Next to the Kentucky Oaks run the Friday before the Kentucky Derby, the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga is the biggest race of the year for three-year-old fillies — and it’s shaping up to a real classic as Nest and Secret Oath square off for the third time this year.
Secret Oath won the first showdown in the Kentucky Oaks with a brilliant ride under Luis Saez for 86-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Nest finished second in the Oaks and the Belmont Stakes, then turned the tables on Secret Oath in the Coaching Club American Oaks in July at Saratoga with a dominant win under Irad Ortiz Jr. for trainer Todd Pletcher.
They’re facing five other challengers, only two of which could post a serious upset threat.
142nd Alabama Stakes
Saturday, Aug. 20
Saratoga Race Course, Saratoga Springs NY
Distance: 1 1/4 Miles
Conditions: 3-year-old fillies
TV: FS1 (post time 5:32 p.m.)
Analysis and picks
The race is simply Nest’s to lose. Having nearly beaten Mo Donegal in the Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles, it’s impossible to believe Nest won’t be able to get the trip over the two-furlong shorter Alabama Stakes. Her win in the Coaching Club American Oaks over the same Saratoga course was as decisive as a 10-length victory should be, and she left Secret Oath in her dust.
That said, could Secret Oath turn the tables on Nest this time? It’s possible. She got stuck four-wide in the Coaching Club American Oaks around the clubhouse turn and the backstretch. Secret Oath and Nest broke away together from the pack around the far turn, but by the top of the stretch, Secret Oath was spent, while Nest had plenty left in the tank.
The outside trip clearly took a lot out of Secret Oath, and drawing the outside post in the Alabama Stakes certainly doesn’t help her cause. Saez will need to find a way to the rail faster; that means either gunning Secret Oath to the lead from the start, or breaking her more slowly to get to the inside, even if she’s stuck behind the frontrunners.
Gerrymander comes into the Alabama Stakes off a solid win in the Mother Goose Stakes at 1 1/16 Miles. But that race was run around one turn; the Alabama will be her first test around two turns, and a full 3/16 of a mile longer. Hard to see her overcoming these challenges and beating horses of the caliber of Nest and Secret Oath, though she’s a good play for the trifecta and superfecta.
A more likely upset contender, however, is Goddess of Fire, who finished a hard-charging second in the Wilton Stakes on Saratoga’s opening day card, on the newly-reconstructed Wilson Chute at a mile. It was her first start after a two-month layoff after a 10th place showing in the Kentucky Oaks. But she’s got one of the best jockeys in racing in John Velazquez in the irons, and it’s hard to imagine why Pletcher would enter her in the Alabama if he didn’t think she’d have a chance to hit the board.
Our picks: Nest, Secret Oath, Goddess of Fire
Off topic: An embarrassing Arlington Million
Churchill Downs ran the Arlington Million and Beverly D Stakes — two prestigious turf races it relocated from now-shuttered Arlington Park in suburban Chicago — last Saturday on a turf course unworthy of prestige.
To horse racing fans across the country, it was shameful to watch.
Since rebuilding the turf course within its historic dirt main track last year, Churchill Downs has had one complication after another on the grass. It was reopened in time for the spring meet on April 30, a week ahead of the Kentucky Derby, but subsequently closed and renovated midway through its spring/summer meet due to the course’s poor condition, which contributed to at least one fatal horse breakdown.
The track superintendent’s crew cut the grass, hoping it would blossom and flourish in time for Aug. 13, the special one-day meet created specifically for the Arlington Million. Churchill Downs had planned several other turf stakes for the card, but all of them were scrapped ahead of race day because they weren’t confident that the course would withstand multiple turf races ahead of the Beverly D and Arlington Million.
Track management made the Beverly D and Arlington Million the only “grass” races on the card, run 3 1/2 hours apart to accommodate for rail changes in an effort to keep the track manageable. Yet the grass looked far from an ideal racing surface, to most observers; it was easy to see tufts of grass and clouds of dust too easily kicked up on the runners’ hooves throughout both contests.
The grand shame of it is Arlington Park, which Churchill Downs management shuttered last year in a pending land sale with the Chicago Bears, was known to have one of the best turf courses in the world. It sat idle and empty, awaiting the wrecking ball, while Churchill Downs raced the Beverly D and Arlington Million on a turf course unworthy of a champion (no disrespect to the races’ respective winners, Dalika and Santin — they ran great on a substandard track).
It’s hard to imagine Churchill Downs’ turf will be in better shape for its September and November meets, so if you’re a horse player who likes the grass races, you’ll want to look elsewhere for good turf this fall.
Kentucky Downs runs a short, but highly lucrative meet this September promising some of the richest, and likely crowded, turf races in the country. Locally, after Saratoga wraps up on Labor Day, turn your attention to the Belmont Park at the Big A meeting, where Aqueduct Racetrack offers two lush green tracks.