By Joe Bianca
For a race that offers just a five-horse field, Saturday's GI Whitney S. at Saratoga will nevertheless feature plenty of intrigue, as two of the handicap division's top stars will meet the one-two finishers from the GI Metropolitan H. and a certain champion filly whose trainer called an audible to enter her in the meet centerpiece for older horses, a “Win and You're In” qualifier for the GI Longines Breeders' Cup Classic.
Given the morning-line at 6-5 is the Korea Racing Authority's enigmatic star speedball Knicks Go (Paynter). A shocking winner of the GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity at 70-1 for Ben Colebrook in 2018, the gray failed to find the mark in his next 10 tries before being reborn when switching to Brad Cox's barn. Winning a pair of allowance/optional claiming events by a combined 17 3/4 lengths, Knicks Go survived a sizzling pace and kicked clear to a 3 1/2-length conquest of the GI Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile last fall at Keeneland and followed that up with a frontrunning score in the GI Pegasus World Cup Invitational S.
It's been up-and-down in three starts since, however, as he retreated to a well-beaten fourth in the G1 Saudi Cup and filled the same slot with no visible excuse as a 4-5 chalk in the Met Mile. Shipping in to Iowa for the GIII Cornhusker H. July 2 at Prairie Meadows, however, he was back to the old Knicks Go, cruising to a devastating 10 1/4-length romp with a career-high 113 Beyer. In a short field with no definite other speed signed on, the 5-year-old figures to get the right setup in this nine-furlong test.
“He'll break running. We'll see how far he can take himself around there, hopefully the whole way,” Cox told the NYRA notes team. “He's set up for a big effort. He's been working really well at Ellis. [The Cornhusker] gave us the confidence to try the Whitney. It solidified that the horse needs two turns. We're excited about getting him back in the Grade I ranks going around two turns.”
Likely to be a close second choice is Godolphin's once-beaten sensation Maxfield (Street Sense), who tries for his first Grade I win since his juvenile season. He stamped himself as a potential championship contender when romping by 5 1/2 lengths from well back in the Breeders' Futurity, but a series of setbacks forced him to miss the Breeders' Cup and, after returning for a score in the GIII Matt Winn S. last May, eventually the Triple Crown. The imposing dark bay picked up where he left off with a 3 1/4-length success in the Tenacious S. last December at Fair Grounds, but suffered his first defeat when third at 11-10 in the GI Santa Anita H. Mar. 6. Since then, he notched open-length victories in the GIII Alysheba S. and GII Stephen Foster S. at Churchill to run his impressive career record to 7-for-8.
“He's a horse that even still is lightly raced. We were always on the back foot with him,” trainer Brendan Walsh said. “He ran twice as a 2-year-old, and we've always been battling a little inexperience or a lack of seasoning. But ever since we ran him in California and his couple runs since, he's getting to where he's a more seasoned horse and I think that's going to [serve] him well from here on in because he's going to have to be at his best against the horses he's up against. It's a big test for him, so we'll see how he stacks up against them.”
The favorite of the fans–if not the bettors–will be Peter Callahan's Swiss Skydiver (Daredevil), entered against the boys after a Saratoga barn quarantine forced trainer Ken McPeek to redirect her from a planned start in last Sunday's GIII Shuvee S. Reeling off a dazzling championship 3-year-old campaign that included 10 races at nine different tracks, five graded stakes triumphs and, of course, the chestnut's seismic defeat of eventual champion Authentic (Into Mischief) in the GI Preakness S. She flattened out to seventh in the GI Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff, however, and, after bouncing back with a tally in the GI Beholder Mile S. Mar. 13 at Santa Anita, could not stay with Letruska (Super Saver) or Monomoy Girl (Tapizar) when third, beaten 6 1/2 lengths, in the GI Apple Blossom H. Apr. 17 at Oaklawn.
“She's had a bumpy first half of the year,” McPeek said. “No major issues, but just stuff that kept her from showing off. She had a little hind leg infection that was bothering her. It didn't appear to be a big deal going into Oaklawn, but it might have been why she ran a little flat that day. We're excited about [the Whitney]. The Shuvee would have been ideal, she's been ready to run. I've always thought if you're here, you run where you're at. It's a little bit out of the box, but she's ready.”
There's a realistic possibility that streaking Silver State (Hard Spun) could give trainer Steve Asmussen his record-breaking 9,446th win in Saratoga's second-most prestigious race. Scoring just once–in a dead heat–in his first five career outings, the $450,000 Keeneland September buy has been unstoppable since returning from a seven-month layoff last October, visiting the winner's circle six straight times, including in the Met last out June 5. The runner-up that day, By My Standards (Goldencents), who was also second to eventual champion older dirt male Improbable (City Zip) in last year's Whitney, rounds out the field.