SARATOGA SPRINGS — The buzz horse on the grounds outside of Travers runners Tiz the Law and Uncle Chuck is Gamine, a 3-year-old filly whispered to be a Kentucky Derby candidate a month and half ago.
She’ll stick with her own gender and even cut back in distance at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday as the 3-5 morning-line favorite in the Grade I Test, one of four graded stakes on the Travers undercard.
Those races include an interesting matchup of older fillies and mares in the Grade I Ballerina at seven furlongs, the Grade III Troy turf sprint and the Grade III Waya turf marathon for older fillies and mares.
Unraced as a 2-year-old, like her stablemate Uncle Chuck, Gamine has finished first in three starts, by a combined 15-plus lengths, but was later disqualified from a win at Oaklawn Park in May for a drug overage that was backed up by a second sample.
Most recently, she dominated the Grade I Acorn by 8 3/4 lengths on the Belmont Stakes card in which Tiz the Law established himself as the best 3-year-old colt in North America.
There were rumblings that Gamine might take a shot at males at some point, but trainer Bob Baffert will aim for the Grade I Kentucky Oaks on Sept. 4 instead.
“Yeah, I might’ve thought about it, and we know she’s so talented and the temptation is always there, but I think after the Test we’ll know more about her, see how she handles that,” Baffert said during an NTRA teleconference on Tuesday. “But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I like this one race at the time, so it’s one of those things where she probably could fit it.”
Gamine is 3-5 on the morning line for the Test against five rivals including Perfect Alibi, who won the Adirondack and Spinaway at Saratoga last year, and the accomplished Venetian Harbor, a Grade II winner in 2020 who has lost to the highly regarded Swiss Skydiver and Speech in her last two starts. Gamine and Swiss Skydiver have been regulars on the NTRA national poll for the top 3-year-olds that usually is almost exclusively the province of male horses.
Baffert said he had considered running Gamine back in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga, but the race was coming up a little too quickly on the calendar following the Acorn, especially since it would have required coast-to-coast trips in a span of four weeks.
“It’s such a weird year, it’s sort of hard to map things out, but after that race that she ran in New York [Acorn], she was just unbelievable that day,” Baffert said. “And she’s come back and trained well. When they run that hard and fast, you always worry, but she actually looks terrific. She looks better now going into this race.”
Perfect Alibi also ran in the Acorn, and finished 31 lengths behind Gamine in fifth, the same iconic margin of victory by which Secretariat won the Belmont in 1973 to complete the Triple Crown.
She’s 20-1 in the Test.
“It was such a crazy race and the one filly [Gamine] was so awesome, it’s hard to say what happened,” Perfect Alibi’s trainer Mark Casse said. “She was coming back off a long layoff and it wasn’t an ideal spot, but it was the best spot that was out there for her and it just didn’t work out.
“I’m not sure what to expect this weekend, but the good thing is that she has shown she likes Saratoga. I’m hoping being at Saratoga will push her along and help her run a little better. We thought about finding an easier spot, but we know how much she likes it there.”
In what appears to be a competitive field of seven for the Ballerina, Bellafina is the 9-5 favorite off a close second in the Grade II Great Lady M at Los Alamitos on July 4, followed by 2019 Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress at 5-2 and Come Dancing at 3-1.
Come Dancing won the Ballerina last year and backed that up with a win in the Grade II Gallant Bloom at Belmont Park before finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
She was second to Ballerina long shot Victim of Love in the Grade III Vagrancy at Belmont on June 27 last time out.
“She really seems like she’s thriving. She loves Saratoga,” trainer Carlos Martin said. “She’s put on some weight since her last race and everything has gone pretty good. We haven’t had any setbacks, haven’t missed any training, so I’m excited about the opportunity for her to do something special and hopefully get back-to-back Ballerinas. That would be like a dream.”
Martin is the grandson of late Hall of Famer Frank “Pancho” Martin, perhaps best known as the trainer of Sham, runner-up to Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky and Preakness. Carlos Martin’s late father, Jose, trained three year-end champions and won the Grade I Forego at Saratoga in 1986 and 1987 with Groovy.
