SARATOGA SPRINGS — As pre-race equipment changes go, this would be a new one.
David Fiske, bloodstock advisor to Winchell Thoroughbreds, joked to trainer Steve Asmussen that they tie a horseshoe to Silver State’s tail before Saturday’s $1 million Whitney.
That’s an echo to 2017, when the Winchell-owned Gun Runner carried a little extra weight in the form of a shoe that flipped off another horse just before the second turn and improbably became entangled in Gun Runner’s tail. All Gun Runner did from there was win the Whitney by 5 1/4 lengths on his way to Horse of the Year.
Silver State, the 4-1 third choice on the morning line, could use any bit of luck he can get, as he brings a six-race winning streak into the mile-and-an-eighth Whitney, but faces a very challenging — if small — field that includes four rivals.
That includes 6-5 favorite Knicks Go, the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner who kicked off 2021 with a win in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup; 8-5 Maxfield, whose only career loss was by two lengths in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap; the champion filly Swiss Skydiver, who has already beaten males in last year’s Preakness; and, multiple graded stakes winner By My Standards, who was second to Improbable in last year’s Whitney.
Silver State has done nothing wrong since October, working his way through allowance conditions and two ungraded stakes at Oaklawn Park before a victory in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap and a breakout performance in winning the Grade I Met Mile around one turn on Belmont Stakes Day June 5, a length ahead of By My Standards and 3 1/4 lengths ahead of Knicks Go in fourth.
“We’re talking about a horse that’s won six in a row,” Asmussen said. “Scott [assistant trainer Scott Blasi] said, ‘He’ll give you a lot of confidence.’
“I said, ‘The only one more confident than me or you is him.’ He’s the one that’s won six in a row. The Whitney, I think, will establish the leader of the division. Nothing but respect for who’s in it, but we’re very fortunate to have a horse as good as Silver State.”
Knicks Go will break from the No. 4 post and is expected to be at the front through the early splits.
Silver State’s style is to come from off the pace, and Asmussen said he hopes jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. will be able to maintain a short gap between himself and Knicks Go early in the Whitney.
“The concern is if he can stay comfortable and in contact around the first turn on Saturday,” Asmussen said.
The Whitney is a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
With the Met Mile win, Silver State, who has raced longer than a mile in only five of 11 career starts, already has entry to the BC Dirt Mile.
“He’s kind of standing in the median of the interstate at the moment,” Fiske said. “We haven’t really explored a mile and quarter [BC Classic distance], but we’re going to run him on Saturday.
“You’re going to have to really earn this one. It’s a small, but quality, field.”
If the Silver State camp is on the highway median, the connections for Knicks Go have picked their lane, and it’s two-turn races like the Whitney. That was doubly confirmed when Knicks Go finished fourth in the Met Mile, then blew away the field by 10 1/4 lengths in the Grade III Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows, albeit against a field inferior to what he’ll see in the Whitney.
“We were really high on this horse going into the Met Mile; we used the Cornhusker just to remind us that it’s the two turns that he needs, and he showed us in his last race that it was,” trainer Brad Cox said.
“He’s very fast. It’s a mile and an eighth, and it’s a demanding track. He’s got to get around there. But I think if he has things his way, he’ll be a tough horse.
“If you look back, in the Breeders’ Cup [Dirt] Mile there was a horse that tried to go with him. There was a horse that tried to go with him in the Pegasus. Last start, there was a horse that tried to go with him. They just can’t keep up. It’s a gift that he has, and [jockey] Joel [Rosario] has been able to let him run within himself, but very quickly, and he’s able to continue on.”
Maxfield is the most lightly raced of the horses in the Whitney with just eight career starts.
In 2021, outside of the Santa Anita Handicap, he’s won three graded stakes by open lengths, most recently the Grade II Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs.
“It’s a tough race,” trainer Brendan Walsh said. “There’s some very, very good horses in there. It’s going to be a huge test for him, and for everybody else.”
Besides By My Standards, Swiss Skydiver is the only other horse in the Whitney field with a race over the track. She won the Grade I Alabama at a mile and a quarter last year.
Trainer Kenny McPeek had meant to run her in the Shuvee on July 25, but his barn was under quarantine at the time because of a positive test for Equine Herpesvirus-1 in a horse trained by Jorge Abreu.
McPeek wants to use the Whitney as a substitute steppingstone to the Personal Ensign on Aug. 28, but is also floating the idea of staying against males and running in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 4 if Swiss Skydiver wins the Whitney.
“Honestly, I really haven’t put much thought into filly or colt [races],” McPeek said. “She’s doing well and it’s really the only race she’s eligible for. Certainly, in a five-horse field for a million dollars on a racetrack she’s won over and she’s doing well, and she’s here, [so] we’ll see what happens. We’ve always been game.”
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