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Jon White: 2021 Whitney Stakes Picks | August 7, 2021

by Jon White

August 4, 2021

The Grade I Whitney Stakes at Saratoga on Saturday is not big on quantity, but this important and historic 1 1/8-mile affair certainly has a field of five that oozes quality.

Entered in the Whitney are Maxfield (No. 2 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll), Silver State (No. 5) and Knicks Go (No. 6).

The Whitney also has attracted the Eclipse Award winner Swiss Skydiver, the champion 3-year-old filly of 2020. Completing the Whitney lineup is By My Standards, a multiple Grade II winner who finished a bang-up second in this year’s Grade I Met Mile and also was runner-up to Improbable in last year’s Whitney after a bad start.

Further proof of what a stellar cast has been assembled for this year’s Whitney, it has drawn four of the 10 horses listed in Daily Racing Form’s divisional rankings for the older male category. The four are Silver State (No. 1), Maxfield (No. 3), Knicks Go (No. 5) and By My Standards (No. 6).

Swiss Skydiver ranks No. 3 in the DRF’s older female category.

Below are my selections for the Whitney:

1. Knicks Go (6-5 morning-line favorite)
2. Maxfield (8-5)
3. Silver State (4-1)
4. Swiss Skydiver (6-1)

In Knicks Go’s only two U.S. starts at 1 1/8 miles, he won both while registering Beyer Speed Figures of 108 in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 23 and 113 in the Grade III Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows last time out in Iowa on July 2.

Knicks Go won the Pegasus in front-running fashion by 2 3/4 lengths for trainer Brad Cox. The 5-year-old Maryland-bred son of Paynter then ran fourth in the Group I, $20 million Saudi Cup at about 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 20. After that, Knicks Go also finished fourth in the Grade I Met Mile at Belmont Park on June 5.

Following Knicks Go’s defeat in the Met Mile as a 4-5 favorite, Cox concluded that a one-turn race like that just isn’t Knicks Go’s bag. The trainer’s supposition seemingly was affirmed when Knicks Go subsequently returned to two turns and romped to a 10 1/4-length victory in the Cornhusker.

The Whitney will be contested around two turns. Since Cox has taken over the training duties, Knicks Go is five for five in races run around two turns.

The 113 speed figure that Knicks Go received when demolishing five Cornhusker foes is the highest Beyer recorded so far this year.

Below are the Beyer Speed Figures of 107 or higher this year to date at any distance on dirt, turf or synthetic:

Beyer Horse (Finish, Race, Track, Date)

113 Knicks Go (1st, Cornhusker H., PrM, July 2)
109 Mischevious Alex (1st, Carter H., Aqu, April 3)
109 Essential Quality (1st, Belmont S., Bel, June 5)
108 Knicks Go (1st, Pegasus World Cup, GP, Jan. 23)
108 Mystic Guide (1st, Razorback H., OP, Feb. 27)
108 Royal Ship (1st, Californian, SA, April 17)
108 Country Grammer (2nd, Californian, SA, April 17)
108 Hot Rod Charlie (2nd Belmont S., Bel, June 5)
107 Life Is Good (1st, San Felipe S., SA, March 6)

Knicks Go also posted a 108 Beyer in a two-turn race when he won last year’s Grade I Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, a triumph again accomplished in front-running fashion.

As for the Whitney, I am looking for Knicks Go to seize the lead at once and set the early pace without being hooked. If that happens, I believe he has a good chance of running a Beyer in the ballpark of 108 to 113, as he did in the BC Dirt Mile, Pegasus World Cup and Cornhusker. That type of Beyer might well be sufficient for Knicks Go to win.

Why do I think a 108 Beyer might well put Knicks Go in the winner’s circle after the Whitney? Below are the career-best Beyer Speed Figures for the other Whitney entrants:

105 Maxfield
105 Swiss Skydiver
103 By My Standards
101 Silver State

I have a ton of respect for Maxfield. I think he is a special colt. He has won seven of eight lifetime starts. The lone blemish on Maxfield’s record came when he finished third as the 11-10 favorite in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap on March 6.

Even though Maxfield did not win the Big ’Cap, he certainly did not disgrace himself. He had to ship to Santa Anita, plus he had never raced on that track before. Furthermore, Maxfield was encumbered with top weight of 124 pounds. Nevertheless, he lost by only two lengths.

After his Big ’Cap setback, Maxfield was victorious in a pair of Grade II races at Churchill Downs. He won the Alysheba Stakes by 3 1/4 lengths on April 30 and Stephen Foster Stakes by the same margin on June 26.

