It’s hard to see any of these three to challenge the big three horses, although Nonios could break into the trifecta.
Post Time Outlook (Haskell): 1 – Gemologist; 2 – Paynter; 3 – Dullahan; 4 - Nonios
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace.