Batman at the Spa
If last Saturday and Sunday’s Saratoga racing cards had been broadcast as part of the ‘60s television hit Batman, starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader and Burt Ward as Robin, several ‘POWS,’ ‘YIKES,’ ‘WHAMS’ and ‘ZOOMS’ would have flashed across the screen. During those two days at the Spa there were at least two performances as dynamic as a Batman-delivered right hook and just as worthy of exclamation.
After losing most of Thursday’s card to one of Mother Nature’s classic summer-soaking temper-tantrums, the Saratoga racing surface needed all of Friday and at least Saturday morning to recover. Because Thursday’s downpour was a complete surprise, the track had not been ‘sealed’ beforehand. That exposed the strip to a solid drenching and had left it in ‘Muddy’ condition for Friday’s card. Because of a long-standing nationwide rush to ‘seal’ surfaces under the threat of rain, ‘Muddy’ tracks now are about as common as cassette tape players.
By Saturday the track was labelled ‘Fast.’ Of course, at the time, no one knew how fast ‘Fast’ actually would be.
When the six-furlong, Grade 1 Alfred Vanderbilt was drawn racing fans were impressed with the lineup. There, on the rail, was Mitole, winner of seven-in-a-row and eight of the last nine, including the Grade 1 Met Mile last out. Strike Power, in the two-hole, figured to add spice to the early going. A fast colt that had been on the ’18 Kentucky Derby path before connections decided to sprint him, ‘Power had won the Grade 3 Swale in his second lifetime start. Post four housed Firenze Fire, winner of seven of 17, including a pair of Grade 3 tests at up to a mile. In post six was Gulfstream invader Diamond Oops, a sharp cookie and winner of the Grade 3 Smile Sprint last out. Do Share, a six-year-old gelding anchored the far outside. While his best days seemed behind him, he had won the Grade 3 Tom Fool earlier this year. In short, before they popped the gate, the Vanderbilt stacked up as an outstanding sprint worthy of Grade 1 status.
Of course, missing from the above roll call—besides 15-1 Mr. Crow who was scratched--is race winner Imperial Hint. He’s an interesting critter: A full horse at the ripe-old age of six perennially sprinting at the sport’s pinnacle. Although he hasn’t quite grabbed that brass ring yet—a BC Sprint victory—he’s been right there. Favored last year, he finished a disappointing third, beaten five lengths. In 2018, at 4.30-1 he finished second, by a mere length. Roy H won both of those races. Imperial Hint, last out, also was third in the Dubai Golden Shaheen, two lengths behind X Y Jet. The son of Imperialism (an $1,800 stallion), owned by Raymond Mamone and trained by Luis Carvajal, Jr., has now won 13 of 22 starts and banked $2 million. He’s also 2-2 at Saratoga and, more specifically, unbeaten in back-to-back Vanderbilts. Last year, he won the race by nearly four lengths in 1:08 4/5. This year, he outdid himself and every other horse ever to have run six furlongs at Saratoga. That’s an awful lot of horses…good horses, too! Saturday, Imperial Hint blew away the competition and won by four lengths in track-record time of 1:07 4/5!
Sunday, 3-year-old sprinters met at the Spa in the Grade 2 Amsterdam, going six and one-half furlongs. Stranded on the far outside in the 12-horse field was Shancelot, an unbeaten Shanghai Bobby colt boasting a maiden win at Gulfstream in February and an optional allowance claiming score at Monmouth. Trainer Jorge Navarro, who’s trained some outstanding sprinters, including the above-mentioned X Y Jet, billed Shancelot pre-race as the “best horse I’ve ever trained.”
Following the Amsterdam, Navarro may choose to upgrade Shancelot’s title and parrot trainer Buddy Delp’s famous homage to Spectacular Bid as “the best horse ever to look through a bridle.”
All Shancelot did at the Spa was to win by an astounding 12 ½-lengths in 1:14.
It also should be noted that Shancelot’s internal six-furlong fractional time of 1:07 3/5 was even quicker than Imperial Hint’s 1:07 4/5 track-record setting final time for the same distance. However, the two times can’t be compared exactly because at six and one-half furlongs horses are moving faster when they trip the timer than they are when they race six furlongs. According to Equibase, the Amsterdam had an 82 feet Run-Up and the Vanderbilt’s head start was 45 feet.
Obviously, Imperial Hint and Shancelot adored the Spa surface. And, it’s reasonable to assume, that they also particularly preferred the less-than-al-dente ‘give’ courtesy of Thursday’s drenching. Is it possible that the racetrack was mainly responsible for these outstanding performances? I’ll leave that track variant discussion to those who do it for a living. Maybe it helped? But, if the track were solely responsible for such outstanding performances, what about every other dirt race Saturday and Sunday? Nobody did anything unusual in them and Saturday’s card also featured a fine collection of sophomores going a mile and one-eighth in the Jim Dandy.
Tax won that race in fine fashion and trainer Danny Gargan deserves props for the work he’s done with the gelding that was claimed for $50,000 at Keeneland in October. However, runner-up Tacitus stumbled badly at the start of the race and was beaten just three-quarters of a length when his closing effort fell short of the winner. He, and those that wagered on him, were unlucky to lose. Global Campaign raced evenly to be third. Laughing Fox, who really had no pace to chase, also ran evenly. Preakness winner War of Will again was rank in the early going and had nothing left late. He’s got to settle down if he’s going to do any damage down the road. Mihos was close early and faded to sixth and last.
The Jim Dandy result adds intrigue to an already challenging Travers on August 24. If everyone on the prospective guest list shows up that will be an outstanding race. While absent a Triple Crown winner or other high-profile runner, the race may lack pizzazz. However, it will be competitive from top to bottom and horseplayers will need to burn the midnight oil in search of the winning combination.