Behind one door is another date with Horse of the Year Wise Dan on the grass. Behind another other door is a bit more of an unknown in a one-turn sprint on dirt against Grade 1 company. Sometimes it just makes more sense to jump in the water without seeing the bottom.
Such could be the case with Lea, who chased Wise Dan unsuccessfully in his last two grass starts and makes his return to the main track for today’s $500,000 Forego Stakes at Saratoga. Lea is 12-1 on the morning line for the Grade 1 Forego, a perceived outsider on paper. He could also pass for a legitimate longshot threat considering that some of the main contenders in the 7-furlong event might be suspect.
“To me it’s a no brainer to at least try,” said Al Stall, who trains Lea for Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschnieder, as he assessed the merits of running the First Samurai colt on the dirt. “Maybe there have been tougher Foregos over the years, just what I’m reading.”
Lea raced on dirt three starts back, winning a 1-mile allowance-optional race June 1 at Churchill that was originally scheduled for the grass. The field was reduced to just four starters that day, the runner-up was Bernard Baruch threat Tetradrachm, but Lea won by 3 ¼ lengths well in hand and in relatively fast time of 1:35.30 as the 7-10 favorite.
That victory set up two subsequent graded stakes tries on grass, where he finished behind Wise Dan both times, including a third in the Grade 2 Fourstardave here three weeks ago.
“He had a really good race in that one that was rained off the turf, the best number he’s got so to speak,” Stall said. “Then he came back in a month, caught soft turf and ran second to the big boy. Then he caught soft turf again, well, not soft but off turf, and Wise Dan again. We just decided to see if this works. If it doesn’t we know what to do for the rest of his career. We’ll go back to the turf, and back to firm turf hopefully.”
Brian Hernandez Jr., who was to ride Fort Larned in the Woodward later on the card before last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic winner was declared from the race with a minor hind-end issue, gets the return call on Lea.
Lea will take on eight opponents in the Forego, led by the Zayat Stables’ favored entry of Fast Bullet and Justin Phillip, James Marvin winner Sage Valley, and state-bred stakes winner Saratoga Snacks.
Each of those contenders, who make up the first three choices on the morning line, face questions.
Fast Bullet was brilliant winning the Grade 2 True North on the Belmont Stakes undercard but hasn’t been out since. The 5-year-old son of Speightstown has raced only five times in his career, never more than twice in a row without a sizable layoff, and will race at Saratoga for the first time. He was transferred last week from Bob Baffert, whose starters heading into today’s card are winless in four starts, to D. Wayne Lukas, who won the Travers last weekend but only one other race at the meet from 46 starts.
Justin Phillip is a model of consistency and comes off a sharp victory in the Grade 1 A. G. Vanderbilt Handicap four weeks ago. The 5-year-old by First Samurai, trained by Steve Asmussen, is just 1-for-5 at 7 furlongs and at Saratoga.
Owner Ahmed Zayat is excited to see both horses run, though he also knows all bout even-money shots losing at Saratoga.
“If they run it on paper, I’ll be standing in the winner’s circle one way or another, but they don’t,” he said. “Fast Bullet is one of the fastest horses in America, but we have to be patient with him. Justin Phillip is fast too, but completely the opposite. He is very good right now and deserves a chance in another Grade 1. I don’t know who root for, maybe a dead heat.”
Sage Valley, a powerful winner of the opening-day Grade 3 James Marvin, might have the fewest question marks. Trainer Rudy Rodriguez took the blame for his loss in the True North, saying he ran back too quickly and then watched as the 4-year-old Discreet Cat colt further compounded matters with a bad break. He likes a good amount of space between races and gets it today, 43 days to be exact.
“He’s doing great, we are very happy with how he is training,” Rodriguez said from his barn at the Oklahoma Training Track Friday morning. “The race came up tough. We are hoping he will throw us another big one. Timing-wise the race came at the perfect time. He tries very hard every time he runs, so the extra time between races was perfect.”
Rodriguez said Sage Valley’s ability to be on the lead or rate off the pace also gives him an edge from post 3 in the Forego.
“He’s easy to ride; Cornelio [Velasquez] knows him really well and can pretty much do what he wants with him,” Rodriguez said. “We have a good post and if he breaks good and nobody wants the lead, he can go to the front and be comfortable. If the pace is too hot he will be able to make one run. The competition is a little deeper, but hopefully he’s deep enough.”
Michael Dubb, who owns Sage Valley with Gary Aisquith, was at the barn Friday and agreed with his trainer. He was also quick to credit Rodriguez for picking him out and claiming him for $50,000 off Eddie Kenneally and owner Doug Arnold back in February 2012.
“Sometimes we work together but this was all Rudy,” Dubb said. “We go into it hopefully to win. We will try to get a mile down road but going to take it a step at a time. It’s definitely a step up in class. I do think that with his consistency and numbers he fits.
“Justin Phillip will be tough, but the distance is a question mark for him. On paper I don’t see the pace we had in the James Marvin, but it depends how it goes. Either way it doesn’t matter because this horse is tractable, depending on how the race sets up, we will let Cornelio make the decision. This is Cornelio’s type of horse.
Saratoga Snacks, owned by retired Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, was uncertain to start in the Forego earlier in the week but got the all-clear from trainer Gary Sciacca and his owner. The 4-year-old son of Tale of the Cat finished third at odds-on behind Saginaw and Mine Over Matter last time in the John Morrissey for New York-breds. That race came on a wet track, where Saratoga Snacks has only won once in four starts. He’s 5-for-5 on a fast track but makes his graded-stakes debut and second start against open company today.
Jackson Bend, the 2011 Forego winner, Mid-Atlantic shippers Javerre and Golddigger’s Boy and Kid Russell Stakes winner Strapping Groom complete the field.
Additional reporting by Catlyn Spivey and Joe Clancy.