“It’s always exciting when you win a big race, especially at Saratoga with so much tradition and so many special times growing up, watching my father with Groovy win back-to-back Foregos and my grandfather and all the success they had here for years,” Martin said.
“It helps validate that the Martin name is still around. Unfortunately, they’re not around anymore. I’m never going to be the trainer they were; they trained six champions between them. I’m not trying to be them, but I just like the fact that the name is still out there and hopefully they’re looking down somewhat proud and we can keep it going.”
Serengeti Empress is cutting back to shorter than a mile and a sixteenth for the first time in seven starts (second to Covfefe in the Test last year). She was fourth to champion Midnight Bisou in the Fleur de Lis last time out.
“It was a strong effort that day in a race where she kind of just got run into the ground,” trainer Tom Amoss said. “I didn’t think we did a very good job of kind of rating her speed.
“The move to shorten up to seven-eighths has a lot to do with last summer at Saratoga. That was a really good seven-eighths race for her, so we feel that this might be something that we can use to our advantage. That was last year and it’s this year now. A lot will be made of what Serengeti is right now compared to what she was last year at this time. That’s a fair question. All I can tell you is that she is doing well and we’re very comfortable with trying her at seven-eighths.”
Perhaps a sign of the times, but the morning-line favorite for both the Waya and the Troy are horses who haven’t even raced in 2020.
Mrs. Sippy is 6-5 in the Waya after racing three times in North America last year following nine starts in Great Britain and France. She won the Grade II Glens Falls at Saratoga and was ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
Trainer Chad Brown has two live shots, 2-1 My Sister Nat coming off a second to Mean Mary in the Grade II New York and 5-1 Fools Gold, who is trying to become the first back-to-back winner of this race since Saratoga Source won in 1993-94.
Imprimis is the 8-5 morning-line favorite despite the fact that he hasn’t run since the Breeders’ Cup in November.
His connections thought highly enough of him last year to send him to Royal Ascot in England, where he was sixth in the Group 1 King’s Stand last summer.
He’s one of three in the Troy who ran in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Santa Anita. Shekky Shebaz was third; Pure Sensation, who was third in the Troy last year, was fifth; and Imprimis, who has won seven of 11 career starts at the Troy distance of 5 1/2 furlongs, was sixth.
Pure Sensation was seventh in the Grade I Jaipur on the Belmont Stakes Day card June 20.
“I was very disappointed with his race in the Jaipur,” trainer Christophe Clement said. “He was in a speed duel that day, and I hope it’s the reason that he ran poorly.”
Trainer Steve Asmussen had his hands full after the Grade II Saratoga Special on Friday.
The race was sponsored by a well-known brand of beer that awarded Asmussen a lawn jockey and a plastic cooler, which he fumbled to the ground on his way to the post-race press availability.
“It needs something in it; that will be corrected,” he said.
He was in that position because jockey Joel Rosario had his hands full of horse, as Jackie’s Warrior rolled to a three-length victory and will now point toward the Hopeful on closing weekend.
Jackie’s Warrior, a half-brother to Travers contender Uncle Chuck, finished the six furlongs in 1:09.62 while leading the field all the way.
“Good final time,” Asmussen said. “Watching today’s races, I think the track played fair. I don’t think on the lead was anywhere he had to be, it’s just where he was.”
“He broke really well,” Rosario said. “I thought maybe we were going to chase somebody, but he broke well, and I just let him do his thing. He was very impressive.”
If he Jackie’s Warrior runs in the Hopeful, he’ll stretch out in distance again, to seven furlongs.
“I think this was a new test for it [distance preference],” Asmussen said. “He won first time out at five-eighths of a mile. [Sire] Maclean’s Music was brilliantly quick, but I always thought, from training him, that he would stretch out. This one is actually a half to Uncle Chuck, with the same mare. The way he went through the wire, I think we’re going to find out about the Hopeful distance next, anyway.”