Ballston Spa recap: Waiting Game

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It didn’t take long for John Velazquez to handicap Thursday’s Ballston Spa Stakes. Five horses. Two possible pace scenarios. He’d be in front on Wait A While and Kent Desormeaux would stalk aboard Sharp Susan. Or Sharp Susan would be in front and Wait A While would stalk.

“Him or me,” Velazquez said Wednesday. “It’s simple.”

A day later, Velazquez broke from the inside post aboard Wait A While and eyed Desormeaux, breaking from the 3 stall.

What’s it going to be?

Velazquez instantly knew the answer. Him. Desormeaux scooted Sharp Susan to the lead and Velazquez knew he had one move to make, ease off the rail and get outside the pace.

From there it all came easily for the 4-5 favorite, who inhaled Sharp Susan when the time came and won by a comfortable length over late-running Carriage Trail and Rutherienne. Arindel Farm’s 5-year-old mare collected her second straight Ballston Spa (Grade II) title, her third Saratoga stakes victory and 11th career victory. The win, worth $120,000 of a $200,000 purse, nearly pushed her past the $2 million mark. The daughter of Maria’s Mon increased her bankroll to a cool $1.94 million while going the 1 1/16 miles in 1:39.70 over the Mellon Turf.

This one was all about the pace.

“It worked out the way we thought,” Velazquez said. “We knew if he goes, we’ll lay second and if he doesn’t go, we’d end up on the lead. He went pretty quick in front, it was much better than I thought.”

Trainer Todd Pletcher watched from his box seat and begged Velazquez to make the move. That’s why they win races together; Velazquez made it about the same time Pletcher pleaded for it.

“We talked about it in the paddock and I thought we’d be on the lead, the only other one that could go was Sharp Susan,” Pletcher said. “When she went, I couldn’t tell what Johnny was going to do, I was like, ‘Let that one go, let that one go, let that one go.’ It was almost like he heard me because he did it right then.”

Hey, that’s why he’s leading rider at the meet.

Sharp Susan refused to settle through a quick opening quarter-mile in 23.93 seconds and a half in 47.08. She opened 3 lengths heading down the backside while Wait A While traveled smoothly in second. Carriage Trail (Edgar Prado) sat third with Valbenny (Ramon Dominguez) and the confirmed closer Rutherienne (Julien Leparoux) in last. Velazquez knew Sharp Susan was rolling on the lead. How did he know?

“By my horse. By how my horse is moving. She’s relaxed, going a good pace, but not overdoing it. If we go 48 and change, she’s going to be pulling my guts out, believe me, no matter what,” Velazquez said. “I rode her before, I know it, especially on this kind of track. As we got to the first turn he went on and she didn’t pull, you can see she’s in a good rhythm.”

Desormeaux tried to slip away at the half-mile pole. Nobody bit.

“He opened up 3 lengths on me down the backside, I was like, ‘I’m not taking any of that, I’m going to wait and bide my time.’ It worked out perfectly,” Velazquez said. “I caught up with him at the five sixteenths pole and then I waited until I felt Prado’s horse come, I got after her and I had the other one inside so I’m kind of pushing the other one in, Prado was the only one running down the lane but she responded right away.”

Making her second start after a six-month layoff due to a stress fracture in her left tibia, Wait A While performed like she never left. Time forced Pletcher’s hand earlier in the meet, as he ran Wait A While in the Diana over a rain-soaked turf course. She went off the favorite that day but struggled over the good turf, finishing seventh. She breezed twice since that performance. A half-mile move Aug.15 convinced Pletcher the old Wait A While was back.

“I thought her work the other day was as good as she’s ever worked,” Pletcher said. “She tipped her hand, she came out of it well, I had a positive feeling. When you know she’s training well, doing well, you know she’s good on this turf course, you get confident. The only concern I had was with the weather, the rain Tuesday morning, I was like, ‘Oh, man, we’re getting close.’ I felt pretty good when they ran that five and a half race earlier and they went in 1:02 and 2, it looked like the Mellon turf was firmer than the inner turf. Once I saw that, my confidence level was pretty high. Everything seemed to be coming together.”

Wait A While injured herself after winning the San Gorgonio at Santa Anita in her 5-year-old debut this January. Pletcher conferred with owner Alan Cohen and everyone decided to give her the time and bring her back for the Saratoga meet.

“It’s really a credit to Mr. Cohen,” Pletcher said. “A lot of guys would have stopped and bred her but she’s such a good mare, we told him, ‘Look, we’re confident, this thing will heal, we’ve got to just give her time and she will come back.’ The Breeders’ Cup was always the target anyway so we could give her enough time. The decision on his part was clear, ‘She’s going to be OK, let’s run her.’ She’s been perfect.”

Wait A While made her career debut at Saratoga in 2005. She finished fifth that day and broke her maiden on the turf in the fall. Pletcher returned her to the dirt where she won the Miss Grillo (after it was rained off the turf) and the Grade II Davona Dale at a sloppy Gulfstream Park. She picked up placings in the Grade I Ashland and Kentucky Oaks before going back to the turf, picking off the American Oaks, Lake Placid and Yellow Ribbon on her way to a championship in 2006. Last year, she won two of six starts including a front-running score in the Honey Fox and a late arriving win in the Ballston Spa.

“It’s the fourth year we’ve had her at Saratoga. From her 2-year-old year, we liked her then, she was champion 3-year-old, some of her best races have come here, the Lake Placid, the two Ballston Spas,” Pletcher said. “She’s run great here and we know she likes Santa Anita so we’re excited about the Yellow Ribbon and maybe the Breeders’ Cup if all goes well. That could be it, chances are this will be her last year.”