Maxfield’s Stephen Foster ranked No. 9 on my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during the first half of 2021. It made the list primarily because of the electrifying move he made on the far turn.

Sixth early in the field of nine, Maxfield passed rivals with a rush on the far turn, described this way by track announcer Travis Stone: “Around the far turn, Sprawl has taken the lead with three furlongs to go. Empty Tomb gives way toward the rail. Maxfield, with a blitz on the far turn, [is] sixth, fifth, fourth, third, second and now first at the quarter pole! Maxfield takes charge at the top of the stretch!”

After Maxfield opened a commanding lead of about five lengths between the eighth pole and sixteenth pole, jockey Jose Ortiz just allowed the 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Street Sense colt to coast home for trainer Brendan Walsh.

A victory in the Whitney by Maxfield would be no surprise to yours truly.

Silver State, who brings a six-race winning streak into the Whitney, deserves the utmost respect. Making his Grade I debut last time out in the Met Mile, the 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Hard Spun colt prevailed by one length at odds of 5-1. By My Standards finished second at 6-1. Mischevious Alex came in third at 7-2. As noted earlier, Knicks Go ended up fourth as the 4-5 favorite.

Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen trains Silver State. Through Aug. 3, Asmussen was just two wins shy of equaling Dale Baird’s all-time North American training record of 9,445 victories, according to Equibase.

Swiss Skydiver has not raced since finishing third in the Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 17 for trainer Kenny McPeek. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Daredevil filly was scratched from the Grade I Ogden Phipps Stakes at Belmont Park on June 5 due to a temperature.

McPeek then wanted to run Swiss Skydiver in the Grade III Shuvee Stakes at Saratoga on July 25. But Swiss Skydiver also had to miss the Shuvee.

“Swiss Skydiver is [in the Whitney] more out of necessity than design,” Daily Racing Form’s David Grening wrote. “She was stuck in quarantine for three weeks due to a case of equine herpesvirus found in a horse stabled in the same barn as Swiss Skydiver but not trained by McPeek.”

McPeek ran three horses on Saratoga’s July 15 opening-day program, but had not been able to enter horses until last Sunday, the day the quarantine was lifted.

The last time Swiss Skydiver competed against males, all she did was go out and win the Grade I Preakness Stakes in ultra-game fashion by a neck at Pimlico last Oct. 3. The runner-up was Grade I Kentucky Derby winner Authentic, who went on to capture the Grade I BC Classic en route to being voted 2020 Horse of the Year.

Swiss Skydiver became the first filly to win a Triple Crown race since Rachel Alexandra did so in the 2009 Preakness.

Only six fillies have won the Preakness: Flocarline (1903), Whimsical (1906), Rhine Maiden (1915), Nellie Morse (1924), Rachel Alexandra (2009) and Swiss Skydiver (2020).

Swiss Skydiver’s Preakness ranked No. 1 on my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in this country during 2020.


“On to the Travers.”

That’s what trainer Brad Cox said after Essential Quality won Saratoga’s Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes last Saturday.

Indeed, now it is on to the Grade I, $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 28 for Essential Quality, who thumbed his nose at the notion that he might become yet another victim at the “graveyard of favorites” when bet down to 2-5 in the Jim Dandy.

Cox also said, with tongue in cheek, that considering how wide Essential Quality’s trip in the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy had been, it essentially had given him about a 1 1/4-mile prep for the 1 1/4-mile Travers.

Essential Quality won the Jim Dandy by a half-length, a margin that is quite misleading in terms of his superiority because of racing so wide.

For Essential Quality to win the Jim Dandy despite his wide trip brings to mind Rags to Riches’ victory in Santa Anita’s Las Virgenes Stakes in 2007.

Stepping way up in class from a maiden race, Rags to Riches won the Las Virgenes -- a Grade I race at that time -- despite an absurdly wide trip. I really wish there had been a Trakus in those days. I would dearly love to know just how much farther Trakus would have measured Rags to Riches traveling than everyone else in the Las Virgenes.

“Perhaps no Thoroughbred in the history of California racing has ever won a Grade I race with such a wide trip,” I wrote for Xpressbet. “The Las Virgenes was a one-mile race, but there is no question that Rags to Riches ran much farther than that.”

Breaking from the outside post in the field of eight with Garrett Gomez in the irons, Rags to Riches veered out in the initial strides. She then “was hooked six wide” into the clubhouse turn, as track announcer Trevor Denman noted during his call of the race. Rags to Riches raced even wider than that on the backstretch, when out past the middle of the track. She was four wide entering the far turn, then much wider coming into the stretch. On the far turn, Gomez knew that Rags to Riches was being asked to overcome a ridiculously wide trip.

