SARATOGA SPRINGS — “Is that Epicenter?”
The bay colt’s face, with the little white smudge on his forehead, almost in the shape of an apostrophe, looked sort of like the Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up as he walked out of trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn area to work on Saturday morning.
“What’s his name?”
“Uhh … I don’t know,” the exercise rider said, sheepishly.
He laughed and said, “Well, he’s just a baby.”
Right. That means that, as a 2-year-old, perhaps even unraced, the colt has a name registered with The Jockey Club, but he hasn’t made a name for himself yet, so much so that his own exercise rider draws a blank.
That speaks to a significant component — young, unheralded horses with various degrees of untapped potential — of the upcoming 154th Saratoga Race Course meet, which opens on Thursday.
Who knows if this 2-year-old Asmussen colt will turn into anything remotely close to his stablemate Epicenter, the hard-luck beaten favorite in both the Derby and Preakness this spring who is one of the top contenders for the Aug. 27 Travers at Saratoga. But this is the time of year when the better 2-year-olds begin to emerge, and Saratoga is the primary incubator.
The meet traditionally features three graded stakes on dirt restricted to 2-year-olds, the Sanford, Saratoga Special and Hopeful, and three on a parallel timetable that are restricted to 2-year-old fillies, the Schuylerville, Adirondack and Spinaway.
Saratoga fans will get their first look at the top-quality babies this week, when Thursday’s Opening Day card features the Schuylerville, followed by the Sanford for the colts on Saturday.
“Well, Coach always says you have to have hope, and I think he’s right, not only just in football,” trainer Jeremiah Englehart said Saturday morning. “Every spring, you have to have hope when you come into this meeting.”
“Coach” is Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, for whom Englehart trains some horses.
Parcells may have taken a tough-love approach to rookies when he was an NFL coach, but everyone has a soft spot for the 2-year-olds filtering through Saratoga, since they represent what the future might hold.
In the present, they can be quirky, unprofessional and downright dopey as they learn the landscape of the track and how to do their job.
Englehart is fortunate that, for once, he has a 2-year-old, the colt Puttheblameonme, who seems to do everything right the first time.
In fact, he won his career debut by 2 1/4 lengths under jockey Jose Ortiz at Parx in Philadelphia on June 15. That performance was strong enough to merit consideration for the Sanford.
“He’s just a really smart horse,” Englehart said. “He’s one of those horses that doesn’t act like a 2-year-old. He seems to enjoy what he does, as far as training-wise. He handled the ship down to Parx very well.
“Jason, the guy who does all my shipping, said he shipped really well, he was cool, didn’t turn a hair. And in the race, he handled everything fine, got off to a slow start and Jose said he chirped to him a couple times and he responded and ran well. But, that’s been him. He’s just very professional.”
If Englehart had any doubts about jumping from one maiden win into graded stakes company, they were dispelled by Puttheblameonme’s last two workouts. He has been training steadily on Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track since May.
Puttheblameonme breezed a comfortable four furlongs in 50.89 under Shaun Bridgmohan on Saturday, six days after he ripped a 48.88 that was the fastest of 48 workouts at that distance on July 3. In that breeze, Puttheblameonme unexpectedly encountered two horses working in company for trainer Chad Brown and still went about his business, no problem.
“Good [on Saturday]. And he had a really good work last week,” Englehart said. “He had kind of ended up with a couple Chads, but the way he handled dirt in his face, he did it really well.
“Then this week, we were just looking for something nice and easy, he did that, seemed like he galloped out really well, so it looks like we’ll give him a shot for that race.”
First run in 1913, the Sanford is the youngest of the three Saratoga graded dirt stakes for 2-year-olds that draw colts. The corresponding filly races were introduced midway through the 20th century.
Named for the Amsterdam family who made their fortune in the carpetmaking industry and also ran one of the most powerful racing and breeding operations in the country, the Sanford has been won by the likes of Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Affirmed.
Afleet Alex won it in 2004 (and also the Hopeful), which helped propel him to a 3-year-old season in 2005 that included victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes after a third in the Kentucky Derby.
The trend these days, though, is for horses who ultimately wind up on the Triple Crown trail to begin their careers later in the 2-year-old season, if at all.
Epicenter didn’t debut as a 2-year-old last year until two weeks after the Saratoga meet ended, and now you can make a valid argument that he’s currently the best 3-year-old male in North America despite finishing second in the Derby and Preakness.
So the Saratoga graded stakes for babies on dirt may not necessarily hold promise for next year’s Triple Crown races.
Then again, they still warrant a close eye.
While the anonymous Asmussen 2-year-old was headed out to the track, another one of his stablemates was getting a bath, having just worked on the Oklahoma in the prior set.
That was 2020 Saratoga Special and Hopeful winner Jackie’s Warrior, and all he did last year was win an Eclipse Award as the top male sprinter in North America with a resume that included wins in the Amsterdam and Allen Jerkens at Saratoga. He’s the obvious favorite for the two Grade I sprints at this year’s meet, the A.G. Vanderbilt and Forego.
As Englehart said, “I’m lucky enough to have, hopefully, some 2-year-olds that … give me hope this year.”
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Categories: At The Track, Sports