“Hopeful” will always be an appropriate name for the closing stakes race at Saratoga Race Course, first run in 1903 and claiming such legends as Man o’ War, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Secretariat and Affirmed among its winners.
The Hopeful promises nothing, but plants a seed of aspiration that the winner, a 2-year-old colt still considered a baby by Thoroughbred racing standards, could turn into a pretty good graded stakes horse as a 3-year-old, when the Triple Crown trail dominates the calendar on an annual basis.
Just don’t get your hopes up that the Hopeful winner at Saratoga Race Course on Sept. 5 will even be running in any of those Triple Crown races, much less winning them.
Not trying to pick on the Hopeful here, especially since it does have a proven track record for being a preliminary step on the way to some of the important dirt races for 3-year-olds.
But its lack of influence on the Kentucky Derby field serves as an example of a larger trend in which the top dirt horses in any given class begin their careers much later in the season, frequently after the Saratoga meet ends on Labor Day and sometimes not during their 2-year-old season at all.
(This came into play when I made my picks . . . more on that later)
In fact, four of the 20 horses in Saturday’s Derby field didn’t race last year, including Santa Anita Derby winner Taiba, who comes to Churchill Downs with just two career starts, an echo to horses like Justify, who also won the Santa Anita Derby and didn’t race at 2.
Until 2018, when Justify won the 13th Triple Crown in history, no horse unraced at 2 had won the Derby in 136 years, thus breaking the so-called “Curse of Apollo,” named after 1882 Kentucky Derby winner Apollo.
Granted, there aren’t many races restricted to 2-year-olds in the first half of the calendar year, relatively speaking, and for the most part they’re at short distances that aren’t necessarily going to serve as indicators of how a horse will perform at the longer routes.
At a mile and three-sixteenths, the Preakness covers the shortest amount of ground of the Triple Crown races, but is still a daunting task for 3-year-olds in May. Only one of the important Kentucky Derby preps, the Louisiana Derby, goes longer than a mile and an eighth.
Of the 20 horses in this year’s Derby field, only one, Classic Causeway, raced at Saratoga, breaking his maiden first time out by 6½ lengths on Sept. 4.
He’s one of four in the field who debuted by the end of the meet, although two of those, Tiz the Bomb and Pioneer of Medina, just snuck in by the deadline, running at Kentucky Downs and Monmouth Park, respectively, on Sept. 6.
Messier is the exception, beginning his 2-year-old season way back on June 27 at Los Alamitos for trainer Bob Baffert, but Messier didn’t run again until Oct. 22, when he broke his maiden by 6½ lengths at Santa Anita.
Sometimes a horse starts late simply because they were born late, like Mo Donegal, who is considered a late foal by virtue of his April 19 birthday and needed a little more time to get to the races, which he did on Sept. 30 at Belmont Park.
And since Churchill Downs implemented the Derby qualifying points system, that has had some influence on the timing of race schedules for 2-year-olds, as the series of races offers points out of some of the 2-year-old stakes, but none before late September.
If you have a nice 2-year-old, it probably makes sense sometimes to skip the early maiden races and gear up for the late fall and early winter.
Getting back to the Hopeful, Afleet Alex is the last winner to make a splash in the Triple Crown, winning the 2005 Preakness and Belmont after having finished third in the Derby.
Dublin (2009 Hopeful) was seventh in the Derby and fifth in the Preakness, Practical Joke (2016) was fifth in the Derby and Sporting Chance (2017) was sixth in the Preakness.
Horses out of the Hopeful are more likely to wind up in races like the Grade I Allen Jerkens, the seven-furlong sprint restricted to 3-year-olds that is always one of the highlights of Travers Day.
As Tom Cruise gleefully declared in “Risky Business,” once he realized he wasn’t going to be accepted to Princeton, “Looks like University of Illinois.”
Anyway, the filly division of the 3-year-olds got a terrific horse out of the 2021 Saratoga meet to race in the female equivalent of the Derby, when champion Echo Zulu ran in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday as the undefeated favorite.
She hung in there tough to finish fourth after setting very fast early fractions to lose for the first time in six career starts that include an impressive maiden win at the Spa on July 15 and another impressive win in the Spinaway, the companion 2-year-old filly stakes to the Hopeful on closing weekend of the meet.
Don’t be surprised to see her shorten up in distance eventually; she would be a huge favorite in the Test at Saratoga.
The Oaks winner, meanwhile, was a wildly popular one.
What’s not to like about Secret Oath?
Echo Zulu came into 2022 as the champion, then Secret Oath won her first two starts of the year by a combined 14¾ lengths and was so good that 86-year-old legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas ran her against males in the Grade I Arkansas Derby.
That raised speculation that he was considering a roadmap to the Kentucky Derby — he won it with a filly in 1988 with Winning Colors. Nah, Lukas said on Friday, they were simply chasing a chunk of the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby purse, and Secret Oath was a well-paying third at Oaklawn Park.
Winning Colors was the first of Lukas’ four Derby wins, and Secret Oath was his fifth in the Oaks.
If Lukas, whose 87th birthday falls a few days before the close of the Saratoga meet, sends Secret Oath to Saratoga for the CCA Oaks and/or Alabama, we all win.
If Taiba wins, I lose. This Derby field is pretty deep near the top, so I’m not going to put a horse with just two starts in the win spot.
He’s finished ahead of a total of 11 horses in his entire career; he’ll have to beat 19 in the Derby.
I like Epicenter first, because he’s seasoned, with three stakes wins from six starts, and has won at a mile and three-sixteenths when he was 2½ lengths ahead of Zozos in the Louisiana Derby on March 26, his last start. He was spectacular at Fair Grounds.
Not worried about Steve Asmussen’s Derby oh-fer for his Hall of Fame career. He’s due, right?
In second, I’ll use Mo Donegal, who moves up for me because co-owner Ray Bryan of Saratoga Springs pointed out on Wednesday that the colt is bred for a sloppy track.
Rounding out my superfecta are the Chad Brown-trained Zandon, who I would love more if I was convinced there was enough early speed in the rest of the field to set up his closing run, and Charge It, who appears to have talent, based on his second in the Florida Derby, but needs racing experience. He’s run just three times.
After writing about Mo Donegal for Friday’s paper, I texted my sister Mo, who has traveled to Ireland a few times, with a no-brainer hunch play, and she replied, “Ohhh, I got some bills for that!”
We should all have it so easy.