SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- For the horse racing enthusiast and the hardcore handicapper, Saturday's $500,000 Sword Dancer Invitational at Saratoga is head-scratching.
The horse enthusiast will be torn between wanting Grand Couturier to become the first horse to win this Grade 1 event for the third straight year or for 2004 Sword Dancer winner Better Talk Now to become the first 10-year-old to win a Grade 1 race on the flats at the Spa.
For the hardcore handicapper looking to beat Grand Couturier and Better Talk Now -- who by the way finished one-two in this race last year -- the options are plentiful. A case could be made for almost any of the other eight entrants set to contest the 1 1/2 miles over Saratoga's inner turf course.
The Sword Dancer is the 10th race on an 11-race card that begins at 1 p.m. ET. The Sword Dancer is the third leg of a late pick four wager that has a guaranteed pool of $500,000.
Trainer Robert Ribaudo and owner Marc Keller targeted the 2009 Sword Dancer the day after Grand Couturier overcame a stumble and a check in upper stretch to win the 2008 Sword Dancer. There is a just-great-to-be-here feel to it along with a hope that he could pull it off. Grand Couturier enters the Sword Dancer off two subpar finishes, not terribly different than the last two years.
"We just want to be here, have an opportunity,'' Ribaudo said. "If he's good enough, he'll win, if he's not good enough, he'll run his race and wherever he finishes ... as long as he comes back safe. It's just a sigh of relief after planning from the day after the Sword Dancer last year at least to have him physically in good shape and able to run.''
Alan Garcia rides Grand Couturier from the rail.
At the beginning of the year, trainer Graham Motion put the Sword Dancer near the top of his list for Better Talk Now's 10-year-old campaign. Better Talk Now, who has lost 11 straight races since winning the 2007 Manhattan, missed last month's United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park due to a popped splint bone in a hind leg. Given the way Presious Passion won that race, Motion called missing it "a blessing in disguise.''
"Nobody was going to wear that horse down,'' Motion said. "As it is this was always kind of our goal, so you come in here fresh, really. I'm not concerned about fitness.''
Motion noted that on Aug. 1, Better Talk Now worked in company with Bullsbay, who off that work won last Saturday's Grade 1 Whitney Handicap.
The handicapper has more choices to ponder. In a race where the pace figures to be soft, perhaps it's best to look at the speed horses. Musketier comes off a second-place finish to Gio Ponti in the Man o' War. He set a contested though moderate pace, put away the other speed, and held off everybody but Gio Ponti. Breaking from post 10, Musketier is likely to be on the lead again under Jono Jones.
Then there is the wild card, Americain, a 4-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Dynaformer who makes his North American debut. He won a Group 2 in Italy in his last start and was shipped shortly thereafter to Todd Pletcher, who won this race for the same owners, brothers Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, in 2006 with Go Deputy.
Pletcher was very impressed with the colt's five-furlong workout over the Oklahoma turf course last Sunday.
"He's got good form from Europe, so we're looking forward to running him and seeing where he fits," Pletcher said. "The horse likes to be forwardly placed. I don't know that we'll on the lead. Hopefully we'll be in a stalking position.''
Quijano finished third to Gio Ponti in the Man o' War on July 11 and has remained in New York ever since, working at Belmont all summer. He appears to be a stalker and should get first run on the bevy of closers that includes Grand Couturier, Better Talk Now, Brass Hat, and Gentleman Chester.
Lauro, Rising Moon, and Telling complete the field.