SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Man o' War, Buckpasser, Nashua, Secretariat and Affirmed are among the roster of winners, so it's fair to say the Hopeful has long been a showcase for thoroughbred immortals.
Monday's $350,000 Hopeful - the 16th and final Grade 1 flat race at Saratoga Race Course, and the first of the season for 2-year-old males - attracted a field of seven juveniles looking to see how they measure up to fabled footprints.
Heading the lineup for the 112th running of the closing-day feature are Joseph Sutton's undefeated Bitumen and John C. Oxley's Classic Empire, who are already graded stakes winners. Their mettle will be tested by flashy-looking prospects Practical Joke and Runaway Lute, as well as Royal Copy, trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, a six-time Hopeful winner.
Bitumen was an impressive debut winner at Churchill Downs, breaking from the rail and shrugging off several challenges up front. Scarcely three weeks later, he showed another dimension by rallying from off the pace to take the Grade 3 Sanford Stakes on opening weekend at the Spa.
"He got an education because he was in behind and took so much dirt, which showed how much class he has," said trainer Eddie Kenneally. "[The Sanford] was a great foundation to help him go forward."
Bitumen appears to have gone forward through four subsequent workouts, capped by a best-of-46 bullet half-mile on Monday.
"He worked super," said Kenneally. "He's trained along nicely here all summer and hasn't missed a beat since the Sanford."
Bitumen breaks from post 4 with Javier Castellano aboard once again.
Classic Empire overcame slow getaways to win both of his races at Churchill Downs for trainer Mark Casse, capped by the Grade 3 Bashford Manor, in which he ran down odds-on choice Recruiting Ready, who subsequently finished second and was disqualified to fourth in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special.
"The pace set up for him and he was able to run down a very talented horse," said assistant Norm Casse.
After breaking from the rail in his first two starts, Classic Empire moves out to post 6 with Irad Ortiz, Jr. aboard.
Klaravich Stables' Practical Joke looks like a serious threat based on his initial effort on Whitney Day, August 6, a five-length maiden victory after being bumped at the break and relegated toward the rear of the field down the backstretch.
"I thought he ran well first time out," said Chad Brown, who is closing in on his first-ever Spa training title. "He'd been training awesome, but you never know at Saratoga. He's done well since then and I think he'll appreciate the added distance. There's always some concern running only one time and going into a Grade 1; it's always a tall order. However, we think he deserves a chance."
Practical Joke will begin from post 2 with Jose Ortiz.
After two wins by a combined 20 ¾ lengths against fellow New York-breds, including the Rockville Centre Stakes, Harold Lerner's Runaway Lute steps in with open company.
"I think the Hopeful is an acid test for him," said trainer Gary Contessa. "It's safe to say he is one of the better New York-breds, but I do know I'm up against it."
Runaway Lute breaks from post 3 with Ricardo Santana Jr. in the saddle.
Royal Copy has improved with each start for Lukas, culminating with a pace-pressing maiden victory here. The most recent of Lukas' six Hopeful winners, Strong Mandate (2013), also ran directly off a maiden win for the same owners, Robert C. Baker and William L. Mack.
Royal Copy leaves from post 5 with Luis Saez up.
Completing the field are Everybodyluvsrudy and Pretty Boy Flash, who exit runner-up finishes against maidens.
Everybodyluvsrudy, who is on the also-eligible list for a maiden race Saturday, drew the rail and has Manny Franco named to ride.
Pretty Boy Flash breaks from the outside in post 7 with Hall of Famer John Velazquez aboard.
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