“I was going twice as fast as anyone else, but it looked like I was hardly making a run because I was so wide,” Gomez said. “The horse I ended up going by [Baroness Thatcher] was on the fence the whole way. When I turned for home, I was eight wide. She overcame a lot today and she’s not very seasoned.”

Gomez publicly apologized for Rags to Riches’ racing so wide. Rags to Riches went on to win the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks, Grade I Kentucky Oaks and Grade I Belmont Stakes by a neck over Curlin, a two-time Horse of the Year who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014.

I, for one, believe it’s an absolute injustice that Rags to Riches is not in the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, far too many Hall of Fame voters hold it against Rags to Riches that she made only seven career starts. They don’t give her enough credit for achieving so much in just seven starts, such as becoming the first filly to take the Belmont Stakes in 102 years and winning more Grade I races (four) than Winning Colors (three) and Genuine Risk (two).

As for Essential Quality, in each of his most recent three wins, he traveled farther than the runner-up, according to Trakus, as noted below:

--Jim Dandy on July 31: Essential Quality won by a half-length and traveled 38 feet (approximately four lengths) farther than runner-up Keepmeinmind.

--Belmont Stakes on June 5: Essential Quality won by 1 1/4 lengths and traveled 45 feet (approximately five lengths) farther than runner-up Hot Rod Charlie.

--Blue Grass Stakes on April 3: Essential Quality won by a neck and traveled 24 feet (approximately 2 1/2 lengths) farther than runner-up Highly Motivated.

In the Kentucky Derby on May 1, Essential Quality finished fourth and lost by one length. He traveled 68 feet (approximately seven to eight lengths) farther than first-place finisher Medina Spirit.


Bernardini, voted a 2006 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male, was euthanized at Jonabell Farm in Kentucky due to complications from laminitis. The news was announced last Friday by Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley America.

A beautifully bred individual, Bernardini was a son of 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy and Grade I winner Cara Rafaela. Cara Rafaela finished second in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at 2 and third in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks at 3.

A.P. Indy was a son of 1977 Triple Crown winner and 1977 Horse of the Year Seattle Slew.

Seattle Slew and A.P. Indy both became outstanding sires. Bernardini excelled at stud as well.

“At the time of his death, Bernardini was represented by 861 winners, and was approaching the $100 million milestone in career progeny earnings, with $99,120,536,” Daily Racing Form’s Nicole Russo wrote. “His 85 stakes winners worldwide are led by multiple Grade I-winning millionaires Alpha, Cavorting, Stay Thirsty and To Honor and Serve.”

Cavorting is the dam of the 3-year-old Curlin filly Clairiere, who on July 24 finished third in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga. Clairier won Fair Grounds’ Grade II Rachel Alexandra Stakes earlier this year.

Velvety, the dam of Whitney entrant Maxfield, is a daughter of Bernardini.

As a broadcaster for HRTV, I was at Churchill Downs when Bernardini finished second to Invasor in the 2006 BC Classic.

During my many years on HRTV, I rarely criticized a jockey. But I did knock Javier Castellano on HRTV and in print for his ride on Bernardini in that BC Classic.

I checked back in the archives to refresh my memory as to what I wrote in my 2006 BC Classic recap for Xpressbet.com:

“It was an excellent training job by Kiaran McLaughlin, considering Invasor was making his first start since Aug. 5. This goes along with McLaughlin’s fine job to win this year’s Belmont Stakes with Jazil.

“Fernando Jara rode Invasor in the Classic and Jazil in the Belmont. In both cases, he exhibited patience and an ability to keep cool despite the pressure involved. Jara, who is just 18, became the youngest rider to win a Breeders’ Cup race.

“Invasor is clearly a talented colt. He will get my vote for Horse of the Year. Invasor, McLaughlin and Jara all rose to the occasion to get the job done in the BC Classic, leaving fellow Horse of the Year aspirants Bernardini and Lava Man behind.

“As for Bernardini, I thought he received a horrible ride by Javier Castellano. Two of the worst rides I’ve ever seen were Ron Franklin’s on Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Belmont Stakes and Jamie Spencer’s on Powerscourt in the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Lone Star Park. In both of those 1 1/2-mile events, the rider moved way too soon, leaving his mount with little gas in the tank for the stretch. Spectacular Bid and Powerscourt both came home on fumes.

“Spectacular Bid finished third behind Coastal and Golden Act. Actions speak louder than words. Franklin never rode Spectacular Bid after the 1979 Belmont.

