First run in 1976, the $300,000 Empire Classic Handicap will be run for the 40th time this Saturday, as part of Empire Showcase Day. Last year’s winner of this race, Effinex, has since ascended the open company handicap ranks and is slated to start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic next weekend. However, we do still have the 2013 Empire Classic champion, Saratoga Snacks, among this year’s cast. The Gary Sciacca trainee will attempt to win this race for the second time in his fourth try (he was also second in 2012 and fourth last year).
After a brief but disappointing stint with trainer Bill Mott during the second half of 2014, Saratoga Snacks (#3) was privately purchased back by original trainer Gary Sciacca prior to his 2015 campaign. After having made five starts in just three and a half months for Bill Mott, Saratoga Snacks has been campaigned far more sparingly this year, and it has paid off. Gary Sciacca always has given this horse plenty of time between races, and a return to that approach has resulted in a string of consistent performances, topped by a stakes win over today’s rival Empire Dreams in July and a nose loss to Royal Posse in the Evan Shipman at Saratoga.
Is Saratoga Snacks as good now as he was when he won this race in 2013? No. However, he’s still capable of producing a performance sufficient to beat this kind of field given the right setup. So then the major question facing him becomes: What kind of setup will he get?
One would think, based on the running styles of his competitors, that this race’s pace scenario will look markedly different from the favorable paces he enjoyed in both the Saginaw and Evan Shipman. Saratoga Snacks and all the others will have the fleet-footed Warrioroftheroses to catch, but he’s not the only horse in this race with speed. Sioux is capable of laying down some fast fractions and has run his best races when on or near the lead. Even a stretching-out long shot like Full of Mine could conceivably be sent from the gate. The Pace Projector, showing Warrioroftheroses clearly in front early, is not predicting a fast pace, but given the styles of the various horses mentioned above, the pace should at least be contested, and could possibly be taxing on the frontrunners.
The obvious closer in this race is Empire Dreams (#8). He was likely hindered by the race flow of the Saginaw and Evan Shipman, yet still ran creditably on both occasions. However, the one concern with Empire Dreams is his record at the distance. He’s run well at a flat mile and even a mile and a sixteenth, but a mile and an eighth has proven to be problematic in the past. In fairness, he was tailing off when he contested this race last year, but even his two efforts at the distance up at Saratoga this season were just slightly worse than his prior races going shorter at Belmont.
Royal Posse (#5) is not a true closer, but he has shown the ability to come from just off the pace and figures to sit a good trip tracking the first flight of runners down the backstretch. Even as recently as this past spring, most religious followers of the New York circuit would have pronounced you insane had you said that Royal Posse would be one of the top choices in this race . However, he has improved by leaps and bounds since being claimed for just $20,000 by Rudy Rodriguez and would certainly be a contender for top honors if able to repeat his Evan Shipman effort.
While we have respect for all of the runners just highlighted, we want to go to a new face in this division for our top pick—the three year-old GOOD LUCK GUS (#4). Royal Posse’s stablemate gets to run as a separate betting interest and figures to go off at a significantly larger price.
One of the reasons that we were even considering Saratoga Snacks for a possible repeat victory is the fact that this is not one of the strongest Empire Classic fields we’ve seen over the past few years. Many of the top New York-breds are either absent due to injury or trying tougher open company races. The field we’re left with is deep and competitive, but not so formidable as to turn us off to a quickly improving sophomore. Three-year-olds have had plenty of success in this race in recent years, winning four of the last eight editions.
Good Luck Gus has plenty of things going for him in this Empire Classic. He does his best work as a grinding closer in a race that figures to set up well for horses with his running style. He has been lightly raced this year, not starting his campaign until late May, and having made only three starts. He improved with racing and additional distance as a two-year-old and has shown the same pattern this year, stepping forward in each subsequent start. His race in the New York Derby was better than the published running line might suggest, since he was taken out of his best running style to attack the pace from a wide position in a race that ultimately came apart towards the end. Then last time, in the Albany, he was undoubtedly best after having to rate behind a slow pace (note the blue color-coded fractions and pace figures) and bull his way through while racing in traffic in the stretch.
We admit that Good Luck Gus is slow in terms of speed figures, but you need only glance across to Royal Posse’s past performances to see just how quickly a young horse can improve when it’s doing well and gaining confidence. In these situations, sometimes you just have to trust your gut and try to be right when it counts. We believe that Good Luck Gus is a talented racehorse who is just now putting it all together. This could be the best time to have him at a price.
WIN: Good Luck Gus (#4)
EXACTA: Key Good Luck Gus (#4) on top as well as underneath Saratoga Snacks (#3), Royal Posse (#5), and Empire Dreams (#8).