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Impressive Spa babies
Having visited Saratoga for two weeks and having a second trip to Del Mar planned for that track's final week of racing, it seems timely to share some impressions of the top juvenile fillies and males seen at Saratoga, with my list from Del Mar to be published in this space next week.
Bob Baffert's best
Based at Del Mar for the start of the 2007 summer season, Baffert publicly expressed dismay at the way the new Polytrack racing surface was negatively affecting his ability to train for speed. Prompted by one of his principal owners, Zayat Stables, Baffert shipped his best juveniles to Saratoga. The two named below already rank among the elite juveniles of 2007.
* Maimonides, a $4 million yearling son of undefeated juvenile champion Vindication, won his career debut in a 5o1/2-furlong race at Saratoga on Aug. 8. The most impressive part of that performance was not the big margin or the 89 Beyer Speed Figure, it was the final sixteenth clocked in a shade under six seconds while Maimonides was under complete control by jockey Rafael Bejarano. Even in this age of inflated yearling prices, this one probably could have been re-sold for twice his purchase price as soon as he crossed the finish line.
* More Happy won her Del Mar maiden debut at six furlongs over a field that has produced good performances during the Del Mar meet, but she clearly struggled with the Polytrack in that winning effort. She improved noticeably in the Adirondak stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 15, setting a brisk half-mile pace in 44.93 seconds. A daughter of Vindication, she gamely held off two quality fillies (A to the Craft and Passion) for the victory. To this point, More Happy's precocity has led to her early success, but that same penchant for fast early fractions also could work against her ability to comfortably handle a mile or more.
Bill Mott's brigade
Not known for his inclination to win with first-time starters or young horses in general, the Hall of Fame trainer unleashed several juvenile winners at this Saratoga meet. The two that made the strongest impression on me were J Z Warrior and Prussian.
* J Z Warrior improved with blinkers to run away and hide from a well-meant Patrick Biancone first-time starter (Hopehopehope) in a solid six-furlong maiden race at Saratoga on July 29. By Harlan's Holiday out of a Carson City mare,J Z Warrior should handle at least a mile and may move up a few lengths on wet tracks.
* Prussian was one of the most impressive juvenile winners I saw at Saratoga. A son of Danzig out of an Alleged mare, he was entered by Mott in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race on the grass on Aug. 17 and romped by 6 3/4 lengths over a seemingly well-bred, well-meant group. Prussian looked the part of a surefire graded stakes prospect for a trainer that has a deep group of 2-year-olds to work with for a change. In my eyes, Prussian should be given a chance to test his talent on dirt, but there is no question in my mind he will be a graded stakes performer on turf.
Todd Pletcher's platoon
Despite having a relatively quiet meet with his 2-year-old first-time starters, Pletcher left Saratoga with several promising young horses ready for stakes. Among them were Ready's Image, The Leopard, The Roundhouse, and Passion.
* Ready's Image has won 3 of his 4 starts prior to his expected engagement in the seven-furlong Hopeful Stakes on Labor Day Monday, closing day at Saratoga. The son of More Than Ready is no one-dimensional speedball, having stalked the pace and fired effective rallies in his three victories, from 4 1/2 furlongs at Keeneland in April, 5 1/2 furlongs in the Tremont Stakes at Belmont on July 1, and six furlongs in the Sanford at Saratoga on July 26. In the Sanford, Ready's Image earned an exceptional Beyer of 104.
* The Leopard, a $2.25 million yearling son of the prolific Storm Cat out of the high-class Mr. Prospector mare Moon Safari, looked very strong winning a six-furlong maiden race by a half-length over Immortal Eyes on Aug. 11. The stalk-and-go performance earned a solid 94 Beyer and included a final quarter-mile clocked in a shade over 24 seconds, indicating graded stakes potential.
* The Roundhouse, a half-brother to 2006 Hopeful Stakes winner Circular Quay, was a slow-breaking, late-moving third in the six-furlong Sanford on July 26. He put in a similar performance when second to Kodiak Kowboy in the 6 1/2-furlong Saratoga Special on Aug. 16. He obviously has talent, but his slow fuse may nullify his stretch-running power. I wonder if blinkers might help.
* Passion was third in More Happy's Adirondack after winning a five-furlong maiden race on July 7 at Arlington Park. While the pace of the Adirondack was fast enough to set up a closing rally, and eventual winner More Happy was coming back somewhat to the field in the late going, Passion gained five lengths in the final furlong of that 6 1/2-furlong stakes. She also looked good doing it. As a daughter of Pacific Classic winner Came Home, Passion should move forward when the distances lengthen.
Other promising prospects
Beyond Baffert, Mott, and Pletcher's high-quality juveniles, there were good prospects trained by Ken McPeek, Steve Asmussen, Nick Zito, Patrick Biancone, and Michael Trombetta.
* A to the Craft, trained by McPeek, certainly belongs in the discussion of promising 2-year-old fillies to race at Saratoga this summer. A daughter of multiple stakes winner Menifee, whom McPeek trained a decade ago, A to the Craft stumbled at the start of More Happy's Adirondack before gaining ground steadily through the final half-mile. She belongs with the best in the division and should handle longer distances.
* Kodiak Kowboy, trained by Asmussen, is a son of the instantly prolific young sire Posse whose offspring are winning numerous races for 2-year-olds this year. Kodiak Kowboy already has won three stakes, including the Grade 3 Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs on July 7 and the Gradeo2, 6 1/2-furlong Saratoga Special on Aug. 16. In the latter race, Kodiak Kowboy moved strongly through traffic to take command in midstretch and continued strongly to the wire for a clear-cut three-length victory over The Roundhouse. He earned a Beyer of 98. Kodiak Kowboy is a son of Came Home, and a mile certainly is within his scope.
* War Pass, a son of Cherokee Run out of a Mr. Prospector mare, probably was Zito's best juvenile unveiled at Saratoga. War Pass won two races at the Spa, a six-furlong maiden sprint on July 28 and a six-furlong allowance race by 5 3/4 lengths on Aug. 26 when the track was drying out from overnight thunderstorms that began shortly after the long Travers Day card was complete. The breeding says sprint and wet tracks, but any horse with Mr. Prospector so close in his pedigree should be given some room for flexibility.
* Irish Smoke, trained by Biancone, looked very fast winning her five-furlong Saratoga debut on Aug. 2 in 57.63 seconds, with a final furlong in 12.19, while jockey Julien Leparoux never hit her with the whip. By Smoke Glacken out of a Gilded Time mare, this filly's best chance to win a Grade 1 stakes will be at six to 6 1/2 furlongs.
* Cave's Valley, a son of Stephen Got Even trained by Trombetta, won a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race at Saratoga on Aug. 17 as if he can run with graded stakes types. Moreover, Cave's Valley was given a seven-furlong workout to prepare for his runaway debut in this short sprint and galloped out strongly. He should improve when sent a mile or longer. Trombetta, based mostly in Delaware, is no stranger to New York, and remains one of the most-effective first-time-starter trainers in America (36 percent).
The above list does not include many others who ran well at Saratoga. At the bottom line, the 2-year-olds described here seemed a cut above the rest with room for plenty of adjustments during the next round of stakes, at seven furlongs to 1 1/16 miles.
Steve Davidowitz will be at Del Mar on Sunday, Sept. 2, signing copies of his new book, "The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing."