Just a couple days ago, Saratoga’s Woodward Stakes was supposed to be the race of a star-studded Saturday stakes lineup
But like nearly all things that look too good to be true, such was the case with the Woodward. It lost two notable players midweek, first on Wednesday when trainer Todd Pletcher decided to bypass the race with Cross Traffic, and then Thursday when Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned was announced as a scratch due to hind-end soreness discovered that morning by trainer Ian Wilkes.
Fort Larned had been my choice to win the Woodward, but obviously no longer. Now it’s Flat Out, and for more details on that pick and an analysis of the depleted Woodward and other stakes, read on.
Absent front-runners Cross Traffic and Fort Larned, the Woodward no longer has the speed-laden lineup that many anticipated. Now only two principal speed horses remain: Paynter and Mucho Macho Man.
Not that bettors needed more of a reason to like Paynter – he has always been popular at the betting windows, going off as the public choice in six of his eight starts. And now, in addition to fervent horseplayers, even casual racegoers have fallen for him following his heart-warming tale of recovery from near death.
Flat Out doesn’t have the speed and doesn’t have the story. But he does have what it takes to win the Woodward with Fort Larned out of the race.
Sure, there is less speed in the race to set up his rally, but I doubt that will be of importance. Flat Out has shown more versatility this year by successfully winning from close to the pace.
He won the Westchester after sitting fourth, 2 1/2 lengths off, and running down Cross Traffic late. And following a third in the Met Mile after that, Flat Out won the Suburban after sitting second behind a slow early pace.
True, those wins were at Belmont – a track he loves –but also true is his second favorite track could very well be Saratoga. In three starts at the Spa over the past two summers, Flat Out ran second in both the Whitney and Woodward in 2011, and then finished third in this race last year.
Three Grade 1 starts at Saratoga, and three close finishes, running behind Tizway in the 2011 Whitney, Havre de Grace in the 2011 Woodward, and Fort Larned and Ron the Greek in the 2012 Woodward. Not surprisingly, all three races rated well in terms of speed figures, with Flat Out running Beyers of 106, 109, and 108.
Now in peak form and training lights out at Saratoga for Bill Mott, Flat Out looks capable of slightly improving upon those finishes and getting a victory at Saratoga for the first time.
Washington Park Handicap
The morning-line oddsmaker at Arlington expects the public to view Saturday’s Grade 3 Washington Park Handicap as a two-horse race between Willcox Inn and Mister Marti Gras, establishing Willcox Inn as the 6-5 chalk and Mister Marti Gras as the 9-5 second choice. They are the most accomplished horses in the field, battle tested against top company, and proven on Arlington’s Polytrack.
Mister Mardi Gras won this race in 2012, ran second in it last year, and was second to Hogy in the Grade 3 Hanshin earlier this year.
And though Willcox Inn has raced just once on Arlington’s Polytrack, winning a maiden race over it at age 2 – he notably beat eventual Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup winner Animal Kingdom.
But I suspect contention runs deeper than these two. I expect Agent Di Nozzo to beat them. A late-developer, Agent Di Nozzo has gone on a tear this year, winning 4 of 5 starts, including his first stakes in the Golden Bear at Indiana Downs.
All those races came on dirt, and for that matter, so have his seven victories.
He is venturing into unknown territory by running on the synthetic at Arlington, but that doesn’t mean his trip won’t be a success.
Agent Di Nozzo is by Ghostzapper, whose progeny tend to be versatile and capable of handling synthetic tracks. It is worth noting that Ghostzapper’s top earner, Stately Victor, was a Polytrack specialist, winning the 2010 Blue Grass Stakes.
The Twin Lights at Monmouth doesn’t have many recognizable names among the starting horses, nor is there a clear standout on Beyer Speed Figures.
My choice, Bow Bells, has just a career-best Beyer of 79 – not the kind of number that usually wins stakes at a track like Monmouth. So she will need to run even faster to score a repeat victory.
But her preparation leading up to this race suggests she will. A winner at first asking last fall at Keeneland, when she won going 1 1/16 miles on Polytrack, Bow Bells followed it with a dismal showing on dirt at Monmouth by running sixth this summer. Subsequently placed on the grass, she returned to form, rallying from fifth to win a 1 1/16-mile, first-level allowance over the local course.
With those two preps behind her in 2013, Bow Bells looks ready for a top effort in her third start of the year. And her spacing leading into the Twin Lights is perfect, at least relative to what her trainer, Todd Pletcher, likes to do with his higher-end horses. She enters this race following six weeks’ rest.
By comparison, her chief rival, Sense to Compete, is returning on less than three weeks’ rest after finishing third at Saratoga on Aug. 11.
For two fillies closely matched in ability and speed figures, the preparation difference tips the scales in favor of Bow Bells.