Saratoga Race Course

Nest in her element as big favorite in Alabama

Nest and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., run away from the field in the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga on July 23.
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Nest and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., run away from the field in the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga on July 23.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Trainer Todd Pletcher, a mainstay at Saratoga Race Course for over 25 years, called the main track “a different Saratoga than I’ve seen.”

Eric Reed is in town to run his Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike in next weekend’s Travers, and had heard “everybody saying how tiring it is.”

The layers of leather on D. Wayne Lukas’ saddle squeaked Thursday morning, seemingly in protest, as he described how he had ridden his pony over to the main track and was “appalled by how deep it is.”

If horses could shrug, Nest would do so, in reaction to these observations.

Pletcher’s star filly is 1-2 on the morning line for Saturday’s Grade I Alabama, and part of her status as a heavy favorite is based on how she has embraced a track surface that many horses are still trying to figure out.

Besides her daily training, Nest dominated the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks on July 23 in what was billed as a potential dramatic duel between her and the Lukas-trained Secret Oath that fizzled on the second turn and became a 12 1/4 length romp by Nest.

Having finished a close second in the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes, Nest should have no difficulty with the mile and a quarter of the Alabama, but perhaps just as important is the fact that she has rolled over a track that frequently has the word “demanding” attached to it.

“It’s a different Saratoga than I’ve seen,” Pletcher said. “The track’s been more demanding than I can remember. I think it’s tightened up a little bit. I think they made some minor adjustments, but it’s good for us that we know our filly handled it well.”

“Very tough. She’s [Nest] awfully good,” Lukas said. “But if we’re going to beat her, we need to beat her right here on her homecourt, in her backyard.”

Nest and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., will break from the No. 4 post in a seven-horse field that also includes the promising Gerrymander, winner of the Grade II Mother Goose at Belmont Park last time who will be racing longer than a mile and a sixteenth for the first time.

The Nest camp thinks so highly of her that she was nominated to the Travers, but Pletcher said she’s training too well to wait another week.

“Umm … I mean, we gave it some consideration, but it just seemed like there’s only seven days difference, and we felt like the filly was doing well and bounced out of the Coaching Club in good order, so to wait an extra week didn’t seem necessary,” he said.

“Maybe if it would’ve been a situation where she needed more time and the Travers was a little later, but the way it is, she’s doing too good not to run. I think she already proved in the Belmont that she fits [against males]. So, yeah, that’s why we gave it some consideration.’

This will be the third meeting between Nest and Secret Oath.

Secret Oath also dabbled in competition against males, finishing third in the Arkansas Derby and fourth in the Preakness.

But her biggest achievement, a two-length victory over Nest in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks on May 6, is looking like yesterday’s news, especially after the CCA Oaks.

Lukas is counting on the belief that horses like Secret Oath who ship to Saratoga from Churchill Downs in Kentucky need to experience a race over the Spa main track to set themselves up for a better performance the second time around.

“Granted, the one she got under her belt wasn’t very artistic,” Lukas said. “Luis [jockey Luis Saez] and I had to have a talk about that.

“But I rode out on it yesterday [Wednesday] on my saddle horse, and I was amazed by how deep it is. We train over here [at the Oklahoma Training Track], and when you’re up there in the grandstand, you don’t realize it, but, boy, I was really appalled by how deep it was.

“But anyhow, I think what I said holds true. I think these horses shipping in probably are all going to run better if they’ve had one. If a horse finishes strong here, he’s pretty fit.”

As far as Saez’s ride on Secret Oath in the CCA Oaks, Lukas suggested that keeping her a little farther off the pace would give Secret Oath a better chance in the Alabama.

“The last time, he tried to do things that are not in her wheelhouse,” Lukas said. “She settles, and then gradually makes up ground. She’s got a tremendous acceleration.

“Well, we didn’t do any of that last time, and consequently we looked bad. We’re not that bad. Those two fillies are not that far separated.”

The 86-year-old Lukas has won the Alabama twice, with Life’s Magic in 1984 and Open Mind in 1989.

Pletcher has won it three times, and is chasing his third CCA Oaks/Alabama sweep, after Princess of Sylmar won both in 2013 and Stopchargingmaria followed in 2014.

It’s still early, but a win by Nest in the Alabama could just about wrap up an Eclipse Award for 3-Year-Old Fillies.

“You know what, I never try to predict what the Eclipse voters are going to do,” Pletcher said. “I felt like when Princess of Sylmar won the two races here and the [Kentucky] Oaks that she was in good shape. We’ll see.”

Categories: At The Track, Sports, Sports

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