The feature race this Saturday at Saratoga Race Course is something entirely new for the venerable upstate New York track. The 103rd running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes will be held for the very first time at Saratoga after primarily being held at Belmont Park over the course of the past century (it was held at Aqueduct several times from 1958 to 1974).
Through the years, the Jockey Club Gold Cup has been very significant in determining year-end championships and Horse of the Year honors, and it’s been won by a roll call of legends, including Man o’ War, Twenty Grand, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Citation, Hill Prince, Nashua (twice), Sword Dancer, Kelso (five times), Buckpasser, Damascus, Arts and Letters, Shuvee (twice), Forego, Exceller, Affirmed, John Henry, Slew o’ Gold (twice), Easy Goer, Cigar, Skip Away (twice), Mineshaft, Funny Cide, and Curlin (twice). The race was held at either 1 ½ miles or two miles from 1919 to 1989, and has been held at 1 ¼ miles since 1990.
The $1 million, Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup is also a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifying race for the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic, scheduled for Nov. 6 at Del Mar. The winner of Saturday’s race will receive an expenses-paid berth to the Longines Classic. One important change about the race moving to Saratoga is that the 1 ¼-mile test will be held around two full turns, rather than 1 ½ turns as it was at Belmont Park. The 1 ¼-mile Longines Classic at Del Mar will also be held around two turns.
NBC Sports will televise both the Jockey Club Gold Cup and another “Win and You’re In Race” at Saratoga, the Flower Bowl Invitational Stakes, Saturday evening on NBCSN during a one-hour show starting at 6 p.m. ET. Post time is set for 6:46 p.m. ET. For a complete TV, live streaming, and radio schedule, click here.
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Read on for information about this the 2021 Jockey Club Gold Cup contenders, headlined by Happy Saver, who is seeking a repeat win in the race.
1. Forza Di Oro
Jockey: Junior Alvarado
Trainer: Bill Mott
Owner: Don Alberto Stable
Career record: 6 starts – 4 wins – 1 second – 0 thirds
Career earnings: $209,375
Earnings per start: $34,896
Top Equibase Speed Figure: 113
Pedigree: Speightstown – Filare l’Oro, by Hard Spun
Running style: Stalker
Notable achievements and interesting facts: Bettors looking for an alternative to the probable favorites Happy Saver and Max Player in the Jockey Club Gold Cup are advised to consider this lightly raced and improving Speightstown colt, who, after disappointing in the 2019 Remsen Stakes, has only made three starts in the 21 months since then – and won all of them. He raced twice in late 2020, winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Belmont Park in October and then the Grade 3 Discovery Stakes at Aqueduct going 1 1/8 miles in December. He then was away from the track until July 21, when he returned to post a sharp three-length win in a 1 1/8-mile allowance-optional claimer on a sloppy track at Saratoga. Forza Di Oro earned a 113 Equibase Speed Figure in that victory, which puts him in the mix with Happy Saver’s and Max Player’s recent races, and this colt still has plenty of upside. It would not be surprising if he vies for the early lead with Happy Saver on Saturday in a race that drew no speed horses, especially if Junior Alvarado (who has ridden Forza Di Oro in all of his starts) gets him out of the gate well from the inside post. There aren’t any superstars lined up to contest this year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Hall of Famer Bill Mott could have his charge ready to take another step toward the big time. If the track comes up wet, even better. Mott has won the Jockey Club Gold Cup three times, with the legendary Cigar in 1995, Flat Out in 2012, and Ron the Greek in 2013. Mott-trained Tacitus finished third in both 2019 and 2020.
Bet Forza Di Oro in the Jockey Club Gold Cup
2. Max Player
Jockey: Ricardo Santana Jr.
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Owners: George Hall and SportBLX Thoroughbreds Corp.
