SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - A monstrously talented field has lined up for the co-richest race of the 147th Saratoga Race Course meet - the Grade 1, $1.25 million Whitney - including seven Grade 1 winners and a pair of up-and-comers from the barn of the Spa's leading trainer, Todd Pletcher.
The 88th edition of the 1 1/8-mile Whitney for 3-year-olds and up is part of an action-packed Saturday at Saratoga that also includes the Grade 1, $500,000 Longines Test, the Grade 2, $200,000 Fasig-Tipton Waya, the $100,000 Lure and the $100,000 Fasig-Tipton De La Rose.
Since winning last year's Grade 1 Belmont, when he upset California Chrome's Triple Crown bid, Tonalist has had highs and lows. The son of Tapit finished a disappointing third in the Grade 1 Travers after pressing a fast pace, but took the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup from off the pace in his next start. To close out his 3-year-old season, the Clement trainee finished an even fifth in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic.
Building off a successful sophomore campaign, Tonalist returned better than ever in 2015, dispelling the notion he's more stamina than speed with a win in the Grade 3 Westchester and a strong runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap, both at a mile. For his Westchester triumph, Tonalist earned a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 111.
"I really think from a mile on he can run with the best," Clement said of Tonalist, who gave the French-born trainer his first Classic victory. "People thought after he won the Belmont he's a mile-and-a-half horse. Well, he finished second in the Met Mile, so he's not a mile-and-a-half horse. He showed pretty good speed, too. He's a very good horse, that's what it is."
In the Suburban, Tonalist made a wide, premature move into a fast pace under Hall of Famer John Velazquez. The bay colt dug in grimly but had to settle for second, a head behind Effinex.
Velazquez will be aboard Tonalist again on Saturday.
"We've been pretty lucky with [Velazquez] since he rode Irish Mission for us here last year; that was the first time I used him in a long time," said Clement. "I think there's enough pace for him to be comfortable, just to be comfortable the first part and Johnny will work it out. It's exciting. It's going to be a very good race."
Tonalist, tabbed at 4-1 on the morning line, will break from post 2.
Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey will send out this year's Met Mile winner, Honor Code, for Lane's End Racing and Dell Ridge Farm.
Honor Code made an indelible impression on the Spa when he rolled home to win his debut by 4 ½ lengths as a 2-year-old, but had yet to really make good on the promise he showed in his unveiling until breaking through in the Met Mile, his first Grade 1 victory.
In between the races that bookend his past performances heading into the Whitney, the 4-year-old A.P. Indy ridgling has a pair of Grade 2 victories to his credit - the Remsen and the Gulfstream Park Handicap - along with several layoff lines that have punctuated his career.
Honor Code has two wins from three starts in 2015, but finished fifth in his only start around two turns. With a near-perfect record in one-turn races, his only loss coming in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont as a juvenile, the dark bay's performance in the Whitney is likely to decide his future on the racetrack.
Javier Castellano will be aboard Honor Code, the 3-1 morning-line favorite, and the duo will depart from the rail.
Last year's Travers winner, V. E. Day, will return to familiar climes on Saturday. Winless since his 19-1 upset of last year's Midsummer Derby, V.E. Day was third, beaten 3 ½ lengths, in the Grade 3 Fort Marcy to open 2015 off a six-month layoff. Last time out, he came up a neck short of fellow Whitney entrant Coach Inge in the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap June 6.
"He certainly isn't over-raced. It's only going to be his third start of the year," said V. E. Day's trainer, Jimmy Jerkens. "We weren't really planning on that, but it just worked out that way. We're hoping he can finish out the year strong."
Jerkens will also saddle Grade 1 winner Wicked Strong, who lost to his stablemate by a nose in the Travers. Owned by Centennial Farms, the 4-year-old son of Hard Spun won the Grade 1 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial last April before running fourth in both the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. This year, he finished third in the Grade 3 Excelsior and fifth in the Met Mile before a runner-up effort in the Forbidden Apple July 11 in his turf debut.