“I felt that one of the worst rides of 2004 was when Powerscourt, with Jamie Spencer aboard, zoomed to the front approaching the far turn with a wide move before weakening late to finish third. Let’s just say it was far from the best-timed ride of the year.

“I don’t think Castellano’s ride was quite as bad as Franklin’s or Spencer’s. But I believe Castellano probably cost Bernardini the Classic by moving too soon, especially at Churchill Downs, which has such a long stretch (1,235 feet).

“In my opinion, it would not have been a bad ride if Bernardini had won. A victory by Bernardini would have vindicated such an early move. Or if the colt had lost by five lengths or more, it would have let Castellano off the hook to some extent. If Bernardini had been soundly beaten, then it would be difficult to argue that the early move had cost him the victory.

“But when Bernardini lost by one length, I believe the early move led to his defeat. I also think Bernardini did not handle the track all that well, especially on the backstretch, as noted in Trevor Denman’s call. Many horses seemed to struggle on the track, such as speedsters Bordonaro and Henny Hughes. But even if Bernardini didn’t run his best on that track, his move on the far turn is proof that he handled it well enough to win had the jockey been more patient.

“Too bad Eddie Delahoussaye is retired. Eddie D. won the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard A.P. Indy, Bernardini’s sire. Too bad Delahoussaye couldn’t have also ridden Bernardini in this year’s Classic. Would Eddie D. have saved something for the final furlong? Would that have made enough difference for Bernardini to win instead of Invasor? I think ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ are the answers to those two questions.

“Look, I think Castellano is a terrific rider. But a terrific rider is human and can make a mistake. Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line aboard Gallant Man in the 1957 Kentucky Derby. Gallant Man lost by only a nose.

“Perhaps Castellano was simply too confident. Hey, considering all those easy wins by Bernardini this year, I really can’t blame Castellano for that. But he should have been cognizant of two important differences in the BC Classic compared to the colt’s other 2006 races. First, this was by far the toughest group Bernardini had run against in his life, including the likes of Invasor and Lava Man. And, second, Churchill Downs has a very long stretch.”


As time has gone on, I have softened my stance on Castellano’s ride aboard Bernardini in 2006 BC Classic. Why? Because I came to the conclusion that Invasor was such a win machine that Bernardini might have lost to Invasor no matter what Castellano did on Bernardini.

After the 2006 BC Classic, Invasor ran only twice more. He won the Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park and Group I Dubai World Cup early in 2007 before being retired to stud.

Invasor won 11 of 12 career starts. He was five for five in this country. His lone defeat came when he finished fourth in the Group II UAE Derby in his first 2006 start.

Looking back, considering Invasor never lost a race in the U.S., I can’t be so sure that Bernardini would have defeated Invasor in the 2006 BC Classic if Bernardini had been ridden differently. But I do stick to my guns to this extent. Because Castellano did not ride Bernardini more patiently, it greatly reduced any chance Bernardini did have that day to defeat such a formidable foe in Invasor.


The morning after Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup races, Becky Witzman, who also was a broadcaster for HRTV, and yours truly made the rounds in the Churchill Downs barn area for several hours to visit with some of the folks who had participated in the Breeders’ Cup.

I remember that while I was walking from one barn to the next, I happened to notice a man wearing a hat in a stall with a horse. It was a Happy Ticket hat. Happy Ticket had run in the BC Distaff.

I stopped and said to the man, “I love your hat. I’m a big Happy Ticket fan.”

“So I am,” the man said.

“Really?” I asked.

“I sure am,” he said. The man paused, smiled, then said, “I’m the owner.”

Yes, the man in the stall was none other than Happy Ticket’s owner, Stewart Madison. We had a nice chat before I continued making the rounds.

In the BC Distaff the day before, Happy Ticket had finished third, then was moved up to second via the disqualification of Asi Siempre. Round Pond won that race.

Louisiana-bred Happy Ticket did not race again after the 2006 BC Distaff. She won 12 of 20 lifetime starts while earning $1,688,838.

Later that morning, I observed Bernardini being loaded onto a van to leave Churchill Downs. A security guard was using his cell phone to take a photo of Bernardini being loaded onto the van. I did not have an iPhone yet or I also would have taken a photo.

At the time, it was not known whether Bernardini would continue racing the next year or go to stud.

“Look at that, Becky,” I remarked as the van was being driven away. “You know what? I’m guessing Bernardini is going to be retired. If that’s true, then we are seeing Bernardini leave a racetrack for the very last time.”

The 2006 BC Classic did indeed turn out to be Bernardini’s final race. He exited the racing stage having won six of eight career starts and earning $3,060,480 before embarking on his highly successful stud career.

