07/26/2015 8:34AM

Watchmaker: Unsatisfying Saturday stakes

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It’s only human nature to want satisfying resolutions, but things don’t always work out that way, as we saw in Saturday’s three big stakes events. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a thoroughly satisfying result in the bunch.

The Diana Stakes at Saratoga was the race that came the closest. Hard Not to Like is indeed hard not to like as she’s been a hard hitter for several campaigns now. And her victory in the Diana, combined with her score in the Gamely in May at Santa Anita, gives her two straight Grade 1 wins, earned on both coasts, and puts her right at or near the top of a female turf division begging for a leader.

However, while Hard Not to Like is likeable, it’s hard to love her when she won the Diana in the last step by a desperate nose over two opponents in Tepin and Kitten’s Queen who ran every bit as well, if not better. While Hard Not to Like lagged off the early lead, Kitten’s Queen (in her role as rabbit for Stephanie’s Kitten) and Tepin conspired for a pace that was downright fast by today’s turf-route standards – 23.54 seconds, 23.66, 22.95, and 23.05 for the first four quarter-miles.

So, in light of the fact that Tepin, who was nosed, and Kitten’s Queen, who was just a neck farther back, did the hard pace running every step of the way, you can see how Hard Not to Like could be considered more a fortunate winner than a decisive one.

As for Stephanie’s Kitten, this was her second straight sour performance and the second straight time she couldn’t even finish ahead of her pacemaker. Stephanie’s Kitten has been good for a long time, but you have to wonder if she isn’t in an irreversible decline now.

Speaking of wondering, like many others, I wonder how good the horses in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar could possibly be if the distance-challenged Appealing Tale almost won. I mean, Catch a Flight did get up in time, and by doing so, he won his third graded stakes race from his last four starts. But considering the perfect trip he drew, and with empty performances from others, the San Diego really shouldn’t have been that close a call for him.

Hoppertunity was a big disappointment, never really firing, but he wasn’t as big a disappointment as Bayern, who was shockingly outstayed by Appealing Tale. Look, Bayern’s three big route wins last year all had asterisks; he went with the grain of strong to profound track biases in the Pennsylvania Derby and Haskell Invitational, and he took out the horse to beat and his main pace challenger at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Still, as lucky as he was, there was no denying his talent. But the Bayern of 2015 so far is a shell of his former self.

Of course, the most unsatisfying stakes race of all Saturday was Saratoga’s Sanford. Bottom line: Magna Light was much the best. When he ducked out sharply in the stretch and ducked back in again, he compromised himself far more than anyone chasing him. And somewhat lost in all of this, Magna Light scored in front-running fashion over a Saratoga main track that was very unkind to speed the first two days.

Magna Light was disqualified from first and placed third in the Sanford, presumably for interfering with Percolator when he ducked back in, possibly costing Percolator, who was overtaken late by Uncle Vinny, a larger piece of the purse. It had to be that because when he first ducked out, Magna Light was well clear.

But, and here’s the kicker, I also thought Magna Light was clear enough when he ducked back in, and I don’t think it is a given in any way, shape, or form that Percolator would have held second with an uneventful stretch run. I strongly disagree with this disqualification.

What’s maddening is that on Friday, the stewards left up a 2-year-old first-time starter (Lemon Liqueur) who actually bumped the runner-up twice in the stretch. That was the proper call because those bumps had absolutely no bearing on the outcome. But for all the flash and pizzazz of Magna Light’s erratic course in the stretch, what Lemon Liqueur did was more concrete and tangibly worse. Yet she was left up, and Magna Light was taken down.

Notes

• There seemed to be some debate over the way Saratoga’s main track played Friday. Originally, I didn’t buy into the notion that the inside was not the place to be early in the card, but the outside flow to the way the Schuylerville (race 4) was run had me reconsidering.

Then, with impending showers that morphed into a tornado warning, the track was sealed before the fifth race, a turf race. The track was cut back open for the sixth race, and I do think that if there was a bias beforehand, it was gone from that point on. Races 6, 8, and 10 were run, in my view, on a completely fair main track.

Saturday was different. The main track was one on which speed seemed bad without regard to inside or outside paths. Closers were rallying effectively on all parts of the track.

• I need to see Schuylerville winner Off the Tracks do that again before I buy into her. I have a strong suspicion she victimized a field that wasn’t all that good.

I’m also bearish on the group out of the Lake George. Mrs McDougal gets credit for successfully rallying into a slow pace. But the fact that only one length separated the first six finishers casts doubt on the overall quality of the field.