High Oak wins the G2 Saratoga Special back in 2021 (NYRA/Coglianese)
By Ross Blacker
Every year hundreds of horses are nominated to the Triple Crown with hopes of securing one of the 20 spots in the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May. High Oak was certainly one of those horses, beginning his career with a pair of impressive victories. Then, things didn’t exactly pan out the way the high-profile connections envisioned and here we are as he returns to the races after nearly one year, running on the undercard of the Fountain of Youth in an optional claimer.
Owned in part by noted New York radio personality Mike Francesa and tequila magnate Lee Einsidler, this horse had lots of hype following the maiden score at Belmont and subsequent win in the Saratoga Special which saw him garner a 91 Beyer. He then tried his luck in the Hopeful, finishing fourth in a field that included Gunite, a top-class sprinter. Wit, the second-place finisher that day, has become a top-level turf router for Todd Pletcher.
After the Hopeful, something must’ve gone wrong because he was off the worktab until late December of 2021. The connections obviously had Derby dreams stretching him out in the Fountain of Youth and disaster struck going into the far turn. In watching and re-watching the replay and head-on, it just appeared that there were too many horses and not enough room. In the end, heels were clipped, the horse tumbled and Junior Alvarado fell to the dirt.
Understandably, the horse was taken off the Triple Crown trail and his future was in jeopardy. On his podcast, Francesa was hopeful that the horse could make it to the Travers but it just didn’t happen. High Oak finally got back on the worktab on December 12 and began working towards this race.
The nine works since his return opened with a 3-furlong bullet in 36 and 1 at Payson and two works ago he went 1:01 and 2 for five furlongs out of the gate, best of nine workers that day going that distance from the gate at trainer Bill Mott’s Payson Park base.
Obviously, this optional claimer is not the target for this horse but a few things are interesting. One, the horse has been working well so it’s surprising that they decided to not try a route again and instead opt for the 7 furlongs. Secondly, the race came up pretty salty as White Abarrio shows up as does Weyburn (a nice horse whose best days may be behind him), and Seal Beach, a Mike Maker runner. Finally, Junior Alvarado is one of Mott’s main men and he is taken off the horse in favor of Luis Saez. Alvarado lands on Weyburn, a horse he has never ridden, which is somewhat telling.
Let’s dive into some stats. In the past five years with layoffs of 300 days or more, Mott is 9-for-44 on the winning end (20%) and finishes in the money 45% of the time. In fact, this Gulfstream meet, he has had four runners returns after huge layoffs including winners Candy Man Rocket and Rosebug off of 350 and 304-day slumbers respectively.
The last horse he sent to the gate off a long layoff was Vittorio, who came back on February 5 after 309 days away from racing. The horse finished second that day and ran a 100 Beyer but had the unfortunate luck of being joined in the entry box and starting gate by Charge It, who runs three races later as the 4/5 favorite in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Mile.
Needless to say, those stats and results prove what everyone already is well aware of: Bill Mott is a legendary horseman who knows how to get his horses ready off of layoffs and there is zero doubt in anyone’s mind that this guy is sound, fit, and ready to run.
Looking at the race, White Abarrio is on the cutback as is Weyburn but the outside horse, Legends Can’t Die for George Weaver, is somewhat of a proven sprinter in this spot. He’s lost to some really good horses and did run a 92 Beyer two back on this same strip and distance.
White Abarrio is definitely the class of the field and conditioner Saffie Joseph Jr. is pretty effective going route to sprint on the dirt at Gulfstream, hitting at 29% win and 54% in the money over the last five years. It is relevant to note that the last eight times Saffie has done this, he is 0-for-8 on the winning end but his horses have hit the board four times.
This race surely is not the destination for White Abarrio. Maybe the connections are looking to see if they have a sprinter or perhaps, they are looking to get the horse’s confidence back in this spot and have him get his picture taken for the first time since last year’s Florida Derby. At 6/5 on the morning line, which could turn into 4/5, I have zero interest in this horse on the betting side of things.
As far as High Oak’s Chances, I really feel as though he is in capable hands. Do not know for sure but am assuming Saez has been on his back a few times in the morning and it goes without saying that he knows how to harness speed and put his mounts in prime position. I really like this one to save ground and stalk the pace and possess some considerable punch in the lane. Anything north of 6/1, count me in.