When Zagora rallied in the stretch last year to beat Aruna by a length and a half in the Grade I Diana, it marked a handful of firsts.
The French-bred Zagora, running in her fifth North American race, won for the first time this side of the pond. She also won her first Grade I, and it was the first Grade I win for trainer and Mechanicville native Chad Brown.
Returning to Saratoga Race Course, she will try to repeat the feat today in the Diana, a 11⁄8-mile turf race for fillies and mares 3 and older. A win would make her the seventh horse to win the race in back-to-back years and eighth to win it twice since its inception in 1939.
“She’s been a real special horse for us around here,” Brown said. “She seems to like Saratoga quite a bit. She’s had an outstanding career, particularly an outstanding year — she’s won three graded stakes. I’m excited to run her [today]; she’s been running really well.”
The race was bumped up from last year’s $500,000 purse to $600,000. It also will be run on the Inner Turf instead of the usual Mellon Turf. With all the rain the track has absorbed over the last two days and more expected today, the turf is listed as good, so it will be a little softer than usual. Last year’s Diana also was run over turf listed as good.
Zagora has proven a versatile runner and strong closer for owner Martin Schwartz. In her 18 career starts, she is 8-4-2 with a 4-2-1 record in her nine North American starts, all of them graded stakes. She has won races with slow or fast paces, and she is 3-2-0 from six starts at the Diana’s distance.
SLOW PACE NO PROBLEM
Look for her and jockey Ramon Dominguez, the 5-2 second choice on the morning line, to keep a little distance from the early leader.
“That’s her. She can adapt to a slower pace, though,” Brown said. “One of the races this year at Tampa Bay, the pace was slow. I think it was her first race of the year. She laid close, third, and won. Last year, the Diana was a slow pace, and she overcame that and won. So she’s not devoid of speed early. She prefers to be just off the pace, I think. I’ll just leave that to Ramon. He knows the filly and is riding extremely well, right now.”
Dominguez was the meet’s leading rider through the first six days with 13 wins. He rode Zagora to second-place finishes in two of her first four North American starts last year, but Javier Castellano has been aboard since winning last year’s Diana with her.
Castellano will ride 9-5 favorite Winter Memories today for trainer Jimmy Toner. Joel Rosario rides 7-2 third choice Tapitsfly for Dale Romans, and John Velazquez will be aboard Hungry Island for Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey.
The last furlong of the Diana may prove the key for Zagora. Tapitsfly will likely be the speed in the race, but has faded in races longer than a mile. Another strong closer, Winter Memories won last year’s Grade I Garden City at this distance, but flattened out late for a fourth-place finish in the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup. In the Grade II Lake Placid last year at this distance, she was plagued by traffic trouble and could not find a path to the front, brushing the inside rail around the sixteenth pole and settlling for fourth.
Zagora is coming off a bit of a freshening after coming out of a win in the Grade III Gallorette with a popped splint bone. It was her fourth race of the year and third Grade III score, and Brown said the rest seems to have done her a world of good.
“I’ve really never seen her looking this well, overall,” he said. “She’s always been a healthy horse, but right now, she’s carrying really good conditioning on her, her coat’s really good and she’s happy. She’s run four times this year, so a little freshening might work in her favor, actually.”
DAM WON RACE IN 1998
Winter Memories will try to add some hardware to the family mantlepiece. She is out of Memories of Silver, who won the race in 1998.
She was second to Tapitsfly her last time out in the Grade I Just a Game at Belmont on June 9.
“You have to give [Tapitsfly] a lot of credit,” Toner told the New York Racing Association. “She was on the lead, nice and comfortable, and we just couldn’t catch her. When they asked her, she had plenty enough to kick in. We just couldn’t catch her. No excuses. I don’t know if Tapitsfly will go [11⁄8 miles], but if you have the same scenario as last time, she will go that far. And I don’t see any pace in the race, truthfully. Unfortunately for us and fortunately for them, it could be the same scenario all over again.”
Tapitsfly and Hungry Island have taken turns beating each other. Hungry Island was third in the Just a Game behind Tapitsfly and Winter Memories, but she beat Tapitsfly in the Grade II Distaff Turf Mile at Churchill Downs on May 5 and beat Winter Memories in the Lake Placid last year.
Hungry Island is another horse that closes well.
“She broke fine [in the Just a Game], but then [Velazquez] had to ride her to get her into the race,” McGaughey told NYRA. “You kind of have got to get her covered up. Nobody was going to beat [Tapitsfly] that day as fast as she ran, but I think stretching [Hungry Island] out is going to help her. She’s going to be back [in the field], but she’s got to be back the right way. She had a pretty quick work earlier in the week [before the Just a Game], and maybe that took some of the sting out of her.”
European horses Dream Peace and Law of The Range round out the six-horse field for the Diana.