The only question that arose in selecting this week’s “Best Bet” is whether or not it would be the Pick 4 or Pick 5 ending with the Travers on Saturday at Saratoga. With Shancelot looming a heavy favorite in the first leg of the Pick 5, and one I’m not inclined to play against, it felt prudent to shorten up, even though I’m a complete sucker for Pick 5’s. I can’t say that the Pick 4 is the most attractive betting sequence either, but the racing is too good to pass up and there are at least a few spots to get somewhat creative.
Race 8: Grade 2 Ballston Spa (3:35 p.m. ET)
Typically when Chad Brown sends out a trio of horses in a graded stake on turf, they finish 1-2-3 in some order. It remains to be seen if Fifty Five will opt for this spot (she’s cross-entered in the Yaddo on Friday), but even if she were to run I’m not too enthused by any of the Brown triumvirate. Significant Form would get my tepid nod among them. It’s possible that rather than being at her best around one turn, she just came back an improved animal when she won the G3 Intercontinental impressively in her 4-year-old debut. None of the races during her sophomore campaign would be good enough to beat this field, however, so that would have to be the case in order for her to come out on top. My top pick in this race is Indian Blessing. She seemed to round back into form in her most recent race in Germany and she’ll be meeting a far weaker group in this edition of the Ballston Spa than the one she faced last year when she finished third ahead of the likes of multiple Grade 1 winner A Raving Beauty, Off Limits, and Proctor’s Ledge. Though Ed Walker has yet to win a race in North America, his starters have run consistently well, and this mare is clearly no exception. Morning-line favorite Secret Message is the other filly I’ll be using as a ‘main’ play. She had legitimate trouble in the stretch of the G1 Diana having to steady at a critical juncture of the race and could have finished considerably closer, though she still probably wouldn’t have cracked the top three. She’s perfectly logical but not all that formidable a favorite. Second to her on the morning line is Starship Jubilee, who I’m very much against in this spot. She’s been an absolutely sensational claim and a terror at Woodbine, but I have my doubts that she’ll be able to ship effectively. Every year she winters in Florida it seems to take her a race to find her best form, and she’ll have no margin for error against this bunch.
MAIN: 3,5 BACKUP: 4,7
Race 9: Grade 1 Personal Ensign (4:12 p.m. ET)
This is very much a two-horse race and not one I’m going to get cute in. Midnight Bisou and Elate stand out as head and shoulders above their competition and were very tough for me to separate. While the former got the better of the latter in a pair of starts at Oaklawn earlier this year, Elate has since taken a step forward and has done her best running over this track. Your guess is as good as mine between them. There was a slight temptation to make Wow Cat, who actually finished ahead of Midnight Bisou in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff, a backup, but I just don’t think she’s truly on the level of the top two and her races over this track have been extremely disappointing.
MAIN: 1,4 BACKUP: NONE
Race 10-: Grade 1 Sword Dancer (4:49 p.m. ET)
Four horses are exiting the G2 Bowling Green that were separated by a length and a quarter on the wire; as is the case with just about every turf marathon run on this circuit, trip will be paramount in determining the winner. Channel Cat ran very well to win the Bowling Green after being sent aggressively to the lead, battling gamely to the wire and refusing to let some really salty turfers get by, but he could be the most adversely affected by the dynamics of this race. With Proven Reserves presumably entered as a rabbit, it’s unlikely he gets a similar trip, and while he’s also shown he can be effective coming from off the pace it did feel like he was at his best when getting brave on the lead. Sadler’s Joy finished worst among the Bowling Green quartet but also endured the worst trip having to rally through traffic on the inside while never really getting a clear path. He won this race two years ago, and while he’s not the most trustworthy win candidate I have no doubt he’s capable of beating this field and should benefit greatly from the projected hot pace. Chilean superstar Ya Primo transitioned nicely to North American racing in the Bowling Green. He actually broke on top but was rated off the pace and put in tight quarters on the rail through the stretch. It wasn’t a horrible trip – a chasm opened for him leaving the final turn and he had every chance to get the better of Channel Cat – but it does feel like he might have more to show in this spot and he has the tactical speed to be placed anywhere. Channel Maker actually looked like he might win the Bowling Green mid-stretch but he appeared to shy away from Channel Cat at a few points in the final eighth and ultimately settled for fourth. He’s an honest horse and clearly capable of winning, I just prefer others. The new face in this race that warrants serious inclusion is Annals of Time, who rejoins stakes company for the first time since taking the G1 Hollywood Derby in 2016. He was ultra-impressive blowing the doors off a solid N3X field last out, and though I respect the Bowling Green contingent, none of them are absolute killers. Annals of Time could be Bricks and Mortar lite.
MAIN: 6,7,9 BACKUP: 4,8
Race 11: Grade 1 Travers (5:44 p.m. ET)
Though perhaps lacking a bit in star power, this is a fascinating and wide-open renewal of the Travers. For me, there’s no question Code of Honor ran the best race last out. After lagging behind a glacial pace, he launched a wide rally over a track that seemed to favor inside runners and effortlessly galloped away from the field. It was breathtaking. The question I do have, however, is that if he’s truly a mile and a quarter horse. He had every chance to win the Derby but failed to take full advantage of the seam that opened when Maximum Security bore out leaving the far turn, though I’m not sure that was because he has distance limitations or he just didn’t care for the track. I think he’s the most talented runner in this field and I’ll be using him prominently, but I do have my doubts. Morning-line favorite Tacitus is such an admirable horse and impossible to avoid using as a ‘main’. He’s overcome some serious adversity in his past two starts and there are no distance questions with him, I’m just not sure he’s any better than a few others in this field and will likely be an underlay. If I had to bet one horse in this race, it would probably be Owendale. Narrowly beating Math Wizard at Thistledown isn’t anyone’s idea of a top Travers contender, however, like Tacitus I think he’s going to relish the distance. On a fairer track I think he would have won the Preakness, and I loved the way he bounded home in the Ohio Derby even if the competition was suspect. He could be a bit overlooked in the wagering and I think he may actually be the best 1 ¼-mile horse in this race. I wasn’t a fan of Mucho Gusto going into the Haskell, but I did come out of that race impressed. He made a premature move into a fast pace down the backstretch and showed no quit in the lane even though he had to settle for second behind Maximum Security. He seems to be blossoming at the right time and should be able to work out a better trip this time around. The post doesn’t particularly bother me with Tax, but I think last time was the time to have him. He has the tactical speed to put himself in a good position and will have the necessary runway to do so, I’m just not sure he’s going to be at his best at this distance and is meeting tougher in this spot. One long shot I think merits inclusion is Looking At Bikinis. I really liked his return to the races this year and he had absolutely no chance last time over a track that severely compromised the chances of inside runners. He has plenty of stamina in his pedigree and if he’s able to move forward off his sophomore debut he’d have a legitimate shot in here.
MAIN: 1,2,6,7 BACKUP: 9,12