The first Saturday of the Saratoga meet features an exceptional pair of graded stakes races, highlighted by a very competitive renewal of the grade I Diana Stakes for fillies and mares. It looks like there could be some excellent value in the win pool, so without further ado, let’s start handicapping!
Sanford Stakes (gr. II)
First-time starters trained by D. Wayne Lukas don’t win very often, so it’s always a good idea to pay attention when they do. Earlier this month at Ellis Park, Lukas sent out John Q. Public to win a five-furlong maiden race by 2 1/2 lengths, which was very impressive especially considering that John Q. Public had to steady on the run down the backstretch and ran a bit greenly in the final furlong. He should show improvement in his second start, and should also relish the six-furlong distance of the Sanford. At 20-1 on the morning line, I think he offers a lot of value. Also, don’t forget that Lukas sent out a similar Kentucky-based debut winner named Mr. Z to finish second in last year’s Sanford at odds of 12-1.
Other major contenders include Eddie Plesa’s Awesome Slew, who won a five-furlong maiden special weight at Monmouth with a Beyer of 70; He’s Coming in Hot, who has won two straight including the Bashford Manor Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs; Cocked and Loaded, unbeaten in two starts including the Tremont Stakes at Belmont; and Paynes Prairie, runner-up in the Tremont and an impressive 3 1/2-length maiden winner since then.
Diana Stakes (gr. I)
Stephanie’s Kitten finished a strong second in this race last year, and while she could only finish fourth as the favorite in last month’s New York Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont, that was after settling behind a slow pace and rallying well after a wide trip to be beaten just a length. Assuming her pacemaker Kitten’s Point sets a faster pace than in the New York, I think we’ll see Stephanie’s Kitten rebound with a big effort today, and the cutback in distance to nine furlongs should also help sharpen her late run. That said, she’ll likely face a stiff challenge from Tepin, who has won three straight races in impressive fashion, including the Just a Game Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont last time out. She’s stretching out in distance today, which is a bit of a question mark, but her ability to consistently run her final quarter-mile in :22-and-change should make her dangerous, and drawing the rail is a positive. Of the pair, I narrowly prefer Stephanie’s Kitten as my selection, but I’ll also strongly consider Bill Mott’s Lady Lara, who won the Honey Fox Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream earlier this year before finishing fourth in both the Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile Stakes (gr. II) and the Just a Game Stakes (gr. I). She’s another filly that consistently runs her final quarter-mile in less than :23 seconds, and the extra distance of today’s race should help her chances. If she stays near her morning line odds of 10-1, I think she’s definitely worth a win bet.
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