SARATOGA SPRINGS It has the feeling of a reunion.
One at which the homecoming queen gets a re-vote.
The top three finishers from the Coaching Club American Oaks on the first weekend of the meet are back for today’s Grade I Alabama at Saratoga Race Course, and they will be joined by Grace Hall, who makes her return to Saratoga over 11 months after winning the Spinaway.
Whereas the Alabama’s male counterpart, next Saturday’s Travers, is unlikely to have any bearing on the 3-year-old colt championship, the connections for the horses in the Alabama seem to agree that this race will be pivotal in deciding the filly division, especially since Believe You Can is on the shelf and will miss the Alabama.
“This is the meeting race where everyone is coming together in one race, and we’ll see who comes out on top,” said Tom Albertrani, who trains Mother Goose winner Zo Impressive. “It should be an exciting race.”
“All the 3-year-old fillies had this circled on their calendar at the start of the year, so no surprises there,” said Tony Dutrow, who trains Grace Hall.
Those two and CCA Oaks winner Questing are Grade I winners in the seven-horse Alabama field, which also includes Grade II Black-Eyed Susan winner In Lingerie, who went off as the 3-2 favorite in the CCA Oaks, but finished third.
Trainer Todd Pletcher said her trip under Javier Castellano in that race didn’t afford her the room to sustain her long, measured run. She gets her regular jockey back, John Velazquez, as Castellano stays on Grace Hall, who has won two Grade II’s in three starts with him this year.
Rounding out the field are Iowa Oaks winner Uptown Bertie, Via Villaggio, who was second to Grace Hall in the Delaware Oaks, and Sea Island, who beat St. John’s River in a nine-furlong allowance optional claiming race earlier in the meet.
Three of the last four Alabama winners — Proud Spell, Blind Luck and Royal Delta — have gone on to win the division championship.
Besides agreeing that this race will weigh heavily on end-of-the-year award voting, the connections seem to agree that Questing’s action out of the gate will provide the pivot point around which the rest of the race will develop.
The daughter of Hard Spun, the 5-2 second choice behind 7-5 Grace Hall on the morning line, has won her last two on the front end.
She’ll break from the No. 6 post, with In Lingerie to her outside.
In the CCA Oaks, Questing let 21-1 long shot Yara run off with the lead into the first turn, drew even on the backstretch and put her away as they got into the second turn.
Despite drifting out in deep stretch under 19-year-old Irad Ortiz Jr., who posted the first Grade I win for the meet and his career, Questing easily held off Zo Impressive by 41⁄2 lengths.
She won on the lead at Belmont Park in her previous start.
In the Alabama, she’ll have an extra eighth of a mile before the first turn, which suits trainer Kiaran McLaughlin just fine.
“We drew well. It’s a long way to the first turn, so if someone inside of us goes for some reason and we’re laying second — we did that last time — we can manage that,” he said. “But it looks like she’ll probably be on the lead. That would be ideal. Every time you run, it’s hard to keep pace with how well she’s run the last two times on the dirt. But if she does, she’s very live.”
“Last time, In Lingerie didn’t use her speed, they took her back,” Albertrani said. “We were drawn outside of her, so we kind of stayed out there hoping she’d either get hung wide or took back, and what happened was she took back. I don’t know if they’re going to use the same type of strategy this time around, but Questing, naturally, will be the one setting up the race.”
Ridden by Rajiv Maragh in all six career starts, all this year, Zo Impressive, owned by Charlotte Weber of Live Oak Plantation, has never been worse than second.
Albertrani said she’s improved significantly since finishing 61⁄2 lengths behind Grace Hall in the Gulfstream Park Oaks in March.
“That was our first race going around two turns, we got bumped, pinched at the start, we were further back than we wanted to be,” he said. “She still ran decent for the first time going around two turns.
“I don’t want to be down on the inside too long. I’m hoping that we can get in a nice, comfortable position just off the leaders, to her outside, maybe. But not getting too far back. I don’t know how strong a pace it’s going to be. Going a mile and a quarter, no one’s ever been that far, so Zo Impressive was actually maybe gaining a little bit on Questing last time, so pace is going to set up the race somewhat.”
None of the seven in the Alabama have raced a mile and a quarter.
“I could see the gray filly of Mrs. Weber’s [Zo Impressive] being a little closer, I could see Grace Hall being a little closer, and, obviously, Kiaran’s filly will probably be on the lead,” Dutrow said. “But I do think the pace will be very relaxed. That’s what I see in the first five-eighths of a mile.
“Everybody knows they’re going a mile and a quarter, and nobody’s done it yet, so I don’t think anybody will be too excited about ruining their race the first part of it.”
The last part of it could be thrilling, especially with what’s at stake.
“It opens it up so that whoever wins this race probably becomes the leader of the division,” McLaughlin said.
“At the end of eight months, the winner of this race will be the leader,” Dutrow said. “You still have the Cotillion and the Breeders’ Cup, and another Grade I in New York at the end of November. But at the end of eight months, as wide-open as this division is, the winner of the Alabama will be the leader.”