The $500,000 Ballerina H. (G1) at Saratoga on Saturday is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge prep for the Filly and Mare Sprint (G1), but except for the absence of a few three-year-old contenders, the field likely bears a strong resemblance to what the championship event will look like at Santa Anita in November.
The race goes through reigning Ballerina, Breeders’ Cup, and division champion Goodnight Olive. The Chad Brown-trained mare, a winner in eight of 10 starts, has captured the Madison and Bed o’ Roses (G2) this term, with a rough-trip third in the Derby City Distaff (G1) sandwiched in between.
The other champion in the field is Echo Zulu, the best two-year-old filly of 2021. Runner-up to Goodnight Olive in the Filly and Mare Sprint at Keeneland last fall, Echo Zulu has scorched her competition in two starts this season, capturing the Winning Colors (G3) and Honorable Miss H. (G2) by a combine margin of 13 lengths. Echo Zulu earned a 112 Brisnet Speed rating for winning the Honorable Miss.
“It’s a very strong division. Echo Zulu will be a tough horse to tackle. But our horse is fresh and doing well at the moment. I’m optimistic that she’ll run well,” Brown said.
An upset of the top two is not out of the realm of possibility, but it will be tough. Multiple Grade 1 winner Matareya was the beneficiary of rival tactics that kept Goodnight Olive without running room in the stretch run of the Derby City Distaff, though she herself ran well below par last out when a distant third in the Chicago (G3) at Ellis Park.
Wicked Halo, who finished in between Matareya and Goodnight Olive in the Derby City Distaff, finished a neck behind the latter in the Bed o’ Roses, and last time outclassed four rivals in the Twin Bridges S. at Ellis. However, she might opt instead for the Pink Ribbon S. at Charles Town Friday night.
Graded winners Caramel Swirl and Dr B have lost to one or both of the top players in recent starts, while Maryquitecontrary looks to rebound from a caboose trip in the Honorable Miss after a stumbling start.
In contrast to the Ballerina, the $750,000 Sword Dancer (G1) is unlikely to yield the favorite, or even one of them, for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), for which it is a Challenge prep.
Stone Age, a surprise second in last year’s Turf at Keeneland, has run but twice since, finishing fifth as an even-money favorite in the Hong Kong Vase (G1) at Sha Tin and then far up the track in a Group 1 at Qatar in February. Stone Age’s first visit to Saratoga last year resulted in a fifth in the Saratoga Derby (G1), albeit over a distance (1 3/16 miles) likely shorter than he prefers.
Bolshoi Ballet, whose last visit to the winner’s circle occurred after the Belmont Derby (G1) two years ago, drops heavily in class after finish sixth by 21 lengths in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (G1) at Ascot. Prior to that, Bolshoi Ballet finished second in the Wolverton H. at the Royal meeting.
Former U.S. turf champion Channel Maker, at age nine, seeks to become the eighth horse ever to win the Sword Dancer twice. The others did so in consecutive years, while Channel Maker captured this 1 1/2-mile event in 2020. Channel Maker was a surprise winner of the Bowling Green (G2) last month in customary wire-to-wire fashion.
Verstappen, who captured the Elkhorn (G2) earlier in the season, finished second in the slow-paced Bowling Green, while Soldier Rising endured a nightmarish trip and could make no headway from the back after finishing second in both the Man o’ War (G1) and Manhattan (G1).
A wildcard in the field is stakes newcomer Pioneering Spirit, who enters on a four-race win streak for trainer Linda Rice, who withdrew the four-year-old from Wednesday’s John’s Call S. in favor of the Sword Dancer.