Saratoga: Jim Dandy could help clear up unsettled 3-year-old division

Three Triple Crown races, three winners. Three Triple Crown races, zilch definition on the 3-year-ol

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Three Triple Crown races, three winners.

Three Triple Crown races, zilch definition on the 3-year-old picture.

Racing fans will have to rely on the second half of the season to produce a champion male in that age group this year, and there’s nothing wrong with that, after I’ll Have Another locked it up early last year.

That segment of the calendar begins this weekend with the Grade II Jim Dandy at Saratoga Race Course today and the $1 million Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Sunday.

With any luck, the results of those two races, with perhaps a little help from Friday’s Curlin Stakes at Saratoga, will coalesce into a blockbuster Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 24.

One of the Triple Crown winners, Palace Malice, is the 5-2 Jim Dandy morning-line favorite in his first start since winning the Belmont Stakes, and another, Preakness winner Oxbow, is actually a slight second choice at 2-1 in the Haskell, behind Palace Malice’s stablemate, Verrazano (9-5). Kentucky Derby winner Orb is training up to the Travers.

“If one of these [Triple Crown] colts steps up and wins a couple of these in a row, I think they’d be in position to take the lead,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains Palace Malice, Verrazano and Micromanage, who is 6-1 in the Haskell. “It’s a good group. It’s been maybe a little unfairly criticized, but I think we’ll, like always, learn a lot more over the next couple of races.”

Palace Malice is scheduled to face nine in the Jim Dandy, although Vyjack, who was 18th in the Derby and eighth in the Belmont, likely will scratch to run in the Haskell.

The field features horses coming from different angles, such as Moreno, who has won two straight by a combined 131⁄4 lengths since trainer Eric Guillot put the blinkers on, and Mylute, the 7-2 second choice who was a hard-closing presence at the end of both the Derby and Preakness, then skipped the Belmont to recharge.

“Palace Malice is a classic winner, so his resume is pretty strong, but this time of year there’s a lot of improving horses, and you never take anything for granted,” Pletcher said. “It’s a very competitive race.

“I would think that Moreno would likely be the pacesetter. It seems like since he put blinkers on, he’s been on the lead, and I would assume that they’re not looking to change those tactics. I think it’ll depend a little bit on what Freedom Child does, how aggressive he is early. But it’ll be up to Mike [Smith] a little bit just to go to the first turn, get the horse in a nice comfortable rhythm, and if he’s on the lead or stalking a couple of those, any of those options are OK.”

Trainer Tom Amoss believes that Mylute had a breakthrough performance in the Preakness despite finishing third, and is ready to make the next step.

He ran similar races in the Derby and Preakness, but did so under much more challenging circumstances in the Preakness, Amoss said.

The early speed in the Derby was out of control — in large part because Palace Malice took off with blinkers added (and removed for the Belmont) — setting it up for a var­iety of closers, including Mylute.

The pace was much more reas­onable in the Preakness, and yet Mylute and jockey Rosie Napravnik actually closed even better.

“If he had some pace that day, which he did not, we would’ve seen an even better performance than third place,” Amoss said. “That was the race that showed that Mylute was really coming around and learning to have that killer instinct. He’ll get pace in the Jim Dandy, so we feel pretty confident that he’ll run a real good race.”

As much as he liked Mylute’s Preakness, Amoss made the easy decision to skip the Belmont.

The Haskell was tempting, but the Jim Dandy made more sense, he said, if the Travers is the primary objective.

“We were looking for a proper pace scenario,” he said. “We thought we were getting that here, and we still think that. And secondly, our ultimate goal, if he runs well, is to run in the Travers. We like the idea of getting a race over the track and not having to ship anywhere.”

Mylute had a strong six-furlong work at Churchill Downs, then much lighter works at Churchill and the Saratoga main track.

Again, the Preakness is an indic­ator of good things to come, Amoss said, because it showed that Mylute can handle a variety of surface conditions.

“This track in the mornings can be deep, and the track we ran on in the Preakness was a deep racetrack for the races,” he said. “I know this track can also be a little funny in the afternoons. When that track came up like that in the afternoon in Baltimore, we didn’t know what to expect. Mylute handled it really well, so if this track is anything less than a typical fast racetrack [today], it’s not going to hurt us.”

If anyone challenges Moreno for the early lead, it’s likely to be Peter Pan winner Freedom Child, who got away from the field in that race and won by 13 1⁄4 lengths.

Off that race, confidence was high in the West Point Thoroughbreds camp for the Belmont, but Freedom Child threw in a dud and only beat one in the 14-horse field.

“It’s hard to say. There was a strong pace up front that he was involved with, and that could have taken some of the punch out of him,” trainer Tom Albertrani said. “He just tired on us. Hopefully, cutting back in distance, he regroups and comes back to his Peter Pan race.

“He has to run a big one in here. He would have to be at least in the frame to even think about going to the Travers.”

It’s certainly not unusual for connections to come into a big race brimming with confidence, but trainer Eric Guillot of Southern Equine Stable takes that concept to a whole new stratosphere.

Best known at Saratoga for having won the 2010 Test with Champagne d’Oro a few weeks after having been ejected from the paddock for wearing shorts, the colorful

native of New Iberia, La., held nothing back in blasting away about his 10-1 Dwyer winner, named after Southern Equine owner Mike Moreno.

“He’s probably the most talented 3-year-old in the country,” Guillot said. “If you watch the Dwyer, his ears are pricked the whole way. He was cooled out by the time we took the tongue tie off of him. That’s how good he is. He ain’t trying now. If he ever decides to try, he’ll beat Palace Malice by a dozen lengths easy, pulling away from him. That’s how good he is.”

Let it be noted that Moreno lost his first nine starts before breaking his maiden at a mile on a muddy track at Belmont in June.

But it’s the time of year to make a move, and the Jim Dandy might be the first step for an improving horse like Moreno.

“He might say, ‘Hey, wait a minute!’ after he goes down the backside. ‘I already went one turn!”’ Guillot said. “He might pull himself out the race and get beat 30 [lengths]. That wouldn’t surprise me with this horse. Then again, he might just say, ‘You know what, I’m starting to get this now. I feel good, I’m sound, I might pull away and beat the whole field.’ ”

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