08/21/2011 1:57PM

Alabama, Lake Placid Thoughts


Saturday’s Alabama Stakes at Saratoga could have gone a long way toward settling the 3-year-old filly title if It’s Tricky had made it her third straight Grade 1 victory. She didn’t. Yet, the outcome of the Alabama, a runaway victory by Royal Delta over It’s Tricky, still provided a lot of help sorting out this division.

Right here, it should be noted that the Breeders’ Cup, as always, will have a profound impact on divisional championships. But since any legitimate Breeders’ Cup-bound 3-year-old filly title contender faces the daunting task of having to race against such formidable older opponents as Blind Luck and/or Havre de Grace in the Ladies’ Classic (assuming both don’t elect to challenge males in the Classic), what happens in the 3-year-old filly division pre-Breeders’ Cup might have greater bearing on Eclipse Award voting than would be the case in other divisions.

What the Alabama clarified is that Plum Pretty, who finished a tired fourth Saturday, is no longer a prime contender for a divisional championship. Plum Pretty was fortunate to win last May’s Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks as she barely lasted over St. John’s River, who spotted the field a three length head start and raced most of the way on a dead rail. But Plum Pretty is now 0 for 3 since, and was beaten by It’s Tricky in her last two starts.

The faint championship aspirations, such as they were, for St. John’s River and Inglorious were extinguished in the Alabama. St. John’s River followed her terrific Kentucky Oaks performance with a narrow win in the Grade 2 Delaware Oaks, successfully rallying into a slow pace. But St. John’s River was a badly beaten fifth Saturday, and is still without a Grade 1 win. And as for Queen’s Plate winner Inglorious, her distant sixth in the Alabama showed she is nothing more than a good Canadian Polytrack horse.

Most importantly, what the Alabama brought into focus is that the 3-year-old filly championship is now a two horse battle between Royal Delta and It’s Tricky.

(Sorry, Turbulent Descent fans. Championships in this division are won and lost in races like the Alabama, Kentucky Oaks, CCA Oaks, Mother Goose, and Acorn. Turbulent Descent is a terrific filly who has won two Grade 1 events this year. But the sprint events she’s been focusing on definitively make her a contender for the female sprint championship, not the 3-year-old filly title, even if she does happen to be 3. Besides, she was walloped by It’s Tricky in the Acorn. And I’m not selectively picking on Turbulent Descent. I’ve believed that R Heat Lightning might be the best of this group off her two enormous stakes scores early this year at Gulfstream. But R Heat Lightning was injured, has missed all the big races, and is without a Grade 1 win, so she doesn’t deserve a mention in this discussion, even if she indeed is the most talented of the bunch.)

No, it’s down to Royal Delta and It’s Tricky. It’s Tricky currently has the edge in Grade 1 wins, two to one. They each have one decisive victory over the other. And It’s Tricky might have an edge down the road in that she seemed out of her element going the 10 furlongs of the Alabama while Royal Delta certainly seemed in hers. It’s Tricky doesn’t have to go that far again if she doesn’t want to, as the Ladies’ Classic is at nine furlongs. And yet, I have the strong sense that Royal Delta has now taken charge.

Before Royal Delta finished third behind It’s Tricky when they first met in the CCA Oaks early in the Saratoga meet, there was widespread suspicion that Royal Delta couldn’t and wouldn’t be at her best for that engagement. Royal Delta came up with a foot issue after her Black Eyed Susan romp in May that cost her training time and a scheduled start, meaning she went into the CCA Oaks off an injury-related two month layoff. Everything that happened in the Alabama confirmed that Royal Delta was indeed well below form in the CCA Oaks. So while Royal Delta had a major excuse in her loss to It’s Tricky, It’s Tricky had no excuse in her loss to Royal Delta, other than an inability to get the distance.

And in regard to distance, It’s Tricky is likely to be a much tougher customer cutting back to nine furlongs. But that doesn’t mean that Royal Delta will be an easy mark at that shorter trip. On the far turn, still less than a mile into the Alabama, it looked as though Royal Delta could have overtaken It’s Tricky and Plum Pretty any time she wanted. It just so happens that Royal Delta poked her head in front right around the eighth pole, nine furlongs into the race, if you’re counting.

Since we’re taking about 3-year-old fillies, I should throw in a word about Winter Memories finishing fourth at 2-5 in Sunday’s Lake Placid Stakes at Saratoga. Winter Memories had a traffic-filled trip in the Lake Placid, thanks mainly to third place finisher Dynamic Holiday, and her rider, Ramon Dominguez. Dominguez, it appeared from a distance, seemed to be as intent on making Winter Memories’s life miserable as riding to win, although I do understand how there could be a tenuous connection between the two given Winter Memories’s big reputation. But Dominguez kept it tight outside of Winter Memories as much as he could, even at the expense of being three wide on the first turn (which might have cost Dynamic Holiday second money), moving whenever Winter Memories wanted to move, keeping the favorite bottled up to the point where Winter Memories had to dive to the inside for racing room in upper stretch, which is almost never a winning move.

The intra-race battle between Dynamic Holiday and Winter Memories should take nothing away from the winning performance by Hungry Island, however. Hungry Island was monstrous winning an overnight stakes at Belmont last time out for her third straight win, but she was even better Sunday, and she has to be right up there with Winter Memories and Saturday’s Del Mar Oaks winner Summer Soiree when you’re talking the top 3-year-old filly turfers.