Fillies take spotlight in Alabama

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Categories: Sports

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The 3-year-old colts — well, one of them, anyway — held the spotlight last Saturday.

Now the 3-year-old fillies will get their shot, in the 140th running of the Grade I $500,000 Alabama at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, which has drawn a solid field of seven.

Swiss Skydiver, by far the leader in qualifying points for the Kentucky Oaks who also has enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby, is the even-money favorite off a second to Art Collector in the Grade II Blue Grass.

Her stiffest challenges in the mile-and-a-quarter Alabama should come from Coaching Club American Oaks runner-up Crystal Ball and the improving Spice Is Nice, but stablemate Envoutante could also be a factor.

The Alabama is a “Win And You’re In” qualifying race for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, to be held Nov. 7 at Keeneland.

Trainer Todd Pletcher said Spice Is Nice’s best chance will come if the Alabama distance works in her favor, but trainer Kenny McPeek is confident that Swiss Skydiver will handle it, too.

 “All good. We’re excited,” McPeek said. “Both fillies are coming into it really well. Obviously, Swiss Skydiver’s the more accomplished of the two, but it’s a high-level problem. Envoutante’s training like Eskimo Kisses did coming into that same race. I think they both have a big chance.”

Eskimo Kisses won the Alabama in 2018 for McPeek.

Pletcher, who is eligible for Racing Hall of Fame induction next year, won back-to-back Alabamas with Princess of Sylmar in 2013 and Stopchargingmaria in 2014, the sixth trainer to achieve that since the race was first run in 1872.

Spice Is Nice, a daughter of Curlin, did not race at 2 and is relatively lightly raced compared to most of the other Alabama fillies.

She has faced Swiss Skydiver, finishing fifth by 10 lengths in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks on March 28, then was away from the races for 3 1/2 months due to illness.

“But she’s one that we always held in high regard, and we always felt she would handle two turns and longer distances,” Pletcher said. “So we’re coming into this feeling good about her.

 “Also, I thought the race came up a little more difficult than I anticipated. She’ll have to be at her very best. I’m interested to see how she handles it.”

Spice Is Nice was one of three yearlings by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin to sell for over $1 million at the 2018 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.

After the break from late March to early July this season, she won an optional claiming race at Belmont Park by 2 3/4 lengths.

“That was the kind of performance we were expecting from her,” Pletcher said.

“She obviously doesn’t have the seasoning of the favorite. We need the mile and a quarter to kind of make a difference for her, and we’ll see how that goes. But she’s doing well, we’re excited about running her.”

Swiss Skydiver’s Gulfstream Park Oaks victory kicked off a three-race winning streak in graded stakes leading up to the Blue Grass.

“She [Swiss Skydiver] was very good on that day, and we kind of got shuffled back on a track that you don’t want to get shuffled back on,” Pletcher said. “I kind of felt we lost all chance going into the first turn. We regrouped after that, and we’ll see. Like I said, we need the mile and a quarter to be in our favor. I would imagine Swiss Skydiver would be on the lead turning for home.”

Swiss Skydiver, who will be ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, and Crystal Ball appear to be the early speed, and they’ll break outside of Spice Is Nice, which could set it up for her and jockey John Velazquez. Then again, McPeek’s other filly, Envoutante, could also benefit from that scenario.

“I think he’s [Gaffalione] going to have to be patient with her, and it’s always an interesting pace race, the Alabama,” McPeek said. “When we won it with Eskimo Kisses, it was a really fast pace and they backed up to her. We kind of have the front of the engine and the back of the engine with the two of them, so we’ll just see how it unfolds.”

“I think, on paper, there’s plenty of pace,” Pletcher said. “Our filly has good tactical speed, and the favorite is usually on the lead or close to it, so we’ll just leave it in Johnny’s hands to determine how fast they’re going and where he wants to place her.”

SARATOGA DERBY, OAKS

Decorated Invader is the 7-5 favorite in the second running of the $500,000 Saratoga Derby Invitational, which was inaugurated, along with Sunday’s Saratoga Oaks, last year to bolster the 3-year-old turf program in New York.

He is undefeated from three starts in 2020, most recently in the Grade II National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga, where he broke his maiden last year by 3 1/4 lengths.

The Christophe Clement-trained Decorated Invader will face an extra sixteenth of a mile this time, and will also face the second- and third-place horses from the Hall of Fame, Get Smokin and Domestic Spending, respectively. His stablemate Gufo, also 3-for-3 this year, scratched out of that race, but is entered back in the Saratoga Derby.

“He’s been training with Gufo, and they continue to work well and help each other,” Clement said. “They work very willingly, so I’m excited to see both of them run.”

Clement also has a live shot in the Saratoga Oaks on Sunday, with Speaktomeofsummer, who won the Grade II Lake Placid on July 19.

The 2-1 favorite is the lightly raced Enola Gay, who won the Grade II Appalachian at Keeneland by a nose.

“It’s a good spot for her and I think she’ll run that far,” trainer Shug McGaughey said of the 1 3/16th-mile race. “I think she got stronger and got a bit more mentally mature with the time off. I went ahead and took a shot with her down there at Keeneland because she had trained so well. I thought it would be a good place to give her a chance.”

Reach Mike MacAdam at

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