SARATOGA SPRINGS — Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott joked that it’s taken him 40 years to figure out whether the shape of a horse’s foot makes the animal better suited to dirt racing or turf racing.
Yoshida’s feet work just fine on either surface, so he’s been more of a head-scratching puzzle than most.
It doesn’t appear that he’ll be back on the grass any time soon, though, as he bids to become the first back-to-back winner of the Grade I Woodward Stakes since Lido Palace in 2001-02, before the race was moved from Belmont Park to Saratoga Race Course.
Yoshida is the 5-2 morning-line favorite against eight rivals who include three from the barn of Todd Pletcher, Suburban winner Preservationist and an interesting New York-bred, Mr. Buff, who is running against open company for the first time since March.
A rare Grade I winner on both dirt and turf, Yoshida was second by 1 3/4 lengths to McKinzie in the Whitney on Aug. 3. He hasn’t run on the grass since a sixth to Bricks and Mortar in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in January.
“Some of them are real easy,” Mott said about determining which surface best suits a horse. “No. 1, they have a pedigree or they don’t go well on the dirt and they go good on the turf. Some of them are real obvious. You can see the difference just watching them train.
“Then you’ve got horses like Yoshida that travel well on both surfaces and he’s run well on both surfaces, and that makes it a little tougher. It’s like, which one is he better on? Has he beaten better horses on dirt? Has he beaten better horses on grass? I mean, he’s a Grade I winner on both, and he’s run really good races.”
Yoshida began his career in the turf and raced on that surface for his first 10 races, winning the Grade I Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day last year.
Based on Yoshida’s pedigree, it was logical to give him a shot in a big race on dirt, which he did in winning the Woodward by two lengths over Gunnevera.
That was a week after the Jonathan Thomas-trained Catholic Boy won the Travers on dirt during the same season in which he won at the Grade I level on turf, in the Belmont Derby.
In 2017, Mott trained Good Samaritan, who won the Jim Dandy on dirt at Saratoga during the same season in which he won the Belmont Derby.
“A lot of the turf horses have more of a big, spread-out foot,” Mott said. “Some of them have more of a roundish shape, and it can be a little flatter. If they don’t have that cup in the foot, they have a lot of trouble on the dirt, with the flat feet.
“A horse running on the dirt you like to see a little more cup in the bottom of the foot. Then there’s exceptions to every rule. That’s not to say that that holds true for every horse, but it probably holds true for a large percentage of them.”
By adding a Grade I victory on the dirt in the Woodward last year, Yoshida, who has banked almost $2.4 million in purses, greatly enhanced his value as a stallion after his racing career is over.
He hasn’t been back to the winner’s circle since last year’s Woodward, though, finishing fourth to Accelerate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, sixth to Thunder Snow in the Dubai World Cup, sixth to Seeking the Soul in the Stephen Foster at Churchill and second in the Whitney in his dirt starts.
“So it’s more confusing with a horse like that,” Mott said. “It’s not as cut-and-dried as it would be with a lot of them. Most of your grass horses, you run them on the dirt and they get beat 20 lengths. It makes it real easy. It’s like black and white.”
Pletcher will saddle a third of the field, Grade I Santa Anita Gold Cup winner Vino Rosso, Bal Harbour and Wooderson off a second in the Alydar to another Woodward horse, Tom’s d’Etat. Wooderson is a half brother to Rachel Alexandra, who beat males in the Woodward on the way the 2009 Horse of the Year Eclipse Award.
“He’s a horse that we figured would get better with age all along, and it seems like he’s starting to find his rhythm,” Pletcher told the New York Racing Association.
Vino Rosso was third in the Whitney, 4 3/4 lengths behind Yoshida.
“It seems like he’s in good form,” Pletcher said. “I think he’s become a more consistent workhorse, although I thought his last breeze was arguably the best breeze he ever had. He galloped out real strongly and looks great. His appetite has been good and his energy has been good.”
Vino Rosso posted a bullet 58.60 for five furlongs on the main track last Friday, Aug. 23, the fastest of 22 works at that distance that day.
On paper, Mr. Buff appears to be the controlling speed and drew the No. 1 post.
He’s coming off a 6 1/4-length victory in the Saginaw at Belmont Park, followed by a victory by 3 1/2 lengths in the Evan Shipman on Aug. 7 at Saratoga at the Woodward distance of nine furlongs.