When Southern Equine Stables' Whitney winner Moreno and runner-up Itsmyluckyday face off again Aug. 30 in the final Grade 1 race of the Saratoga Race Course season for older horses, the $600,000 Woodward Stakes, more than the winner's share will be on the line
Trainer Eric Guillot hopes that Moreno, the dangerous front-running speedster, can thrust himself into the conversation for Horse of the Year honors if he wins the Woodward en route to victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup Classic. The 4-year-old Ghostzapper gelding took a serious step up in class Aug. 2 when he won the $1.5 million Whitney in dramatic gate-to-wire fashion at 10-1 odds over some of the top horses in the country.
"Wise Dan [is] just getting started, right?" Guillot said, handicapping the rivals he perceives as leaders in the race for the sport's greatest year-end honor. "Palace Malice has got the Met Mile under his belt and Grade 2's other than that, right? The 3-year-old, California Chrome, won the first two legs [of the Triple Crown]; what he does when he comes back is going to be important. What I do from this day forward is going to be important. Shared Belief has us beaten [after winning the Grade 1 Pacific Classic], but Game On Dude is a tired old horse on the synthetic, so [Shared Belief's] got to do more."
Moreno is unquestionably the speed of the 1 ⅛-mile Woodward, and signaled his readiness for this test Aug. 24 with a five-furlong breeze in :59.28 seconds over the Saratoga main track, the fastest of 46 at the distance. He carries highweight of 122 pounds and will depart post 4 with regular rider Junior Alvarado in the irons.
"The Woodward is just another journey," Guillot said. "This horse is better doing 30-30-30 days [between races] and training light in between and working him like I do. He's a fresh horse. He's not tired by any means."
The one horse to threaten Moreno in the Whitney, Itsmyluckyday, returns for another try for Trilogy Stable and Laurie Plesa. The 4-year-old son of Lawyer Ron was one of the better 3-year-olds last year, winning the Holy Bull, finishing second in the Florida Derby, and running second in the Preakness, before suffering a fractured pelvis in the Pegasus Stakes.
This year under the supervision of trainer Eddie Plesa, Itsmyluckyday knocked out three stakes wins-one at Gulfstream Park, two at Monmouth Park-before finishing second in the Whitney. In that race, jockey Paco Lopez raced a close-up fourth around the track and then attempted to surge at the top of the lane. Moreno repelled him and won by 2 ¼ lengths, with defending 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge three more lengths back in third.
WOODWARD STAKES DRAW
For the Woodward, Plesa will outfit Itsmyluckyday with blinkers for the first time. The bay colt drew the rail under Lopez and carries 120 pounds.
"I think maybe we can fine-tune him a little bit, maybe focus him down the lane," Plesa said. "Sometimes, horses need a little something to shake them up. I don't think Moreno is going to have his own way in this race, for whatever reason, whether it's me or somebody else. Jockeys get paid a lot of money to ride these horses; they need to know how fast the horses are going in front of them. He (Moreno) won the [Whitney]-no ifs, ands or buts. He's the horse to beat."
Guillot took the addition of blinkers on Itsmyluckyday as flattery.
"It changes their perception about how good Moreno is, I think," he said. "I remember an article saying how great [Itsmyluckyday] was doing before the Whitney. He was doing unbelievably. So he can't be doing better than they had said before the Whitney. I know Eddie Plesa is a good trainer. I think he's one of the better horsemen in the country... So, putting the blinkers on means what? You're going to try to stay closer to me? You wanna be a rabbit or the sacrificial lamb? Which one do you want to be? I'm going to tell them for the third time this week: if you're in front of me, you've run too fast."
Trainer Chad Brown will send out a strong uncoupled entry in Zivo and Last Gunfighter. The late-running Zivo carries a six-race winning streak that includes a three-length victory over Moreno in the July 5 Suburban at Belmont Park. Last Gunfighter, a winner of $1.2 million who captured four graded stakes last year, was fifth after a wide trip in this year's Whitney.
Zivo, a powerful stretch runner who made an impressive graduation from New York-bred stakes company to win the Suburban, had been considered for the Whitney but ultimately was held back for the Woodward.
"We just tried to give him more time," said Brown. "He's doing really well. He needs some pace to run at. I would expect (Itsmyluckyday) to engage Moreno a little sooner this time if he expects to have a chance to win. If Itsmyluckyday lets him gallop around again, he's not going to beat him."
Last Gunfighter received a six-month vacation after winning the Hawthorne Gold Cup last November and returned May 31 with a victory in the Mountainview Handicap at Penn National Racecourse. He finished ninth, however, in the Suburban and then was forced wide in the Whitney.
"He didn't run badly, and he deserves another shot," Brown said. "Last year, he was pretty consistent. [The Mountainview] might have knocked him off a little bit; he ran hard in that race and bounced in the second race off the layoff, but in his last race he got a real wide trip in a tough heat and held his own pretty well. Hopefully, he can save some ground and make up a few lengths."
Godolphin Racing, which won its first Woodward last year with Alpha, has a coupled entry in Long River and Romansh.
Long River, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, enters with a similar profile to Last Gunfighter. He was fifth behind Imperative, Game On Dude, Moreno, and Clubhouse Ride in the Charles Town Classic and then regressed to seventh in the Stephen Foster Handicap. In his most recent start, the son of A.P. Indy and 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Round Pond traveled wide on both turns when fifth in the July 27 Monmouth Gold Cup.
"We want to try to win a graded stakes because of his great pedigree," McLaughlin said. "Everything hasn't quite gone great the last few races for him. We need to see something more, so we're going to slap blinkers on him and hope for the best. He's doing great, and just the last few races haven't been great, but we're not going to give up on it."
Romansh, trained by Tom Albertrani, won the Curlin Stakes by disqualification last year over the track, and most recently finished seventh in the Whitney. He is capable of big runs, having finished third in the Metropolitan Handicap June 7.
Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey sends out Norumbega, the Brooklyn Handicap winner who will try to bounce back after an eighth-place finish in the Suburban.
"He's been down in Fair Hill [training center in Maryland] and training good there, so we'll see what happens," McGaughey said.
Micromanage, recent 8 ½-length winner of the 1 ¾-mile Birdstone at Saratoga; Prayer for Relief, fourth in the Whitney; and Stephanoatsee, racing for Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, complete the field. The Woodward, carded as race 11, is one of four graded stakes on Saturday's card and will be shown live on the NBC Sports Network during a broadcast that runs from 6-7 p.m. Also on the card is the $250,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap, featuring the highly anticipated return of two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan.