After watching some Hall of Fame trainers walk to the microphone at Wednesday’s Whitney draw, Reade Baker, who conditions long shot Hunters Bay, said he felt like a guppy in the shark pool.
The horse with the really sharp teeth skipped this race to run in the A.G. Vanderbilt on Sunday, but the 85th running of the Grade I Whitney Handicap today should produce a swirl of frantic predatory action in the older division.
There’s a deep field of nine who are difficult to separate, as evidenced by the fact that Ron the Greek is a tepid morning-line favorite, at 3-1, despite having won two Grade I’s this year, the Stephen Foster and the Santa Anita Handicap.
“You can make a case for everybody,” said Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who will saddle Ron the Greek and Flat Out. “There are horses with good past form and horses coming up with good recent form.”
Trickmeister, who will break from the middle of the field under Ramon Dominguez, looks to spearhead the field out of the gate, followed by several close stalkers on both sides.
After that, there’s a wave of accomplished closers to make a late run on the lead in the nine-furlong race.
The connections for Met Mile winner Shackleford have opted to run in the six-furlong A.G. Vanderbilt in pursuit of a Horse of the Year campaign, but his absence doesn’t make the Whitney that much easier.
“There is a lot of speed in the race, and somebody’s going to have to be sensible out there,” said Eoin Harty, who trains long shot Endorsement for Casner Racing. “My horse, he’s a little one-dimensional, too. I’ve got the first run on the rail inside of Trickmeister, so I need to utilize that.”
“I’d like a head start, really,” joked Baker, who will saddle the other 20-1 horse in the field. “I would like someone to say they didn’t like their post and are going to scratch, but everybody seems to love it, and this size of field, with these big turns, nobody is going to have a problem with the post.”
The 7-2 second choice, Fort Larned, will break from the outside.
Other than an eighth in the Stephen Foster, he’s had a quietly terrific campaign this year for trainer Ian Wilkes and owner Janis Whitham.
He won the Grade III Skip Away, then was a length back in second to Successful Dan in the Grade II Alysheba before finishing 12 lengths behind Ron the Greek in the Stephen Foster.
Wilkes added blinkers, and Fort Larned won the Grade III Cornhusker, beating Successful Dan in the process, under Brian Hernandez, who will ride in the Whitney.
“He really stepped it up. The blinkers really helped him,” Wilkes said. “I’ve found that he just wants to run a little bit. I went into the Stephen Foster with a pretty horse. I didn’t have a racehorse. He didn’t run much that day.
“He doesn’t have to be in front. He can sit behind and do whatever you want.”
Hymn Book, who will break from just inside Fort Larned, is another Grade I winner in the field, having opened the 2012 season by winning the Donn Handicap.
Since then, he’s lost to Alter-nation twice, in the Oaklawn Handicap and Pimlico Special, then didn’t miss by much against Mucho Macho Man in the Suburban Handicap.
Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey said, if anything, that second-place finish was encouraging, since Hymn Book broke so poorly.
“I’m going to say he stumbled,” McGaughey said. “He broke hard, and his right front went out from under him, and when he did, he had to gather him up, and he lost all position. I was pretty happy with the way he finished. He came on against that group of horses. The winner is a very good horse.”
Alan Garcia rode that day, while John Velazquez was recovering from a broken collarbone. Velazquez is back to ride in the Whitney.
“If he gets away good, he’ll get a position going around that first turn,” McGaughey said. “With Johnny riding him, you know you’re going to get the best. If the pace is fast, he’ll be laying back, and if it’s slow, we’ll be laying up fairly close.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher has two in the field, Monmouth Cup winner Rule and Caixa Eletronica, who is wheeling back after finishing fifth in the James Marvin on opening day.
Even the two 20-1 shots in the Whitney aren’t being dismissed.
Endorsement, as he has since being sent to Harty’s barn, will run without Lasix.
He was acting studdish in the paddock before the Suburban and wound up 37 lengths behind Mucho Macho Man.
“He had a lot to overcome in his last race, mental issues more than anything else, but I think he’s changed, he’s turned the corner and he’ll run a very good race here on Saturday,” Harty said. “He’s really, really adapted and likes this environment. This is the best he’s done for me all year.
“He’s all male. That’s the way he is. He’s not going to go home and watch ‘The Bridges of Madison County.’ He’s watching ‘Die Hard’ and drinking some beer.”
Baker said Hunters Bay, who has won four at Woodbine and was second to Pants On Fire at Gulfstream Park in his last five starts, belongs with this field.
“We fit. Sure we do,” he said. “Historically, 15 years ago, horses used to come from Woodbine and do good here all the time. They haven’t recently run any good, but we were second last year in the Jim Dandy with a horse last year, Moonshine Mullin, so we think we have a real chance with a horse that wants to go this far.”