08/16/2012 3:30PM

Saratoga: Alabama can crown division leader

Barbara D. Livingston
Tony Dutrow, left, aims to make Grace Hall the first filly in 80 years to win the Spinaway at 2 and Alabama at 3.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Trainer Tony Dutrow began thinking about this year’s Alabama last September.

Shortly after Grace Hall won last year’s Grade 1 Spinaway here, Dutrow mapped out a 3-year-old campaign for the filly. The three races uppermost on his wish list were the Kentucky Oaks, Alabama, and Delaware Oaks. After finishing third in the Kentucky Oaks, Grace Hall won the Delaware Oaks with an eye-catching 3 1/4-length victory, setting her up for what Dutrow hopes is a career-defining performance in Saturday’s Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama at Saratoga.

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Saturday’s Alabama, which drew a field of seven, should go a long way in establishing a clear leader in the 3-year-old female division. Grace Hall has won a pair of Grade 2 stakes this year. Questing, the Coaching Club American Oaks winner, seeks a second Grade 1 victory, as does Zo Impressive, the Mother Goose winner. In Lingerie is a multiple graded winner, but has yet to capture a Grade 1.

Uptown Bertie, the Iowa Oaks winner, Via Villaggio, winner of the Grade 3 Railbird at Betfair Hollywood Park and Sea Island, a recent allowance winner for Shug McGaughey, will try to create more chaos in the division.

Grace Hall will be attempting to become the first filly in 80 years – since Top Flight – to win the Spinaway at 2 and the Alabama at 3. Sky Beauty won the 1993 Alabama one year after getting disqualified from first in the Spinaway.

“I had this scheduled for her in September last year for her 3-year-old year, and that’s what has happened,” Dutrow said. “I really wanted the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama, and I got her to both of those races the way I thought she would have a chance to win those two races. Without excuse, we didn’t win the Kentucky Oaks.”

Grace Hall finished third in the Oaks behind Believe You Can and Broadway’s Alibi, who staged a memorable front-running battle that evidently took its toll as both are now sidelined.

Grace Hall, however, came back with a good-looking victory over Via Villaggio in the Delaware Oaks, earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 105.

“When you’re working with her and you’re working around her, you’re feeling this filly’s getting better, and when I see the numbers it appears that she’s getting a touch faster too,” Dutrow said.

Dutrow believes that should Grace Hall add the Alabama to her victories in the Gulfstream Park Oaks and Delaware Oaks, she would be the clear division leader.

The same could be said for Questing, who just two months ago was still eligible for a first-level allowance condition. She cleared that hurdle when transferred to dirt by trainer Kiaran McLaughlin at Belmont and then came back to win the Coaching Club here by 4 1/4 lengths despite drifting out under an exuberant Irad Ortiz Jr.

Questing, a daughter of Hard Spun owned by Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin Racing, could play out as the primary speed in the Alabama. She has been working extremely well since the Coaching Club, and McLaughlin is confident she can get 10 furlongs.

“If she runs the same way she ran last time we think she will get it,” McLaughlin said. “The way she ran both times she had a lot left at the finish.”

Zo Impressive, also a daughter of Hard Spun, won the Mother Goose at Belmont before finishing second to Questing in the Coaching Club. Zo Impressive was well off the pace in the Coaching Club, something trainer Tom Albertrani believes was a by-product of his jockey Rajiv Maragh’s being concerned about the whereabouts of In Lingerie, who was drawn to his outside.

“We’re going to let our horse run her race,” Albertrani said. “She’s going to be forwardly placed as she was in the Mother Goose.”

In Lingerie, a daughter of Empire Maker, follows a similar pattern as last year’s Alabama winner, Royal Delta. After a win in the Black-Eyed Susan, In Lingerie finished third in the Coaching Club American Oaks – as did 2011 Black-Eyed Susan winner Royal Delta. Todd Pletcher, the trainer of In Lingerie, believes that the effort in the Coaching Club has moved his filly forward and that the 1 1/4-mile distance should be within her range.

“I think the way she handled the mile and an eighth in the Black-Eyed Susan, I’m confident she’ll get the mile and a quarter. Her pedigree suggests she will,” Pletcher said. “Challenging race. Looks like the best of what we have on the East Coast is going to be here, but we’re confident that she belongs.”

The Alabama goes as race 10 on an 11-race card that also includes the Grade 1 Sword Dancer for male turf horses at 1 1/2 miles. Both races will be shown live on NBC Sports Network in a one-hour telecast beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern.