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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Winner's Circle: The Final Week Preview

By | Sports

The final week is underway at Saratoga Race Course. It has featured a historic Travers Stakes that saw the first-ever official dead heat between Golden Ticket and Alpha—the long shot and the favorite. The filly Questing stunned the crowd in the Coaching Club American Oaks and more so in the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes where she set blistering fractions and finished the 1 ¼ mile event in 2:01 and change—faster than the Travers finishers.


But there’s still one more weekend with the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes and the Grade 1 Forego, the Grade 1 Spinaway and the Grade 2 Hopeful Stakes.

The Woodward is a $750,000-race going 1 1/8 miles for older horses. Last year it was won by the filly Havre de Grace. Heading to the gate for this year’s renewal is the enigmatic To Honor and Serve.

The 4-year-old son of Bernardini was an impressive winner of the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby and the Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap as a 3-year-old. He then followed those up with a third-place effort in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap and a dismal fourth in the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap to Mucho Macho Man. To Honor and Serve turned in a four-furlong tune up in 49.83 seconds for the Woodward.

“He worked easy over a fairly deep track,” said trainer Bill Mott after the 4-year-old son of Bernardini posted the ninth fastest of 22 works at the distance on the training track. “That seemed to be an OK time. We’re disappointed in his race in the Suburban, but given my excuse of the heat [and] the weather, I think he’ll run better if we get a decent day.”

John Velazquez will have the mount.

To Honor and Serve will face the Todd Pletcher-trained Stay Thirsty—last year’s Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes winner—and Rule. Rule finished dead last in the Grade 1 Whitney Invitational and Stay Thirsty last raced in the Grade 2 Suburban and finished fifth to Mucho Macho Man

Both Rule and Stay Thirsty fired bullets over the main track at Saratoga: five furlongs in 1:00.03.

“They both worked well; I’m happy with both of them,” said Pletcher. “It seemed Rule worked more along the lines of how he worked prior to [winning the Grade 2 Monmouth Cup] and the way he worked before he was third in the Woodward last year. It seems like he’s ready to go.”

Ramon Dominguez will be aboard Rule and Javier Castellano will ride Stay Thirsty.

And it will be Mucho Macho Man who may have all their numbers. Trained by Kathy Ritvo, Mucho Macho Man was an impressive winner of the Suburban winning the race by 2 ½ lengths over Hymn Book. Mucho Macho Man worked an easy five furlongs in 1:02 4/5 seconds on Sunday. He seeks his first Grade 1 win in the Woodward.

“We haven’t run him in a Grade 1 stakes since the [2011] Belmont, but the last two races he’s run in were Grade 1-type fields, and he beat them,” said Ritvo.

The Grade 1 Forego Stakes run at seven furlongs will feature Shackleford, who fired a dud in the Vanderbilt over an off-track back in early August. The race may also feature Jackson Bend, the Nick Zito-trained horse who was recently collided into by another horse during training two weeks ago.

Trainer Dale Romans wanted Shackleford to keep his legs good and fresh for this weekend. The hope will also be for good weather.

“He just went really easy, just to let him stretch his legs a little bit,” said Romans of Shackleford, who is owned by Michael Lauffer, W.D. Cubbedge, and Phillips Racing Partnership. “He went good, came back good, and looked happy. It’s hard to get him to go that slow. You have to trick him [to make him think] he’s galloping. You just ease him into it, let him get a little closer all the time, and let him think he’s galloping. He’s done enough. It’s not a matter of fitness. Just keep him sharp. As long he comes back good tomorrow [we’ll run in the Forego]. He walked well this morning after the work. If everything goes well tomorrow, we’ll be in the entries [for the Forego].”

Jackson Bend won this race a year ago. Zito worked him a half mile in 49.77 Monday morning in an effort to gauge where he is physically.

“Nine days ago, obviously, we never would have dreamed that he was working today,” Zito said. “Fitness-wise he’s there, and basically what I’m telling people now is that this is day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute. Tomorrow, I’ll ultrasound him again. Not today. Check his ribs, check everything again. Even though we got a [clean] bill of health, we’ll do all the things again.

“Even if we enter, everybody knows, [owner Robert LaPenta] knows, the horse is the main deal. His partner Fred Brei – I was just on the phone with him – knows the main thing. So even if we enter, it’s not a guarantee we’re running. As long as he trains good, and he’s doing good, I’ll give it a shot.”

Jackson Bend was collided into the ribs by a horse named Little Nick. Jackson Bend was shaken, but his toughness shows.

“I’ve had a lot of tough horses, but this guy…I think [it’s because] he’s so agile,” Zito said. “You see when he walks, he walks that way. So agile. I definitely never had one like that. One thing about racing…you never know when it’s your turn, it’s not your turn, and that’s it. We take precautions every day; it doesn’t matter. You see what happens in racing. Every day there’s something new. Street Life stopped in front of [Fast Falcon] in the Travers, he got hurt. Yesterday, It’s Tricky falls on her face [in the Personal Ensign]. It’s racing.”

Brendan O’Meara will be selling and signing copies of his book “Six Weeks in Saratoga” outside Impressions of Saratoga from 7-9 Friday night and 12-5 at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday September 1. Follow him on Twitter @BrendanOMeara.

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