To explain the appeal of Saratoga Race Course, Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito said, “If you’re in Chicago, you’re going to see Michael Jordan 40 times. At Saratoga, you’ve got the Michael Jordans every day.”
As the 144th Saratoga meet begins today, Zito has one of those Jordans in his barn, even though a basketball player is the last comparison anyone would make to Jackson Bend.
Winner of the James Marvin and Grade I Forego at Saratoga last year, the diminutive Jackson Bend will attempt to complete that double again this season.
That begins with today’s co-featured stakes race, the James Marvin, which has drawn such tough fields in four short years that it was awarded a Grade III by the American Graded Stakes Committee.
Jackson Bend is not only the morning-line favorite, at 7-5, but he’s also become a fan favorite, not only for his running style, but his stature, Zito said.
“They love his heart because he’s so small,” Zito said. “He’s an overachiever, let’s face it. He was by a sire that nobody ever heard of.”
Jackson Bend, by Hear No Evil out of the Tabasco Cat mare Sexy Stockings, was bred by Fred Brei, whose Jacks or Better Farm in Florida has also produced the undefeated filly Awesome Feather, winner of the 2010 Eclipse Award for juvenile fillies.
Jackson Bend, whose height has never been measured by Zito “because I’m afraid to,” was 12th in the 2010 Kentucky Derby and nearly won the Preakness, but was third to Lookin at Lucky.
The James Marvin and Forego were his only wins in 2011, but he came back this year to win the Grade III Hal’s Hope and the Grade I Carter at Aqueduct, never quitting against the late run by hard-charging Caleb’s Posse in one of the most exciting stakes in New York this year.
He followed that up with a fifth to Shackleford in the Met Mile.
“He was just too close [to the lead],” Zito said. “Corey [Nakatani] had no option, he had the outside, he was looking at To Honor and Serve, who was on the fence. Shackleford, the last time [in the Carter], he was close up, so he figured let me do the same thing, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Nakatani isn’t riding in New York, which opened the door for Zito to give the mount to Rosie Napravnik, who is already one of the biggest stories of the meet before a race has even been run.
The 24-year-old is a rising star who had a breakout victory in the Kentucky Oaks on Believe You Can, the first Grade I of her career.
She has eight mounts on the opening day card and is joined by 27-year-old California-based Joel Rosario as another new face in the jockey colony.
Their agents are taking advantage of the temporary absence of newly minted Hall of Famer John Velazquez, who broke his collarbone in a spill on June 16 and has started working horses in the morning, but probably won’t ride in a race until next week.
Velazquez is the first-call rider for trainer Todd Pletcher, who broke the meet record again last year with 38 wins and is poised to threaten that mark again with a stable loaded with depth and quality, as usual.
That includes Caixa Eletronica, the 5-2 second choice in the James Marvin off a win in the Grade II True North, his third stakes victory of the year.
The late-running Caixa Eletronica never got rolling and finished sixth to Jackson Bend in the James Marvin last year.
Zito’s other top horse for now is Dwyer runner-up Fast Falcon, who is headed to the Jim Dandy next weekend.
In the meantime, the stable seems to revolve around the little horse with the huge heart, Jackson Bend.
“Every time you think about him, there’s nothing to say,” Zito said. “He’s a courageous little horse, I guess. That’s basically the best way to say it. He’s smart and just gritty, tough. It’s his everyday demeanor. I don’t ever remember a horse not having a kind of day where he’s moping around. He’s tough, just a tough horse, mentally.
“It’s never easy, even when you’ve got a Jackson Bend, because you’re always worried, but you know he shows up all the time, he tries, and that’s the big thing. You do everything in your power to keep him happy, and he does the rest. These two races at Saratoga were great. I just hope he keeps his streak alive at Saratoga. To go back in the Forego, that would be unbelievable.”
Saratoga Springs native Terri Pompay has Zero Rate Policy entered in the James Marvin, but he could scratch and run in the listed Willard Straight on Saturday, one of many 51⁄2-furlong turf sprints in the condition book.