Saratoga: 5 Fantastic Photo Finishes

Saratoga: 5 Fantastic Photo Finishes

Over the course of its long and storied history, Saratoga has played host to thousands of terrific races, including many that ended with spectacular photo finishes. In celebration of the current Saratoga meet, here are five of my favorite photo finishes from the last few years!

The 2009 Woodward Stakes (gr. I)

The amazing Rachel Alexandra had already stamped her legacy by defeating colts in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and Haskell Invitational (gr. I), as well as by winning the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and Mother Goose Stakes (gr. I) against fellow fillies by about 20 lengths apiece. But her victory against older males in the prestigious, historic Woodward Stakes (gr. I) elevated her career to an entirely different level. After being pressured in tag-time fashion through fast fractions of :22.85, :46.41, and 1:10.54, Rachel Alexandra entered the homestretch in command of the lead, but had to dig deep to turn back a challenge from Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) winner Macho Again. It looked like Macho Again had the momentum to win, but as the wire approached, Rachel Alexandra found something extra to hang on and win by a head. What a filly!

The 2010 Whitney Handicap (gr. I)

Coming off of an impressive win in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), the multiple grade I winner Quality Road was heavily favored to win the 2010 Whitney, being sent off at odds of 1-2 against a quality field that included Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Mine That Bird, Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) winner Blame, Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) third-place finisher Musket Man, and future Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Haynesfield. After getting away with easy fractions of :48.06 and 1:11.92, Quality Road seemed certain to add the Whitney to his stellar résumé, but when he didn’t kick away as expected in the homestretch, the complexion of the race changed dramatically. All of sudden, Blame appeared on the outside, closing ground strongly as the finish line approached. Quality Road tried his best, but Blame had him measured, getting up in the last strides to win by a head.

The 2010 Travers Stakes (gr. I)

I picked out Afleet Express as a future star off a modest debut win at Aqueduct in December 2009, and despite some disappointing efforts in allowance company over the winter, I remained confident that he had what it took to win a grade I race. He finally started to turn things around with consecutive wins in a Belmont allowance race and the Pegasus Stakes (gr. III) at Monmouth Park, and after a third-place effort in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II), he entered the historic Travers Stakes as a mid-priced longshot at 7-1. With Javier Castellano in the saddle, Afleet Express saved ground for most of the race, then shifted outside to engage Belmont Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Fly Down in a battle for command. In one of the closest finishes in the history of the race, Afleet Express narrowly held on to win by a nose, completing a journey that begin with an almost-unnoticed maiden win at Aqueduct and concluded with a satisfying grade I win at Saratoga.

The 2012 Travers Stakes (gr. I)

Arguably the only renewal of the Travers that had a closer finish than the 2010 edition was the 2012 renewal, in which Alpha and Golden Ticket finished in a historic and memorable dead-heat for victory. Throughout the race, the two colts were never separated by more than a length while tracking modest fractions, and turning for home, they kicked clear of the field with Golden Ticket leading the way. It looked like Golden Ticket was about to pull off a 33-1 upset, but in the final furlong, Alpha put in a desperate surge to get up and cross the wire at exactly the same moment as Golden Ticket. Without question, it was one of the most fantastic photo finishes in the history of Saratoga!

The 2013 Woodward Stakes (gr. I)

I was about as big a fan of Alpha as you’ll ever find, but when he tailed off after the 2012 Travers and failed to crack the trifecta in his next six starts, I harbored little hope that he would ever return to his grade I-winning form. He entered the 2013 Woodward off of a poor sixth-place finish in the Whitney Handicap, beaten seven lengths, and the field he was facing in the Woodward included the proven grade I winners Flat Out, Ron the Greek, and Paynter, as well as Whitney runner-up Successful Dan. You really couldn’t make a case for Alpha to hit the board, let alone win, but I had a long-running joke with my brother that Alpha would someday win another grade I race, even though neither of us believed it would happen. So imagine my complete and total shock when Alpha–relishing the sloppy track–seized command of a two-length early lead, set modest fractions of :24.46 and :48.20, and then didn’t stop. My excitement built as Alpha threw down a third quarter-mile in :23.37 to maintain his lead, but then he had to brace for a challenge from Flat Out, one of the best horses in the country. I thought for certain that Flat Out had the momentum to get by, but in a remarkable performance, Alpha dug deep and found enough to hang on and win by a head.

Now it’s your turn! What are some of your favorite Saratoga photo finishes?

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Follow J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman"):

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, blogger, videographer, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin's quest to become North America's richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in Wisconsin and also writes for the blog Unlocking Winners.

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