Horse racing returns to the national purview this weekend with a large-scale descent upon Saratoga Springs, New York, for the 2014 Woodward Stakes.
While most of the year's biggest events are designed for young horses—most notably the Triple Crown, which features only three-year-olds—the Woodward Stakes is a premier event for the older crowd. Very few prominent three-year-olds participate in the event, with Rachel Alexandra's win in 2009 being the most notable in recent memory.
Rather, the Woodward has become a stomping ground for late bloomers who didn't excel on the Triple Crown stage. The last four Stakes and seven of the last eight have been won by four-year-olds. The likes of Quality Road and Curlin have battled back from disappointing Triple Crown seasons to excel the next year, culminating with a win at Saratoga.
A similar story could be written about Itsmyluckyday, which comes in alongside Moreno as one of the favorites for Saturday. The four-year-old colt finished second in last year's Preakness Stakes and 15th in the Kentucky Derby. Moreno comes in the favorite after something of a surprising win at this month's Whitney Handicap.
For those who only casually follow the sport, the two favorites are easily the most memorable. But with more than half of the 10-horse field coming in with single-digit odds, notoriety does not necessarily equal success. With that in mind, let's take a look at what to expect Saturday evening.
Woodward Stakes Info
When: Saturday, Aug. 30 at 6 p.m. ET
Where: Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York
Watch: NBC Sports Network
|5||Prayer for Relief||12-1|
Woodward Stakes Preview
For many, picking the winner comes down to how seriously one takes the result of the Whitney Handicap. If you believe it's a precursor to what's to come, then Moreno stands out as the heavy favorite.
The colt, which already has quite a sterling resume at Saratoga, was dominant from the opening gun. Junior Alvarado strode him out to an early lead and watched as contenders like Palace Malice and Will Take Charge fell by the wayside, resulting in a 1 1/4 length win over the hard-charging Itsmyluckyday. It was the type of dominant performance rarely seen from Moreno, which entered as a 10-1 underdog.
In fact, history does not speak too kindly of Moreno overall. He has only three wins in 20 races, with the Whitney being his first since July 2013. While Saratoga has been kind—Moreno has finished no worse than third in any of his races at the legendary track—it's nonetheless interesting that he comes in with such low odds.
Itsmyluckyday, on the other hand, has a much stronger resume. The Edward Plesa Jr.-trained colt was on a three-race win streak heading into the Whitney and has a strong history of finishes near the top. Itsmyluckyday has finished outside the top five exactly twice: at the Delta Downs Jackpot as a two-year-old and at the 2013 Kentucky Derby.
The resume otherwise is unimpeachable. He has eight wins in 18 races and 13 appearances on the podium. The only issue is starting on the inside post. In nearly every race, the inside is near the bottom of desirable positions. Other jockeys veer their horses inside from the opening gate, and Plesa told reporters Itsmyluckyday will also have to change equipment after the draw.
"The script is to win a Grade 1 race," Plesa told reporters. "This is the focus. My whole focus has been to win a Grade 1 race. The race we ran in (the Whitney) and this one coming up have been our target races. We're either going to get to the top of the ladder or not. This is what racing is all about, what everybody works for."
All that being taken into account, the oddsmakers might be underestimating the true juggernaut of this track: jockey John Velazquez. Three of the last four Woodward Stakes winners have been jockeyed by Velazquez, including each of the last two. Overall, the 2011 Kentucky Derby champion has four titles in this event.
Velazquez will be atop Prayer for Relief on Saturday, which is one of the biggest underdogs at 12-1. Which is only understandable because Prayer for Relief was racing before some of his competitors were even born. The six-year-old colt has raced 31 times. This is one of the more well-worked horses I can ever remember seeing, with a near-monthly schedule going back the last couple years.
The last six-year-old to win the Woodward Stakes was back-to-back winner Cigar in 1996. Prayer for Relief has never won this event, so it'll be interesting to see if Velazquez's streak or the run of four-year-old winners ends in New York.