SARATOGA SRPINGS — For the second Saturday in a row, a turf horse will be switching to dirt in the main event at Saratoga Race Course.
This time, it will be an even more extreme shift, since Yoshida, the 5-1 third choice on the morning line, will be trying the surface for the first time in his career, in the Grade I Woodward.
Trainer Bill Mott said that, with a dam who was a dirt sprinter and a sire who frequently ran at a mile and a half, it was logical to try Yoshida on dirt at some point.
That time comes on Saturday, when he will break from post No. 1 in a full field of 14.
“I guess when you’re already a Grade I winner, you probably don’t see it that often,” Mott said Thursday morning. “It’s been in the cards ever since we put him in training, to try him on dirt.”
Last weekend, Catholic Boy made headlines as a turf star who switched to dirt off a Grade I victory on grass to win the Travers Stakes.
But at least Catholic Boy had some history — and winning form — on dirt, having won the Remsen at Aqueduct as a 2-year-old.
He was even under consideration for the Kentucky Derby, but bled through the Lasix in finishing fourth in the Florida Derby and eventually went back to turf racing for two starts before the Travers, winning the Grade I Belmont Derby.
In 10 career races, Yoshida has run exclusively on grass, winning the Grade I Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day this year over a yielding course.
He also ran at Royal Ascot in England, finishing fifth in the Group 1 Queen Anne before returning to the U.S. to finish fifth to Voodoo Song in the Grade I Fourstardave at Saratoga, a year after he finished second to Voodoo Song in the Saranac at Saratoga.
The rain-softened turf course for the Fourstardave did not treat him kindly, as Yoshida took a chunk of sod to the eye at the three-eighths pole.
“He’s been known to handle boggy ground,” Mott said. “The only excuse I can give him is he took a pretty good whack to the eye, got a big clod, they were kicking up a lot of crap. The turf was chewed up. We were running on a surface that had been run over for 10 days or two weeks already. It was beat up, and he took a pretty good clod to the eye. I can’t talk to him, but I guess that I can guess that that had something to do with it.
“The jock [Manny Franco] said he threw his head up, and then he never tried after that.”
Mott has some experience with surface changes.
Like Catholic Boy, Good Samaritan ran in the Pennine Ridge and Belmont Derby, then tried dirt and won the Jim Dandy at Saratoga.
He never went back to the turf and competed in such races as the Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Met Mile.
“It’s two different horses,” Mott said. “I think we were pleasantly surprised with Good Samaritan last year, and we hope it works out this year with Yoshida.”
Yoshida is by the Heart’s Cry, who ran in the mile-and-a-half Japan Cup three times, and out of Hilda’s Passion, who capped her career in 2011 by winning the seven-furlong Grade I Ballerina at Saratoga.
That could play into whether Yoshida ultimately aims for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on dirt or the BC Turf, which is a mile and a half. He’s never raced farther than a mile and an eighth.
“You know, it’s crazy. The mother was a seven-furlong specialist, and the sire gets them going a mile and a half,” Mott said. “We know we’re a Grade I winner at nine furlongs, but a mile and a half could be a different story.”
With no horse of the caliber of Gun Runner, who swept the Whitney and Woodward last year, in sight, the Woodward drew a full starting gate.
That was part of the motivation for Yoshida’s connections to look at the race.
“I think that’s a fair assumption; I don’t think I’d disagree with that,” Mott said of the lack of star quality in the older dirt division. “We’d have been happier with an eight- or 10-horse field than as big a field as it is, but, look, he ran in a big field when he ran at Royal Ascot, so he’ll be used to it.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher will send three horses out for the Woodward, the one-eyed Patch, who was third in the Alydar at this meet; 2017 Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit, who was a well-beaten fourth in the Whitney; and Rally Cry, who was second by over 10 lengths to Gun Runner in last year’s Woodward.
“We're hoping to catch a fast track, and we think part of the reason he tired out in the Whitney was the sealed nature of the track," Pletcher said of Tapwrit. “He's training where we wanted him to be, now, we need him to step up and run the race he's capable of. In training, he seems like he's in as good of form as ever. Hopefully, the surface will make a difference this time.”
The Woodward field also includes Gunnevera, the tepid 4-1 favorite off an easy allowance win at Gulfstream Park after he finished third to Gun Runner in the Pegasus World Cup and eighth to Thunder Snow in the Dubai World Cup in March.
He came out of that race with a foot injury.
Gunnevera returns to Saratoga for the third time. He won the Saratoga Special as a 2-year-old and was second to West Coast in last year’s Travers.
Post time for the Woodward is scheduled for 6:47 p.m. and will be shown live on NBCSN during a broadcast from 5:30 to 7.
Besides the Woodward, there are three other graded stakes on Saturday’s card: the Grade III Saranac for 3-year-olds on the turf, the Grade I Spinaway for 2-year-old fillies and the Grade II Glens Falls for fillies and mares on the turf.
Raging Bull is the 2-1 favorite for the Saranac off a victory in the Grade II National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.
“My only concern would be if the turf course isn't playing fair with his running style, but otherwise it's all systems go,” trainer Chad Brown said.
The Spinaway field includes Catherinethegreat, who won the Grade III Schuylerville on opening day.
She’s up against Chasing Yesterday, a half-sister to 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah who won her debut impressively at Del Mar on July 28.
“We've loved her from Day 1,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “She's always shown that she's special. Hopefully, she gets a nice, clean trip and it sets her up for something in the future.
"She doesn't look like Pharoah. She probably looks more like her mother, but I see a lot of Tapit in her too. Her disposition is like Pharoah's though. She's a sweetheart, very loveable, like Abel Tasman in that way. When she gets on the track though, she's like Pharoah -- all racehorse. She just turns it on."