08/15/2013 5:10PM

Saratoga: Hard-luck Al Khali takes fourth shot at Sword Dancer

Barbara D. Livingston
Although he always tries hard, Al Khali remains winless in 18 tries at the Grade 1 level heading into Saturday's Sword Dancer.

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – With little fanfare, Al Khali has competed at the highest level of racing for the last five years. Still lacking that signature victory, Al Khali will try again in Saturday’s Grade 1, $600,000 Sword Dancer Invitational at Saratoga.

His appearance in the Sword Dancer will mark the fifth straight year he has run in a graded stakes at Saratoga and the fourth consecutive year he has run in the Sword Dancer. Al Khali, a 7-year-old ridgling by Medaglia d’Oro, finished second to Point of Entry in last year’s Sword Dancer after finishing third in the race in both 2010 and 2011.

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In 2009, his first year in the United Stakes after competing in Peru as a 2-year-old, Al Khali won the Grade 3 Saranac Stakes after finishing third in the Grade 2 Hall of Fame.

For his career, Al Khali has run in 27 graded stakes, winning two – the Grade 2 Bowling Green at Belmont in 2010 and the Saranac.

Al Khali has been both exhilarating and frustrating for co-owners Adam Wachtel and Nils Brous, who purchased Al Khali privately from WinStar Farm following a second-place finish in the A Gift Stakes at Belmont in 2009. This will be his 38th career start and his 37th for Wachtel and Brous and trainer Bill Mott.

“We haven’t made too many mistakes with him in terms of running him too often,” Wachtel said. “I think we’ve been pretty kind to him. The one time we made a mistake this year was at Keeneland when we ran him back too quick. You can’t do that with him.”

Wachtel acknowledged that Al Khali can be a bit finicky and a bit tricky to ride. He’s the type of horse who needs to be covered up and then turned loose. The problem is that he often finds trouble.

“I’ve never had a horse that got in trouble every damn time he runs like he does,” Wachtel said. “Even the Bowling Green when he won it, he was stopped dead. Bill was walking out of the box in disgust, as was I, and we turn around, here he comes, and he wins the race.”

Al Khali is winless in 18 tries in Grade 1 stakes. Last year, Al Khali was beaten a neck in the Northern Dancer at Woodbine in his next start after the Sword Dancer. However, it’s the 2010 Canadian International, where Al Khali finished fourth – beaten three-quarters of a length – that still gnaws at Wachtel.

“That’s the one that makes me the sickest of all – $2 million, and he got beat three-quarters of a length,” Wachtel said. “With a sixteenth of a mile to go, he’s checked for the fourth time, and he comes flying again.”

Al Khali has one win from four starts this year, that coming in an allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs. In his most recent start, Al Khali finished sixth behind Boisterous, beaten 5 3/4 lengths. Wachtel said Al Khali was making a move along the inside when Finnegans Wake came over and jockey Junior Alvarado steadied his horse.

“I thought in the Man o’ War he was going to win the race,” Wachtel said. “He had a ton of horse. He had a decision to make: get him out – he’s a massive horse – or go down on the inside. If you’re going to do that, pretend you’re Jerry Bailey and just keep going. He got in trouble. [Finnegans Wake] starts to float over a little bit, Junior grabs hold of him and stops his momentum. If he doesn’t win, he’s second.”

On Saturday, Joe Rocco Jr. will ride Al Khali, making him the 14th jockey to ride him in the United States.

Though he is coming to the end of his 7-year-old season, Al Khali may not be done yet.

“As long as Bill tells me he’s healthy, we’ll keep running him,” Wachtel said.