SARATOGA SPRINGS — Before trainer Chad Brown became the one to beat in the Diana Stakes, Bill Mott enjoyed his stretch with that designation.
They both have strong entries in Saturday’s 86th edition of the most important turf race for fillies and mares at the Saratoga Race Course meet.
And trainer Charlie Appleby is probably the one to beat.
Brown will be hard-pressed to keep his streak alive in the Diana, which produced the first Grade I victory of his career as a head trainer, when Zagora won it in 2011.
He has won the last five, sometimes in nail-biting fashion, and will be relying on Lemista and Pocket Square to keep the streak alive. They both fit the profile of many of Brown’s turf stars over the years, horses who have begun their careers in Europe before being purchased privately by Brown’s clients to race in the U.S.
Any of the Diana horses with experience and success on soft turf will most likely need it on Saturday, as the National Weather Service is calling for a chance of rain in the morning that will intensify after 2 p.m. Scheduled post time for the Diana is 6:16.
One race was taken off the turf on opening day because of lingering moisture from rain early in the week, and the turf courses were listed “firm” on Friday, but that drying-out could be undone on Saturday.
“It’s concerning,” Brown said. “I’d rather the turf be firmer for my horses. I think they can handle it. Lemista shows in her form that she can possibly handle it. We thought that Pocket Square could, but she didn’t run well on soft turf in the Just a Game [June 5].”
Brown started his Diana streak in 2016 with Dacita, followed by Lady Eli in 2017, Sistercharlie back-to-back in 2018 and 2019 and Rushing Fall in 2020, when Sistercharlie was third.
Besides Zagora’s win by a length and a half and Sistercharlie’s win by a length and three-quarters over Rushing Fall in 2019, Brown’s other four Diana victories have come by less than a length.
He also has two tough beats by narrow margins, Dream Peace in second by a head to Laughing in 2013, and Stephanie’s Kitten by a neck to Somali Lemonade in 2014.
“We’ve had tremendous success in the race, as you’ve seen, and there’s so many talented fillies through the years we’ve had an opportunity to work with,” Brown said. “All a little different, but it’s a remarkable record, and a lot of credit to my team and the horses. And it’s a tough race. There’s been no Dianas in that group that we’ve won that have been easy.
“We’re bringing two nice prospects into the race, and we’ll have to see if we can keep it going. I don’t really feel pressure so much. It’s more I look forward to the challenge of keeping the streak going, participating and really setting the bar very high for that race.”
Brown was an assistant to the late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, who won back-to-back Dianas with Starine in 2001 and Tates Creek in 2002.
“Those handful of high-end turf races that were amongst his favorite, that was one of them, and it’s one of mine,” Brown said.
“The first Grade I [victory] was with Zagora in this race, so it’s been a special race, and ever since we’ve really pointed towards it and have had the right horses a lot of the years.”
Lemista, a slight favorite at 5-2 on the morning line, raced seven times in Ireland before coming to Brown’s barn for owner Peter Brant.
Her U.S. debut was a second by half a length to the Mott-trained Harvey’s Lil Goil in the Grade III Beaugay on a Belmont Park turf rated as “good” on May 8.
Pocket Square raced in a Great Britain and France before winning her U.S. debut in an allowance at Keeneland in April, after which she was one of two for Brown in the one-mile Grade I Just a Game on Belmont Stakes Day.
Brown’s duo finished off the board, as Appleby’s Godolphin-owned pair of Althiqa and Summer Romance were 1-2, respectively. Pocket Square was fifth.
“There’s a couple factors,” Brown said. “The soft turf, but she did run well back in Europe on soft, so that was confusing. She did miss her final work for the race because the rain came in. I was able to get some of the horses worked. On her schedule, it hit right at exactly the wrong time to get her final breeze. So she actually missed her final work. I didn’t think it would affect her, because she’d been training so strong in the weeks prior, but it might’ve. It probably did.
“So maybe it was [missing] the work more than the ground, I’m hoping. But we’ll see.”
Before Brown had his string of success in the Diana, Mott won three straight from 2005-07 with Sand Springs, Angara and My Typhoon, then won it again in 2010 with Proviso.
Harvey’s Lil Goil represents a terrific opportunity to win another one.
Third in the Alabama at Saratoga last year, she was switched to the turf in September and has wins in the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Keeneland and Grade III Beaugay, with a third by just a neck in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
After her Beaugay victory, Harvey’s Lil Goil was fifth to Mean Mary in the New York on a yielding turf at Belmont on June 4.
“It was very soft ground,” Mott said. “Some of our stakes have been run on really soft ground, and it could have worked against her a little bit.”
The Grade III Sanford returns to the Saratoga stakes schedule on the Diana undercard after it was dropped last year when the 2-year-old racing program in New York fell behind due to the pandemic.
Wit is the 8-5 favorite off an impressive win by six lengths over stablemate Keepcalmcarryon first time out in the Belmont Stakes Day opener on June 5.
Wit will break from the rail in a full field of 12 that includes eight horses coming off victories in their career debuts at six different tracks.
Among them is Headline Report, the 5-1 third choice on the line who was originally purchased as a yearling for $160,000 at the 2020 Fasig-Tipton sale before being re-sold for $550,000 at the OBS Two-Year-Olds in Training sale in March.
He won by 2 1/4 lengths at Keeneland in April.
“We’re excited about that guy,” trainer Wesley Ward said. “He’s been coming along pretty well. He had a nice work from the gate at Keeneland.”
Maryland Brando, a winner by 11 1/2 lengths at Delaware Park on June 2, brings long-time New York-based trainer Gary Contessa back to Saratoga.
He retired last March, but returned in December as the private trainer for Bell Gable Stable based in Delaware.
“I’m coming far enough in advance where he’ll get over it if he doesn’t ship well,” Contessa said. “I’ll school him a couple of times in the paddock, which you need in Saratoga. I’ve been at Saratoga for the last 35 years, so it’s an opportunity for me to be there, and I think I’m bringing the right horse.”
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