As of yet, the races are on for what promises to be an historic run from now until Labor Day. President and CEO of the New York Racing Association, Chris Kay, told reporters at a press conference Wednesday, “There’s no intention of canceling Opening Day. It’s warm, but we’ve had warm days in the past. We’re concerned about the safety of the patrons, horses and jockeys.”
Saratoga wastes no time and delivers two quality stakes races on its 10-race opening day card. Race 8, the Grade III James Marvin Stakes, a sprint for males, and Race 9, the Grade III $150,000 Schuylerville Stakes for two-year-old fillies is a showcase of possible brightness and futures.
Todd Pletcher, trainer and perennial Saratoga leader in the standings, comes off a smashing 2012 year where he won 36 races from 149 starts with earnings of $3,554,642. It was he and Chad Brown, a native of Mechanicville, who were 1-2, Brown trailing with 29 wins. The next closest trainer, Steve Asmussen, had 12 wins.
Pletcher won 23 of his 36 races in juvenile conditions, an amazing feat that positions him to have a full stable of Kentucky Derby and Oaks contenders the following year. Pletcher saddled five starters in the Derby and five in the Belmont Stakes in 2013, winning the Belmont with Palace Malice.
Pletcher sends out two juvenile fillies in the Schuylerville, Elena Strikes and Yes Liz, both owned by Stonestreet Farms.
John Velazquez, Hall of Fame jockey and Pletcher’s first-call rider, gets the mount on Yes Liz. Yes Liz whipped through a five-furlong breeze—or workout—in 57.99 on July 3rd at Belmont Park. She’s 5-2 on the morning line and promises to be right up on the lead when the gate blasts open.
“She’s pretty straightforward,” said Pletcher. “She’s very fast. She’s a precocious kind of filly. We expected that type of performance from her. She has good gate speed. She came out of that race really well. That’s why we thought about running her back.”
Elena Strikes won her debut race at Monmouth Park by daylight clear of the field by 2 ¾ lengths. She won by coming off the pace, a move that shows she’s got poise and class.
“I think she’ll appreciate the added distance where she can break and not have to be rushed,” said Pletcher. “She’s a filly who has shown a lot of quality. She has been training really well up here and she has a good mind. She has been doing well since that maiden race.”
Brazen Persuasion recruits the talented Rosie Napravnik as the second choice at 3-1. Trained by Steve Asmussen, Brazen Persuasion won in her second career start while at Churchill Downs. Asmussen won this race in 2009 with Hot Dixie Chick.
Of course Opening Day brings with it a certain energy, but the meet rockets in full on Saturday with the first Grade I race of the meet: the $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks. In it returns Princess of Sylmar, the stunning 38-1 upset-winner of the Grade I Kentucky Oaks back in May .
Ridden by Mike Smith, Princess of Sylmar shocked the field with a powerful locomotive kick down the lane. The goal for owner Ed Stanco has been to win the Grade I Alabama Stakes later in the meet. Run at 1 ¼ miles, it’s the longest a filly will likely ever run. She has never run more than 1 1/8th miles.
“We have no issues with her handling the distance,” said Pletcher, her trainer. “She’s a very relaxed filly who turns off easily, so we’ll let her relax in the early part of the race and hope she finishes well. Based on the way she has breezed over the track, I’d be pretty confident she handles it well.”
Though Smith had the mount in Kentucky, Javier Castellano gets a leg up as the 9-5 favorite.
The Coaching Club American Oaks attracted five horses, which makes for a bad betting race overall. The second choice, Unlimited Budget (2-1), last ran against the boys in the Grade I $1 million Belmont Stakes. She too is trained by Pletcher and will get John Velazquez in the saddle.
“I thought, physically, she handled it well,” said Pletcher of her Belmont Stakes performance. “She came out of it in good shape. We were asking a lot of her, but she didn’t disgrace herself. We’ll try again back in against fillies. She’s never run here before, but she has trained well, and the cutback to a mile and an eighth she should appreciate.”
Cue the Moon (10-1), My Happy Face (3-1) and Marathon Lady (5-1) round out the field.
Zenyatta’s Half-Sister to Run
Saratoga plays host to Eblouissante, the four-year-old half-sister of Zenyatta. Zenyatta retired with a record of 19-1 in 2010 ultimately losing her final race to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Zenyatta took a 19-0 record into that race with the hopes of retiring a perfect 20-0. Eblouissante is a long ways off, but she is 2-for-2 and makes her comeback in the Grade III $200,000 84 Lumber Shuvee Handicap. Run at nine furlongs, it precedes the Coaching Club American Oaks.
Eblouissante hasn’t raced since January 17 in California. Her trainer, John Shirreffs, moved her to Belmont Park where she has been training ever since.
“After she arrived here she has started to fill out,” said Shirreffs. “She has grown a lot and has put on a significant amount of weight, so I’m really happy with the way she has developed over the last month. She looks strong. I think time is the most important ingredient in a horse’s development. Their bodies need a chance to catch up.”
Eblouissante will face six other fillies and mares including the favorite Authenticity (7-5), Royal Lahaina, Flashy American, Moon Philly, Sea Island and Summer Applause.