SARATOGA SPRINGS — After Art Collector beat Night Ops by a length and a half in the Alydar at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 6, he moved on to bigger things, winning the $800,000 Charles Town Classic on Aug. 27.
Night Ops is doing the same on Saturday, right back at Saratoga, with the biggest step up to follow, if he performs well enough.
That’s the objective of everybody running in the two Grade I stakes on the card, to move on to the Breeders’ Cup.
For the first time ever, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Flower Bowl have been shifted from Belmont Park to Saratoga. Winning either would be a nice resume item for any horse, but these races have the added appeal that they’re “Win and You’re In” qualifiers for the BC Classic and BC Filly and Mare Turf, respectively.
At 8-5, the morning-line favorite for the mile-and-a-quarter JC Gold Cup is the lightly raced Forza Di Oro, who has won three straight, most recently an allowance at Saratoga on July 21.
The JC Gold Cup also represents a rematch from the July 3 Suburban at Belmont between Max Player and Happy Saver, who won the JC Gold Cup last year.
Besides Forza Di Oro, Night Ops, who is 5-1 in the JC Gold Cup, has raced at Saratoga this season, and trainer Brad Cox said this race look like a good opportunity for his horse to take an ambitious swing at a Grade I while also chasing the bonus of a free ticket to the Breeders’ Cup.
“He’s a good horse,” Cox said on Sunday. “He’s a Grade III winner, and he’s run against some good horses. He’s got a run over this track, which I think is valuable, and I think he’s responded with two good works since, so hopefully he can move forward, and if he does, he could be a factor.”
Night Ops hasn’t finished off the board in seven straight starts, but hasn’t won since Grade III Cornhusker at Oaklawn Park over a year ago and has finished second in four straight by a combined less than 3 1/2 lengths.
In the mile-and-an-eighth Alydar, he followed Art Collector in second all the way around the track, but couldn’t catch him.
“He ran really well against Art Collector, and Art Collector came back and ran great the other night at Charles Town, so that was encouraging,” Cox said. “He had a great work here yesterday [last Saturday] on the Oklahoma. So we’re looking forward to giving him one more shot, and it looks like he fits with the group.
“He knocks on the door a lot; I wish he’d knock it down,” he added, with a laugh.
Trainer Bill Mott is poised to take a shot at a JC Gold Cup/Flower Bowl sweep, with Forza Di Oro and the 4-5 Flower Bowl favorite, War Like Goddess, who won the Grade II Glens Falls at Saratoga by 3 1/4 lengths.
Forza Di Oro’s three-race winning streak includes the Grade III Discovery at Aqueduct on July 21.
“I’ve been pleased with his works, visually,” Mott told the New York Racing Association. “He’s indicating that he needs to be tried in that good company.”
Max Player was fifth in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness last fall, when the Triple Crown schedule was adjusted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He finished a neck ahead of the since-retired Mystic Guide in the Suburban after an 11th in the $20 million Saudi Cup in February and a sixth in the Pimlico Special. Happy Saver was third in the Suburban.
“It was nice to see him step up again and run to his ability,” trainer Steve Asmussen’s assistant Scott Blasi said. “This is a logical spot to run him back. He’s done well up here, so we’ll see how it goes.”
“I don’t think he ran that badly on an off track last time,” trainer Todd Pletcher said of Happy Saver. “The way the race unfolded going a mile and a quarter at Belmont and drawing the outside is never a good thing. I thought he ran well all things considered. He kept closing and it was his only his second start of the year, so hopefully he moves forward.”
At 50-1 in a six-horse field, Forewarned is by far the longest shot in the JC Gold Cup.
Trainer Uriah St. Lewis is trying to recapture the glory of 2018, when Discreet Lover won the JC Gold Cup at 45-1.
“That’s just opinion,” he said. “The horse can’t read the odds board. I’m taking my chance. I think he can win. My jockey thinks he can win and this horse thinks he can win. That’s a home run.”
Despite just six career starts, War Like Goddess is a three-time Grade III winner and is well-equipped to handle the mile-and-three-eighths of the Flower Bowl.
She’s 2-for-2 at the distance and is also 2-for-2 at a mile and a half.
“It’s all a test, right?” Mott said. “These are tough horses, but the goal is to try and win a Grade I with her. She’s done quite well and handled every step so far, so we hope she move another step forward and accomplish this.’
Trainer Chad Brown has dominated this race at Belmont, winning it with Stephanie’s Kitten (twice), Lady Elie, Sistercharlie, Fourstar Crook and Stacelita since 2011.
On Saturday, he’ll saddle My Sister Nat, a half-sister to Sistercharlie who was second to War Like Goddess in the Glens Falls.
“It would be special to win this race again,” Brown said. “She’s a real consistent horse, but she’ll have her work cut out for her with War Like Goddess in there. We’ll try again and hope for a different result.”
The JC Gold Cup/Flower Bowl card will also include the Grade II Prioress for 3-year-old fillies going six furlongs and the Grade III Saranac for 3-year-olds going a mile and a sixteenth on the Inner Turf.
The 6-5 Prioress favorite Souper Sensational comes in off a second in the Grade I Test on Aug. 7.
The Brown-trained Public Sector is the 7-5 Saranac favorite off his win in the Grade II National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.
Closing weekend includes the final leg in the series of graded stakes for 2-year-olds on the dirt, with the Grade I Spinaway on Sunday and the Grade I Hopeful on Monday.
Echo Zulu, a daughter of Horse of the Year Gun Runner, is 8-5 in the Spinaway off her impressive debut at Saratoga on opening day, and the Hopeful will give Spa fans another opportunity to see the Pletcher-trained Wit, who has won his two races by a combined 14 lengths and won the Sanford on opening weekend.
“He’s very professional,” Pletcher said. “He’s very responsive to whatever you want him to do. He’ll sit off a horse, and he’ll accelerate on command. He’s really been push-button so far.”
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