February 22, 2024

Aspen Grove takes on males in Saratoga Derby; Caravel odds-on in Troy

Aspen Grove wins the 2023 Belmont Oaks (Coglianese Photography)

Whitney Day includes a trio of turf stakes, led by the $600,000 Saratoga Derby (G1) that offers a match-up between Belmont Derby (G1) winner Far Bridge and Belmont Oaks (G1) heroine Aspen Grove. The theme of females taking on males extends to the $300,000 Troy (G3) earlier on the card, where Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) star Caravel is pegged at 3-5 to extend her winning streak.

Saratoga Derby (G1) – Race 9 (5:01 p.m. ET)

Far Bridge will try to add the next leg of the New York Turf Triple after his breakthrough score in the Belmont Derby. The Todd Pletcher pupil had settled for runner-up honors in his initial stakes ventures, missing by a nose to Webslinger in the American Turf (G2) and encountering trouble in the Pennine Ridge (G2). But the English Channel colt put it together last time, reportedly with the assistance of a different bit, and Pletcher is hopeful of further improvement from the 2-1 morning-line favorite.

“He seems to improve a little each time he runs,” Pletcher said. “All of his races have been good so far, and he worked out a good trip last time in the Belmont Derby. He will definitely appreciate more distance going forward.”

The 1 3/16-mile Saratoga Derby is a slight cutback from the 1 1/4-mile Belmont Derby, a possible question as Far Bridge bids for the double.

“English Channels can be a little tricky to ride sometimes and he has that high head carriage in common with his father,” added Pletcher, who trained the sire as well. “One thing about them is they get better as they age and mature. I think he’s a horse we could see in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) in the long run. He’s that kind of quality.”

Webslinger had a checkered passage in the Belmont Derby, where he did well to close for fourth to Far Bridge, classy European shipper The Foxes, and pace-controlling Mondego.

“I thought his race in the Belmont Derby was good,” Webslinger’s trainer, Mark Casse, said. “He got shuffled back pretty good and had to come very wide and wound up getting the best number in the race. He kept trying, but has to get a better trip. These are tighter turns (than Belmont), but he did win at Churchill, and those turns are sharper.”

Aspen Grove, the 15-1 upsetter of the Belmont Oaks for Fozzy Stack, is among three European-based entrants. Fellow Irish shipper The Franchise represents Joseph O’Brien, who won the 2021 Saratoga Derby with State of Rest, and Lion of War invades from Britain for Charlie Johnston.

Although Aspen Grove was overlooked by bettors at Belmont, the Justify filly had a solid resume as a Group 3 winner who was coming off a 10th in the Irish 1000 Guineas (G1). The added ground of the 1 1/4-mile Belmont Oaks suited her well, as she rallied to a new career high. Cross-entered to Friday’s $400,000 Saratoga Oaks (G3), Aspen Grove will go for the more valuable prize versus the boys.

Glen Hill Farm proprietor Craig Bernick, who bred Aspen Grove and races her in partnership with Mrs. John Magnier, explained the decision.

“She seems to be doing really well and is already a Grade 1 winner, so we thought we would go for another Grade 1 that was worth more money,” Bernick said. “She was drawn wide in a bigger field in the Oaks and also gets some weight against the boys, so we thought it was worth a chance. The speed figures are going to say that the Belmont Derby was a faster race than the Belmont Oaks, but I thought she ran really well considering how slow the pace was and how she closed. We’ll line up and see.”

John Velazquez picks up the mount on Aspen Grove; her Belmont pilot, Oisin Murphy, is committed to Lion of War as Qatar Racing’s retained rider.

From the lone Northern Hemisphere crop of ill-fated champion Roaring Lion, Lion of War was most recently second as the co-favorite in a handicap at Royal Ascot. Two starts back, he overcame a stumbling start to win an about 1 1/8-mile handicap at Musselburgh.

Also stepping up from handicap company is The Franchise. The well-bred son of Siyouni had run creditably in maiden races before scoring his first career win in a premier handicap at the Curragh. He was getting 15 pounds from the beaten favorite, but eligible to continue progressing.

Other upwardly-mobile contenders are Program Trading, 2-for-2 for the ubiquitous Chad Brown, and Truly Quality, a smashing Belmont Park maiden winner for Jonathan Thomas.

Battle of Normandy, the near-misser in last summer’s With Anticipation (G3), could be a 20-1 sleeper in his return to Saratoga. The Shug McGaughey pupil wasn’t beaten far when fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), and his closing seconds in a pair of allowances signal that he’s rounding into form.

“He’s a closer and I think distance is going to help him,” McGaughey said. “He broke his maiden here and he just got beat in the two-year-old stakes. I think the turf here and quick turns suit him.”

Troy (G3) – Race 6 (3:17 p.m. ET)

Caravel won her fifth straight in the Jaipur (G1) on Belmont Day, once again working out an advantageous trips on or near the lead. Aside from her sparkling form, Caravel is proven over this 5 1/2-furlong course as the winner of the 2021 Caress (G3) and 2022 Smart N Fancy S. versus distaffers. If you’re probing for a reason to try to beat the favorite, she whiffed in her Caress title defense last year, but that was more a function of a poor trip.

Her most logical challenger is six-time stakes victor Nobals, successful in the TwinSpires Turf Sprint (G2) and the William Garrett H. at Horseshoe Indianapolis in his last two. The four-year-old promises to show plenty of early speed, but he might be hard pressed late.

Cogburn, a promising sprinter on the dirt at three, has raised his game since switching to turf. The Steve Asmussen colt is 2-for-2 on the surface, with back-to-back stakes scores at Lone Star, and gets the acid class test here. Other contenders include Grooms All Bizness, recent winner of the Get Serious S. at Monmouth; Thin White Duke, beaten just a neck when third in last year’s Troy; and Godolphin’s homebred Remuda, who makes his stakes debut off a Laurel allowance tally.

One race later is the $135,000 Lure S. (3:51 p.m. ET), a 1 1/16-mile inner turf test restricted to horses who have not won a graded stakes in 2023. Speaking Scout, last year’s Hollywood Derby (G1) hero, hopes that a class drop can get him back in the winner’s circle. Dakota Gold did just that in a New York-bred stakes in his latest, while Cliff Hanger S. runner-up Smokin’ T could find this the spot for a first stakes victory. Also of interest are the Brown-trained Portfolio Company, Tiz the Bomb, and Stack’s Irish handicapper Chazzesmee.