Career record: 10 starts – 3 wins – 1 second – 2 thirds
Career earnings: $717,500
Earnings per start: $71,750
Top Equibase Speed Figure: 113
Pedigree: Honor Code – Fools in Love, by Not For Love
Color: Dark bay or brown
Running style: Stalker/closer
Notable achievements and interesting facts: After first turning heads on the rescheduled 2020 Triple Crown trail with a win in the Withers Stakes and then third-place finishes in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and Runhappy Travers Stakes, Max Player fell out of form during the fall and into the early months of 2021 while still contesting big-ticket races. That made him a 11.80-1 longshot in the July 3, 1 ¼-mile Suburban Stakes at Belmont Park, and his faithful backers were rewarded as he outfinished Dubai World Cup Presented by Emirates Airline winner Mystic Guide for a breakthrough win (Happy Saver finished third). After setting well off of the pace in most of his prior races, Max Player showed more speed in the Suburban as jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. kept him in touch with early leader Moretti before urging him to challenge Mystic Guide when that colt took over in upper stretch. Max Player earned a career-best 113 Equibase Speed Figure in the Suburban, and if he can repeat that number and employ the same forwardly placed running style once again, he’s already shown enough stamina to finish the job. He’ll need to do both of those things to reach the winner’s circle, however – if the Suburban was merely an aberration, Max Player’s prior form won’t get it done. Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen won the Jockey Club Gold Cup back-to-back with the great Curlin in 2007 and 2008, and he also won with Haynesfield in 2010.
Bet Max Player in the Jockey Club Gold Cup
3. Chess Chief
Jockey: Luis Saez
Trainer: Dallas Stewart
Owner: Estate of James Coleman Jr.
Career record: 26 starts – 4 wins – 4 seconds – 4 thirds
Career earnings: $694,928
Earnings per start: $26,728
Top Equibase Speed Figure: 108
Pedigree: Into Mischief – Un Blessed, by Mineshaft
Running style: Closer
Notable achievements and interesting facts: Chess Chief makes his return to Saratoga in another Grade 1 race after finishing a well-beaten eighth in the 2019 Travers Stakes as a 3-year-old. This son of top sire Into Mischief has had a busy career competing in both stakes and allowance races and at numerous tracks. He finally broke through with his first career stakes win earlier this year when he rallied through the stretch at Fair Grounds and edged Owendale by a head in the Grade 2 New Orleans Classic Stakes (Luis Saez was aboard for that win and rides Saturday). Since that race, however, he’s been soundly defeated in three consecutive stakes races, his best finish a third-place effort when beaten by 7 ½ lengths to Maxfield in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes Presented by Sentient Jet on April 30 at Churchill Downs. In his most recent race, Chess Chief tried turf for the first time in the Bert Allen Stakes at Colonial Downs and finished fourth by eight lengths as the even-money favorite. All four of Chess Chief’s career wins have come at Fair Grounds – a maiden win, two allowance-optional claiming races, plus the New Orleans Classic – and that makes his win chances in the Jockey Club Gold Cup remote, to say the least. Filling out the superfecta in a small field appears to be his ceiling.
Bet Chess Chief in the Jockey Club Gold Cup
4. Happy Saver
Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Owners: Wertheimer & Frere
Career record: 6 starts – 5 wins – 0 seconds – 1 third
Career earnings: $374,200
Earnings per start: $62,367
Top Equibase Speed Figure: 116
Pedigree: Super Saver – Happy Week, by Distorted Humor
Running style: Stalker
Notable achievements and interesting facts: Happy Saver figures to vie with Max Player for post-time favoritism in Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup as he tries for a repeat win. Eleven months ago, he outfinished subsequent 2021 Dubai World Cup Presented by Emirates Airline winner Mystic Guide to win what turned out to be Belmont Park’s final edition of this race. That was his fourth career victory without a loss, and it portended bigger things in 2021. Happy Saver came back and easily won a one-mile allowance-optional claiming race on May 28 to start his 4-year-old campaign, but then suffered his first loss in the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes at Belmont on July 3. Racing on a sloppy track and over the same 1 ½-turn, mile-and-a-quarter configuration that he succeeded at in the 2020 Gold Cup, he could not summon the same closing kick while parked four wide and finished third behind Max Player and Mystic Guide. He’s eligible for a bounce-back race Saturday on a track where he already has a win, that coming in his second career start in July 2020 when he romped in a 1 1/8-mile Spa allowance and earned a 116 Equibase Speed Figure. Happy Saver has never set the early pace before but he’s never been too far back either, and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. could very well put his mount on the lead Saturday before the field reaches the first turn and try to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup on the front end. Whatever strategy plays out, Happy Saver has a good shot at the repeat and is a must-use in all exacta tickets. Newly inducted Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher earned his first Jockey Club Gold Cup win last year for Alain and Gerard Werthiemer; his colt Vino Rosso was disqualified from first in 2019 for late interference. Irad Ortiz was aboard Happy Saver last year and Vino Rosso in 2019, and he picked up his first Jockey Club Gold Cup win in 2018 on Diversify.
