The phrase “it’s a wide-open race” gets trotted out almost annually come Kentucky Derby time.
Nobody really buys it though, do they? With a 20-horse field and entrants clearly in the gate only so their connections can snag a place to sit at one of America’s showcase events? When so many horses are tosses, it can’t be wide open, can it?
To write or talk about today’s Grade 1 TVG Diana Stakes as a truly wide-open event is no stretch, however. Tossing one is a difficult task and making a legitimate case for each of the 10 entrants in the $500,000 event going 9 furlongs on the inner turf course is not a stretch. Each brings credentials that a victory would not be a surprise.
All are graded stakes winners. Five are Grade 1 winners – Emollient three times over and Stephanie’s Kitten twice.
So what’s a horseplayer or horseman to do? Everybody loves numbers, so perhaps look to strength in numbers.
Chad Brown sends out two of the 10 and they’re both Grade 1 winners. He’s the only trainer with multiple entries and he conceded that it can’t hurt after he watched some of his other horses work on the turf at the Oklahoma Training Track Friday morning.
“You could make a case for most of the horses in the field,” said Brown, who runs Martin Schwartz’s Alterite and Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Stephanie’s Kitten. “You could see all of them, in some scenario, winning. I think we have two of them. It never hurts going into Saratoga with more than one chance to win a Grade 1 in the same race. So we’ll take our shot.”
Alterite, winner of last year’s Grade 1 Garden City against 3-year-olds and second to older females in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and Stephanie’s Kitten, a Grade 1 winner on synthetic at 2 and turf at 4, both come in with questions.
Alterite hasn’t raced since the Breeders’ Cup and is getting a later start to her 4-year-old campaign than Brown would prefer. The French-bred daughter of Literato was slow to get going in 2014 as she recovered from the removal of an ankle chip following the Filly and Mare Turf.
“It’s a lot of a later start,” Brown said. “I didn’t want to start this late, but you’ve got to do right by the horse. But right now she’s perfect. Perfect.”
Alterite is the 3-1 favorite with Javier Castellano named.
Stephanie’s Kitten spent a lengthy stint at her owners’ Ramsey Farm in Nicholasville, Ky. recuperating from soreness that ended her 4-year-old campaign shortly after she finished third behind Laughing and Dream Peace in last year’s Diana.
The recovery included a complete rehab program featuring trips to “Kitten’s Spa,” a spotless and modern facility not far from the stallion barn where Kitten’s Joy goes daily. The state-of-the-art spa has an underwater treadmill with whirlpool jets and a vibrating platform with heated lamps overhead.
Stephanie’s Kitten, a 5-year-old daughter of Kitten’s Joy, was sent to Brown earlier this year after being trained by Wayne Catalano. She finished eighth in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley at Keeneland in her 2014 bow and was fifth in the Grade 1 Just A Game on the Belmont Stakes undercard.
“She’s trained better than she’s run her first two starts for me, but I have a lot of confidence she’s going to run well,” Brown said. “She’s trained well and looks great. Maybe the third race off the layoff will be the key for her.”
Stephanie’s Kitten also gets a new rider for the Diana with Frankie Dettori replacing John Velazquez. Dettori, a leading rider in Europe, is riding at Saratoga for the first time this week.
“Not only have I never ridden him, but I’ve never met him,” Brown said when asked about his relationship with his new jock. “I’m excited to meet him and give him a leg up here and I hope they’re a great combination together.”
Juddmonte Farm’s Emollient is the 7-2 second choice behind Alterite for the Diana off three strong and improving races this season for Bill Mott.
The quirky 4-year-old daughter of Empire Maker is winless in those three races, but she was second by a nose in the Grade 1 Gamely Stakes last out at Santa Anita Park.
Fourth and just a nose behind Alterite in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, Emollient won the Grade 1 Spinster and Ashland on Keeneland’s Polytrack and the Grade 1 American Oaks on Hollywood Park’s turf last season.
Strathnaver also comes in off a second by a nose, losing a tough one to Coffee Clique in the 1-mile Just A Game. Andrew Stone’s 5-year-old mare was fourth, just a length behind third-place finisher Emollient in the Grade 3 Doubledogdare prior to that on the Polytrack at Keeneland. Strathnaver is 10-1 on the morning line.
“She ran huge last time and this should be more her trip,” said Graham Motion, who trains the 5-year-old daughter of Oasis Dream. “She’s only run two bad races. She does not ship well and that’s why the Arlington race [the 2013 Modesty) didn’t go well at all. The Belmont race [the 2013 Sheepshead Bay] was on soft turf and I will not run her on soft turf again. Draw a line through those two, and her form is very good.”
John Velazquez, who has ridden Stephanie’s Kitten and Alterite, gets aboard.
Reade Baker shipped Solid Appeal from his base at Woodbine for the Diana, enticed by the rich purse and the chance at a Grade 1.
The 5-year-old Successful Appeal mare won her second Grade 2 Nassau Stakes last time, but needs to improve from earlier efforts graded competition in the U.S. She’s 15-1 on the morning line with Julien Leparoux.
“The Grade 1, that’s what we’re here for,” Baker said. “We could have stayed home for a Grade 2, but we wanted to see if we could win a Grade 1 with her. I don’t think we expected this race to be the toughest or second toughest [race] in America this year, maybe only the Breeders’ Cup might be better. This one’s tough.”
“I know she’ll run her race. I don’t know if she’s good enough for these ones. She’s in great condition, peaking right now and hopefully we’ll get a trip.”
Third choice at 5-1 is New York-bred Discreet Cat mare Discreet Marq, winner of last year’s Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks for owner/breeder Patricia Generazio and trainer Christophe Clement. She broke her maiden here as a 2-year-old against state-bred company in 2012.
Tannery will try and give owner Richard Santulli and trainer Alan Goldberg back-to-back wins in the Diana, following the footsteps of former stablemate and 2013 winner Laughing. The 5-year-old by Dylan Thomas, who won the Grade 1 E. P. Taylor last fall at Woodbine, prepped for the Diana with a win in the Miss Liberty at Monmouth in late May and a strong second to Riposte in the Grade 2 New York Stakes in late June at Belmont.
Abaco, winner of the Grade 3 Cardinal last fall at Churchill Downs, and Somali Lemonade, winner of the Grade 3 Gallorette two starts back and third in the Just A Game last time, add depth to the field along with 4-year-old filly Caroline Thomas, who exits an optional-claiming win at Belmont June 15. Bonner Young’s homebred won the Grade 2 Lake Placid by disqualification here last year for trainer Barclay Tagg.
Additional reporting by Joe Clancy.
Check out all the other Friday recaps and Saturday previews in Issue 2 of The Saratoga Special presented by Keeneland.