"It's been a little frustrating," said Jerkens. "The Excelsior was disappointing. It looked like he should have won that, and in the Met he kind of got creamed leaving there. I thought the last race on turf, I don't know if he particularly liked it that much but he showed good guts to be second. I think he's starting to rise back up again."
V.E. Day is unbeaten at Saratoga, having won last year's Curlin Stakes prior to the Travers. Wicked Strong captured the Grade 2 Jim Dandy last summer.
"They're both doing good. I like how they're doing," said Jerkens. "They did well here last year, that's for sure. It's more coincidence than anything, but there's been a lot of horses in the past that seemed to do a little better up here. Those two seem to do good up here."
Owned by Magalen Bryant, V. E. Day will break from post 6 with Junior Alvarado in the irons. Wicked Strong will have the services of Luis Saez from post 9. The pair are listed at 8-1 and 20-1, respectively.
Trained by Mark Casse for John Oxley, Noble Bird will go for his second Grade 1 win in a row after taking the Stephen Foster Handicap by a neck last out on June 13 at Churchill Downs. After an uninspiring sophomore year, the 4-year-old son of Birdstone has flourished in 2015, with three wins from five starts including a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Alysheba. Casse believes Noble Bird is capable of taking another step forward at Saratoga.
"My son, Norman, is my main guy and assistant he knows Noble Bird better than anybody. He knows him better than me, actually," Casse said. "We both looked at each other [after his last work] and said, 'I think he likes Saratoga better than anywhere else.' I find a lot of our horses struggle with Saratoga, the track, but he looks to me like he's thriving over it."
At 5-1 on the morning line, Noble Bird will be ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan from post 3.
The horse Noble Bird defeated in the Stephen Foster, Lea, will seek redemption for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and owners Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider.
Primarily a turf horse for the first half of his career, Lea was a revelation during the winter of 2014, when he won the Grade 3 Hal's Hope and Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park in his first two starts with Mott.
The son of First Samurai was laid up for almost a year before returning to win the Hal's Hope for the second straight year in his seasonal bow. The 6-year-old then finished second in the Donn and third in the world's richest race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup, before missing by a neck in the Stephen Foster.
Lea will break from post 7 with regular rider Joel Rosario aboard, and sits at 9-2 on the morning line.
Pletcher, the meet's leading trainer by a wide margin, will be represented by the sparsely raced Liam's Map, winner of four of five career starts, and Coach Inge, who most recently finished third in the Suburban.
Liam's Map, who returned from a seven-month hiatus to take an optional claimer by 1 ¾ lengths on June 19 at Belmont Park, has won his past four races, including the Harlan's Holiday Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The son of Unbridled's Song, owned by Teresa Viola Racing Stables, has only one blemish on his record, a second-place finish in his debut last summer at Saratoga.
A 4-year-old gelding by Big Brown, Coach Inge blossomed this winter running over Aqueduct's inner track, and has since strung together three consecutive triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, including a 102 for his win in the Brooklyn.
"Liam's Map, I believe, will be forwardly placed and Coach Inge probably went a little too fast in the Suburban and prompted really fast fractions, but I thought he ran gamely despite that," said Pletcher. "To me, it looks like tactically it's a real jockey's race. There's some interesting strategies here. We don't want [Liam's Map] and [Coach Inge] to be head-and-head."
Liam's Map, 6-1 on the morning line, will be ridden for the first time by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, while Irad Ortiz, Jr. reunites with Coach Inge, 15-1 morning line. The Pletcher tandem will break from posts 4 and 8, respectively.
Rounding out the field are last year's winner, Moreno (12-1), who is coming off an eighth-place finish in the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita; and Normandy Invasion (30-1), making his third start off a layoff of over a year for trainer Larry Jones and Fox Hill Farms.