SARATOGA SPRINGS -- The Met Mile came up "crazy-tough" on June 8, trainer Todd Pletcher said on Tuesday, prompting him, in part, to send his horse Vino Rosso to the West Coast to race.
The $1 million Whitney at Saratoga Race Course may not rise quite to the "crazy" level, but it offers as stiff a challenge as you'll find in the older dirt division going a route of ground this season. Vino Rosso is lined up for this one, along with seven others who include two of the top dirt horses in the world, McKinzie and Thunder Snow.
The 92nd Whitney tops off a weekend chockful of stakes races, beginning Friday with the Grade II National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, the Alydar and the inaugural $750,000 Saratoga Oaks Invitational.
Besides the Whitney, the Saturday program will include the Grade III Troy turf sprint, giving Saratoga fans a chance to see one of the top horses in the country, World of Trouble; the Grade I Test, featuring Grade I Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress and Grade I Santa Anita Oaks winner Bellafina, both cutting back in distance; and two other turf stakes, the Lure and De La Rose.
On Sunday, the busy weekend concludes with the John Morrissey (rescheduled from the July 25 rainout), the inaugural Saratoga Derby Invitational, the Waya and the Grade II Adirondack, the second leg of graded dirt stakes for 2-year-old fillies.
The nine-furlong Whitney is the sun around which the other stakes orbit, though, a race rich in history that has drawn another blockbuster field.
"It's tremendous," Pletcher said. "Outside of the Breeders' Cup Classic, it's probably the most prestigious race for older horses in the country."
The field, in post-position order, with jockeys and morning-line odds in parentheses, will be: Imperative (Jose Bracho, 30-1), Forewarned (Dylan Davis, 30-1); Monongahela (Jose Lezcano, 12-1); Thunder Snow (Christophe Soumillon, 3-1); Vino Rosso (John Velazquez, 6-1); McKinzie (Mike Smith, 7-5); Yoshida (Joel Rosario, 10-1); Preservationist (Junior Alvarado, 3-1).
Besides a 12th in the Breeders' Cup Classic, McKinzie hasn't finished worse than second in 10 other career starts, all graded stakes except for his maiden win in 2017. He was a hard-charging second to Mitole in the Met Mile.
Godolphin's Thunder Snow is a two-time Dubai World Cup winner who is 0-for-4 in the U.S., including a third in the Met Mile, and Preservationist may have as much momentum as any horse in the field, off a nice win in the Grade II Suburban.
"He's taken on the best," Godolphin traveling assistant trainer Tommy Burns said of Thunder Snow. "McKinzie's going to be a tough nut to crack."
After the Met Mile loss, NBC analyst Jerry Bailey commented that maybe Thunder Snow would benefit from a rider switch.
The Thunder Snow camp will be having none of that. Soumillon has been on his back for 18 of 24 career starts, including both Dubai World Cups.
"Christophe has been riding him for three years, so he knows him. It was Christophe who said, 'Go for the Met Mile,'" Burns said. "All commentators love to dig in. They love to try and wind up to get someone to bite. Enjoy, Jerry!"
"I think McKinzie's the horse to beat, and you have to respect Thunder Snow a lot for all his accomplishments," Pletcher said. "And Preservationist is on quite a roll himself."
Pletcher likes his horse's chances, too, especially as he's seen improvement and maturation, physically and mentally, from his 3-year-old season to 4.
Last year, Vino Rosso finished ninth in the Kentucky Derby, fourth in the Belmont Stakes, third in the Jim Dandy and fifth in the Travers.
He's coming off a win in the Grade I Santa Anita Gold Cup at a mile and a quarter.
"We were kind of looking at our options," Pletcher said. "The Met was coming up a crazy-tough race, and we weren't sure that a mile is his absolute best distance. It looked like the Santa Anita Gold Cup was a good opportunity for a Grade I. The horse was doing well.
"We felt it was worth taking a shot, even though we shipped out there and ran against Gift Box, who was on a roll at the time and on his home court. So I thought it was a big achievement for him to go out there and get that Grade I win and do it while traveling."
Pletcher said he's also looking forward to racing Vino Rosso at nine furlongs around two turns, which he hasn't done since the Jim Dandy.
"I think it's ideal for him," he said. "If there's an honest pace, he's a very versatile horse. He ran sneaky good in the [seven-furlong] Carter. You don't run too many Carters where they went the half [mile] in almost 47 seconds. We were in the right race with a good plan, it just didn't work out the way we anticipated, but I think he's versatile enough to handle any distance."
Yoshida, who was fourth in the BC Classic and sixth in the Dubai World Cup, won the Woodward at Saratoga last year, and Monongahela is coming off a four-length win in the Grade III Philip H. Iselin at Monmouth Park.
On Friday, Concrete Rose will attempt to remain undefeated in 2019 in the Saratoga Oaks, the second leg of the New York Racing Association's new Turf Tiara series for 3-year-old fillies on the grass.
Off her impressive win in the Belmont Oaks on July 6, she's the 2-5 favorite.
Tom's d'Etat is 7-5 in the Alydar off a second to McKinzie in the Alysheba and a third to Seeking the Soul by two lengths in the Grade II Stephen Foster.
In the Test on Saturday, the Tom Amoss-trained Serengeti Empress will be racing at shorter than a mile for the first time in seven starts. She was second in the one-mile Acorn by six lengths to Guarana, who went on to win the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga on July 20.
"There is a lot of speed in the race, and that's the way it is, but I'm going to rely on her class and her speed associated with that class, and let her do that job," Amoss told NYRA. "She knows how to do her job. We developed her, bought her as a yearling and have been a part of her life from the moment she came into the barn. This would be very special if it were to happen."
Trainer Chad Brown will be trying to win the Test for the second year in a row (Separationofpowers won it in 2018), and he'll do so with an undefeated filly, Royal Charlotte, who is 4-for-4, all this year, most recently the Grade III Victory Ride.
In the Troy, World of Trouble is 3-5 while riding a five-race winning streak, most recently the Grade I Jaipur on Belmont Stakes Day. He has also won a Grade I on the dirt this season, the Carter at Aqueduct in April.
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.