Following Bernardini’s death, Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin USA, said: “Bernardini was Sheikh Mohammed’s first winner of a Triple Crown race -- and a homebred one, too -- and then a leading sire. We have been blessed to have him. A beautiful horse and a lovely character, we are lucky to have so many of his daughters on the farm to continue his legacy.”


“How will Pletcher deploy big guns with Whitney in his sights?”

That was the headline for a July 29 Thoroughbred Racing Commentary article posted on the website thoroughbredracing.com written by Todd Sidor.

Sidor wrote: “Todd Pletcher, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame next week, has two possible champion older males in his barn who could be targeted” for the Grade I Whitney Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 7, “with Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup winner Country Grammer, back under his supervision after a sojourn to Bob Baffert’s barn, and 2020 [Grade I] Jockey Club Gold Cup scorer Happy Saver.”

What? Sidor wrote on July 29 that Country Grammer “could be targeted” for the Whitney? Oops. Sidor obviously missed the July 25 Daily Racing Form report on Country Grammer written by David Grening.

“Country Grammer, the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup winner, will most likely miss the major races in the older male division this year due to an ankle injury that has flared up, trainer Todd Pletcher said,” Grening wrote.

“He’s going to WinStar for a more thorough evaluation in hopefully what will amount to a short rest and we’ll have him back in time for maybe a prep for the Pegasus,” Grening quoted Pletcher as saying.

The Pegasus World Cup is run early in the year at Gulfstream Park.

Sidor had another opportunity to realize that Country Grammer certainly will not be “targeted” at the Whitney from the July 26 story that BloodHorse’s Christine Oser wrote regarding the colt’s ankle injury.

While noting that the DRF’s Grening “first reported that Country Grammer had been sidelined,” Oser quoted WinStar president, CEO and racing manager Elliott Walden as saying Pletcher “went to work him Friday morning [July 23 at Saratoga] and he had some filling in an ankle and didn’t want to work him. [Pletcher] X-rayed it and diagnostically looked at it; it was clean, but the next day there was even a little more filling, so he’s kind of acutely wrenched it. We’re going to send him home. He’ll probably need at least 30 days to get over it, so there’s no reason for him to sit in a stall at Saratoga.”

Walden went on to say that Dr. Larry Bramlage of the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Kentucky will also have a look at Country Grammer’s ankle.


A great many world records in all kinds of different sports have been set at the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

For instance, in one of the most dramatic moments at the Olympics, Norway’s Karsten Warholm edged Team USA’s Rai Bejamin for the gold medal in the final of the men’s 400-meter hurdles. Warholm had broken a 29-year-old world record last month with a time of 46.70 seconds. In what is being called one of the all-time great Olympic races, Warholm then broke his own world mark with an astonishing time of 45.94 seconds.

The next day in what also has been called an epic race, Sydney McLaughlin of the USA unleashed a late surge to take the gold medal in the women’s 400-meter hurdles. McLaughlin’s time of 51.46 seconds broke her own world record by nearly half a second. Finishing second was Dalilah Muhammad, the defending Olympic champion in this event and also representing the USA.

Setting a world record is, of course, a big deal. I will never forget when my all-time favorite horse, Turbulator, broke the world record for 6 1/2 furlongs by two-fifths of a second when he won the 1970 Governor’s Handicap at Longacres in 1:14 flat.

What is the current world record for 6 1/2 furlongs? I don’t think anybody can answer that question. That’s because, as far as I know, horse racing no longer has a list of world records to be found anywhere.

For many decades, world records in horse racing were listed in the American Racing Manual. But this now isn’t the case. In the 2021 American Racing Manual (which now is digital only and available for free on The Jockey Club’s website), you will find North American dirt and turf records and Canadian dirt and turf records. There are no world records.

What about Equibase? On its website you will find a section for North American records. Again, there is no list of world records.

While tremendous improvements in technology have enabled other sports to improve their record keeping, horse racing has taken a giant step backward in terms of no longer having a list of world records.

Simon and Garfunkel sang, “Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?” In horse racing it’s a case of, “Where have you gone, world records?”


Even though Essential Quality did not win the Jim Dandy by a big margin, he climbs to No. 3 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll after being No. 5 last week. There are no newcomers on this week’s Top 10.

Below is the Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 292 Letruska (15)
2. 257 Maxfield (5)
3. 236 Essential Quality (4)
4. 218 Domestic Spending (5)
5. 215 Silver State (3)
6. 128 Knicks Go
7. 83 Gamine
8. 54 Mandaloun
9. 47 Hot Rod Charlie
10. 45 Mystic Guide (1)