SARATOGA SPRINGS — The deep end of the pool is pretty shallow this year.
The Grade I $750,000 Whitney drew just five runners on Wednesday, the shortest field in at least 30 years.
It doesn’t lack for quality, though, as Tom’s d’Etat will take on the likes of 2019 Travers winner Code of Honor, By My Standards, Improbable and Mr. Buff, who has thrived in stakes restricted to New York-breds but is seeking his first stakes win against open company.
The 7-year-old Tom’s d’Etat, who has been on a roll late in his career, is the 6-5 morning-line favorite and will be ridden by the hottest jockey on the grounds, Joel Rosario. Tom’s d’Etat has won 11 of 18 career starts, and Rosario has never lost in five races on Tom’s d’Etat’s back.
With Mr. Buff and perhaps Improbable potential speed threats early in the race, trainer Al Stall Jr. is confident that Tom’s d’Etat can handle whatever the small field throws at him.
“You can see from his PPs [past performances] that when the pace is fast, he comes from off the pace and if it’s slow, he’s right on top of it,” Stall said. “That’s a good thing for us. That’s [compact field] not my problem. That’s for Joel Rosario, and it’s 100% in his hands. Joel is undefeated on him.
“The way he rode him in the Fayette, Mr Freeze was the lone speed and he was right on him. He came back a month later in the Clark and there was a big old scrimmage on the front end and he eased right out of it. The same thing happened at Oaklawn [in the Oaklawn Mile] and then Miguel [Mena] came back and got a slower pace in the Foster. So, we’ll see what happens.”
Tom’s d’Etat has won four straight, most recently the Grade II Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs by 4 1/4 lengths over By My Standards.
He defeated Improbable in his other start this season, by three-quarters of a length in the Oaklawn Park on April 11.
The Whitney card will be broadcast on the “Saratoga Live” show on FOX Sports and MSG Networks starting at 1 p.m. Scheduled post time for the 93rd Whitney is 5:42 p.m. as the ninth race.
The card also includes the Grade I Personal Ensign, featuring champion Midnight Bisou (fifth race, 3:28); the Grade I Allen Jerkens (10th, 6:18); the Grade II Bowling Green (11th, 6:50); and Caress (12th, 7:22).
Based on Equibase charts back to 1991, the Whitney has drawn an average of 7.93 horses in 29 runnings.
From the rail out, the Whitney field, with jockey and odds: By My Standards (Jose Ortiz, 9-2), Improbable (Irad Ortiz Jr., 5-2); Code of Honor (John Velazquez, 5-2), Mr. Buff (Junior Alvarado, 12-1) and Tom’s d’Etat (Joel Rosario, 6-5).
Code of Honor’s season didn’t begin until June 6, when he won the Westchester before a close third to Vekoma in the Met Mile.
No matter who takes the early lead, all eyes will be on Tom’s d’Etat.
“It won’t be easy, but I just hope Code of Honor runs a monster race,” trainer Shug McGaughey said. “It will be kind of interesting to see what the tactics are with only five. I know where I’m going to be, but I’m not sure what the others are going to do or how much they’re going to press. Joel isn’t going to do anything stupid. Hopefully, he’ll be up there fairly close, as he was in the Stephen Foster.”
By My Standards was on a roll of his own before running into Tom’s d’Etat in the Stephen Foster.
His three-race winning streak prior to that included the Grade II New Orleans Classic and Grade II Oaklawn Handicap. He had a sharp workout on Saturday, five furlongs in 1:00.00, the second-fastest of 26 breezes at that distance at Churchill Downs that day.
“He came out of the last race really, really well and he’s had a couple of easy breezes since,” trainer Bret Calhoun said. “Everything has been going well for him.
“He does exactly what you ask him to do and puts plenty into his training in the mornings, but he’s not over the top. If you want him to work slow, he’ll work slow, and if you want him to work fast, he’ll work fast without any encouragement at all. Luckily for us, he’s always been a sound, healthy horse.”
Trainer John Kimmel said he prefers Mr. Buff to be outside to give Alvarado an opportunity to gauge the early pace and ride accordingly.
“We’re not going to have to shoot ducks at him and send him,” Kimmel said. “If he comes out and he breaks on top and is in good shape, maybe he outbreaks that horse [Improbable] and puts a little pressure on him, he might back out of there.
“But the main thing is he’s got to find his own rhythm. That’s the most important thing. He’s a big-striding horse and if you kind of send him and take him out of his comfort zone, it’s going to pay a toll at the end of the race. I’m hoping he breaks sharp, finds that rhythm and if it’s at the front, that would be great, and if we’re not in front, well, that’s going to be the way it goes.”
So despite the short field, rider tactics will still be an important part of the equation.
And as Kimmel pointed out, “We know this place has been known as the ‘Graveyard of Favorites,’ but Mr. Buff is stepping into some deep water in this race.
“People might look at his last race [fifth in the Suburban] and just kind of think that he’s a little bit off form. But this horse has run commensurate numbers with all the horses in this race when he’s been running against New York-bred company. People obviously think he can’t do it against open company.”
“The Whitney is an extremely prestigious race and the racing at Saratoga is always prestigious in its own right,” Calhoun said. “We’re glad to be in position to go up there and compete and we feel like we have an opportunity to win.”