Mike Hernandez set up shop early Saturday morning at his barn on the Oklahoma training track and settled into the day. The trainer thumbed through the condition book, talked shop with a few jockey’s agents, entertained well-wishers and gave instructions to a bevy of exercise riders.
The popular Hernandez is as much a part of a Saratoga summer as a snow squall is a Buffalo winter. Back for his 32nd year at the Spa, Hernandez looks to repeat in Sunday’s West Point Handicap when he sends out John Becker’s Classic Pack in a deep and competitive field of the New York-bred stakes, run at 9 furlongs on the Mellon turf course.
The son of Regal Classic entered the $100,000 West Point last year as a nearly 14-1 outsider but closed from 19 lengths back to post the upset. It was Classic Pack’s second 9-furlong state-bred stakes score over the Saratoga turf. In 2006 he posted another upset, taking the inaugural the running of the Cab Calloway at more than 8-1. Classic Pack seems to be sitting on another big performance for Hernandez, who earlier in the meet won a race for the 17th consecutive season, the longest active streak at the Spa.
“Classic Pack is doing great and enters off two really good turf races. He’s also really picked it up in his last couple of breezes,” Hernandez said. “I hope he comes out of the race like he did last year. Two years ago we were just kind of trying him on the turf but now know what he likes and he’s coming into the race in great shape so I hope he just keeps going forward.”
The horse to beat in the West Point is Nyala Farm’s Banrock, based on his pair of efforts this season on off turf at Belmont Park. The 5-year-old scored a head victory in the $113,000 Kingston Handicap over a yielding course May 11 and in his last start won the $78,000 Thunder Puddles over a good course July 6. Trained by Tom Bush, Banrock didn’t make his debut until age 3, but has excelled as a result of Bush’s patience. Last summer he won a New York-bred allowance here, a race that signaled to Bush that Banrock had finally turned the corner.
“We always thought he was really on his way to being a pretty nice New York-bred. When he won the allowance race here last year he really had to crawl his way to the victory. You could tell he had a lot of will,” Bush said. “We’ve always had hopes for him; his sister Finlandia was a really good horse too. He was a real late-developer, just backwards and immature as a young horse. He had a baby-face on him like a yearling for years but he’s finally coming around. He doesn’t seem to mind the give in the ground so I’m looking forward to leading him over there.”
Angel Penna echoes those sentiments with Al Basha, a lightly-raced 4-year-old who’s future is in front of him. Al Basha streaked to the end of his 3-year-old season, missing by a nose to the accomplished Dave in the $112,000 Ashley T. Cole Stakes at Belmont Sept. 16 prior to winning the $150,000 Mohawk Handicap on New York Showcase Day Oct. 20. Penna wanted to bring his colt to Churchill Downs later in the fall but was forced to scrap those plans when bad weather hit. He opted to give Al Basha the rest of the winter off and point to Florida, and those plans were foiled as well. Finally Penna got Al Basha to the races July 16 at Belmont, where he ran a strong fourth, beaten less than 2 lengths, in an open-company optional claimer. Owned by Bembridge Farm, the son of Aljabr enters perfect in two starts over the Saratoga sod and three of his four lifetime wins have come at today’s distance.
“The time off wasn’t by design. I wanted to run in a stake at Churchill last fall and that didn’t work. I gave him some time off and I wanted to bring him back in Florida and he just fell apart on me. I don’t know what happened. I had to back off completely and had to start again,” Penna said. “He ran really well at Belmont. He got an inside trip and had a bit of trouble, and those were some good horses. He came out of the last race pretty good and I think it tightened him up a lot for this one. He’s ready now and this is the spot we were pointing to all along after we got him back.”
Gimme Credit (Edgar Prado to ride) is rounding into form for trainer Tim Hills and enters off a solid second behind Banrock in the Thunder Puddles. Though he may be better suited at shorter races Gimme Credit enters perfect in two starts over the Saratoga turf course and could prove a stretch danger.
Mission Approved (Eibar Coa) should have no trouble negotiating 9 furlongs. Two starts ago the son of With Approval won the Grade III 12-furlong Singspiel Stakes at Woodbine for trainer Gary Contessa. In his last start the 4-year-old tired badly against Red Rocks, Curlin and Better Talk Now in the Grade I Man O’ War at Belmont. Last summer Mission Approved won the Grade III Saranac over the course in wire-to-wire fashion and will look to employ the same tactics Sunday.
Key Event (Eriluis Vaz) enters as a wildcard, having not started since taking a Philadelphia Park optional claimer in July. Trained by Daniel Foster III, Key Event won an allowance here in 2005 and shows four breezes at Aqueduct for his first afternoon assignment in 13 months.
Hammock (Rajiv Maragh), an allowance winner two back at Belmont; Extra Zip (Channing Hill), fourth in the Thunder Puddles in his stakes debut; My Man Lars (Javier Castellano), who won via disqualification in his seasonal debut at Belmont and Foreverness (Robby Albarado), third in the West Point last year round out the field.