A lot has to go right for a Spinaway winner to come back to Saratoga Race Course as a 3-year-old and make it to the Alabama.
For one thing, winning the Spinaway is no guarantee that a 2-year-old filly will like longer distances, and, in fact, she is more likely to find herself in the field for the seven-furlong Test than the 10-furlong Alabama, based on the last 20 years.
Grace Hall came back.
Not only that, she’s in position to actually win the Grade I Alabama on Saturday, even though she faces a difficult field made not much less so by the departure of Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can.
Trainer Tony Dutrow has kept the daughter of Empire Maker out of New York state entirely since she outdueled Judy the Beauty 11 months ago, but Grace Hall arrived in barn 57 from Delaware on Monday and is 7-5 on the morning line for what historically has been one of the most important races for 3-year-old fillies.
“We made plans at the beginning of the year that stopped at the Alabama,” Dutrow said on Thursday morning. “I don’t know what’s going to happen after the Alabama, but we’ve only made plans and talked about through the Alabama. The Kentucky Oaks and the Alabama were the ones we targeted.”
Of the last 20 Spinaway winners, only three have run in the Alabama, Awesome Humor (second in 2002), Ashado (third in ’03) and Adieu (fifth in ’05).
Despite not winning the Alabama, Ashado went on to win the 3-year-old filly Eclipse Award, and won another championship at 4.
The division is at a busy crossroads for this year’s Alabama.
With Believe You Can out of the picture — she was sent home to Kentucky for 30 days of rest and may not even race again until next year — the 3-year-old fillies will be running out of calendar not long after the Alabama.
Grace Hall, whose stablemate, True Feelings, was more highly regarded at this time last year, won the Spinaway in just her second career start and was in position to win the 2-year-old filly championship, but finished second by three lengths to My Miss Aurelia in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Last week, My Miss Aurelia finally returned to the races for the first time since the Breeders’ Cup, and made it a triumphant and emphatic return by winning the Mandy’s Gold Stakes at Saratoga.
While she’s been away, Grace Hall has emerged as one of the division leaders by winning the Gulfstream Park Oaks and the Delaware Oaks, both Grade II’s.
She was third to Believe You Can in the Kentucky Oaks.
Dutrow said he would’ve relished a chance to face Believe You Can again in the Alabama.
“She finished third, I felt, without excuse,” he said. “She ran very well, the best fillies in training were in that race, and we finished third.
“I was hoping for her to be in this race, quite honestly, because I felt like her having won the Kentucky Oaks, she would have a strong say in the 3-year-old filly of the year. I was hoping she would be in the race and that Grace Hall would win the Alabama. In other words, we would’ve liked to have had another chance at Larry Jones’ filly. It’s disappointing to the race and to me.”
Grace Hall, who is owned by Michael Dubb, Bethlehem Stables and The Elkstone Group, has been breezing steadily at Delaware Park.
Dutrow said he could afford to leave her there to continue what has been a pretty flawless training regimen because he knew she could handle Saratoga’s main track, based on the Spinaway.
“She loves Delaware in every way, and because of her experience up here last year, she was up here for the entire meet to run in the Spinaway, that gave me confidence that she knows it up there, she likes it up there, she’ll be an easy keeper up there,” he said. “So I just left her at Delaware. I didn’t want to touch all the great things that were going on at the time. She’s fallen right into place as well we could hope for.”
Whether she falls into place at a mile and a quarter remains to be seen.
None of the seven in the Alabama have gone that far.
Grace Hall, whose sire won the mile-and-a-half Belmont, has run a mile and an eighth twice, in the Kentucky Oaks and Gulfstream Park Oaks.
“I’m not going to elaborate on her ability or inability at that distance,” Dutrow said. “But I will say that there’s nothing that we have seen that has made us think that a mile and a quarter is going to be a difficult thing. I don’t know what will happen, and I’m not predicting, but so far, there’s nothing we’ve seen that would tell us that there’s going to be a problem with that.
“We think she’s getting better. Her last race was the fastest she’s ever run, and the way she trained for her last race was the best, so, having the experience of being around her, we think she’s improving.”