Bet Happy Saver in the Jockey Club Gold Cup
5. Night Ops
Jockey: Manuel Franco
Trainer: Brad Cox
Owner: Steve Landers
Career record: 24 starts – 6 wins – 7 seconds – 4 thirds
Career earnings: $823,656
Earnings per start: $34,319
Top Equibase Speed Figure: 111
Pedigree: Warrior’s Reward – Bear All, by Kitalpha
Running style: Stalker/closer
Notable achievements and interesting facts: Night Ops has assembled a bankroll of more than $820,000 by showing up and cashing check after check in stakes races over the past two years, but he rarely wins, and Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup will be his first start in a Grade 1. So far in 2021, he’s finished third twice and then second four times in a row in stakes, his best effort coming on May 29 when he came up a nose short to Mighty Heart in the listed Blame Stakes at Churchill Downs. In his most recent race, he ran well in his first ever start at Saratoga but checked in second by 1 ½ lengths behind a resurgent Art Collector (subsequent winner of the Charles Town Classic Stakes) in the listed Alydar Stakes on Aug. 6. This colt is by Warrior’s Reward, a sprinter-miler, and his overall pedigree suggests that 1 ¼ miles is probably beyond his scope (he’ll be making his first start at the distance Saturday). Look for him to be running late in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and he could fill out the exacta if one or more of the favorites fail to fire. A small field plus his overall consistency gives him a great shot at cashing another minor check – anything more than that would be a surprise. Reigning Eclipse Award winner Brad Cox makes his first start in the Jockey Club Gold Cup this year. Jockey Manny Franco won the 2018 edition aboard longshot Discreet Lover (see below).
Bet Night Ops in the Jockey Club Gold Cup
Jockey: Sonny Leon
Trainer: Uriah St. Lewis
Owner: Uriah St. Lewis
Career record: 40 starts – 8 wins – 7 seconds – 4 thirds
Career earnings: $592,633
Earnings per start: $14,816
Top Equibase Speed Figure: 108
Pedigree: Flat Out – Fortune Play, by Five Star Day
Running style: Closer
Notable achievements and interesting facts: Owner and trainer Uriah St. Lewis sends Forewarned to the Jockey Club Gold Cup in search of another mammoth upset win three years after his Discreet Lover edged Thunder Snow by a neck at odds of 45.50-1 in this race. Like that horse, Forewarned has brought a lunch-bucket work ethic to his many starts over the past four years, racking up wins against fellow Ohio-breds in restricted stakes races at Mahoning Valley and Thistledown but finishing well back whenever he starts in a graded stakes race. He enters this year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup off of a runner-up finish in the Best of Ohio Governor’s Buckeye Cup at Mahoning Valley on Aug. 14, where he led late but could not finish the deal and lost by a head. Forewarned figures to settle near the back of the field and try to make a late run that’ll put him in the money … but his previous tries in similar races have brought no success, and it’s a good bet that will happen again Saturday. On the other hand, Discreet Lover was similarly dismissed in 2018, and St. Lewis has a historic Grade 1 race on his résumé for ignoring the naysayers and taking a shot.
Bet Forewarned in the Jockey Club Gold Cup