Race of the Week 2017

Centre Court Eyes Better Finish in Ballston Spa

Humming along through one smashing performance after another, G. Humphrey Watts Jr.'s Centre Court established herself in the past year as one of the best turf fillies of her generation.


Beginning June 16 last year when she won the Grade 3 Regret at Churchill Downs the race after breaking her maiden, the 4-year-old daughter of Smart Strike hit the exacta in seven straight graded stakes races, also finding the winner's circle in the Grade 2 Lake George at Saratoga, the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere at Churchill, the Grade 2 Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park, and, finally the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley at Keeneland.


Yet, Centre Court has been off the board in her two most recent starts, and now she will seek to regain top form against seven other turf specialists Saturday in the Grade 2, $250,000 Ketel One Ballston Spa, a 1 1/16-mile race over the inner turf for fillies and mares 3-years-old and up at Saratoga Race Course.


The race, scheduled to go off at 4:38 p.m. as the 10th on the card, is the second leg of the $1 Million Guaranteed All-Graded Stakes Pick 4, which includes the Grade 1, $500,000 Test, the Grade 1, $500,000 Foxwoods King's Bishop and climaxes with the 144th running of the Grade 1, $1 million Travers.


Trainer George "Rusty" Arnold had little trouble forgiving Centre Court, the 3-1 second choice on the morning line, for her fourth-place finish June 8 over yielding ground in the Grade 1 Foxwoods Just a Game at Belmont Park. She found herself trapped between and behind horses on the far turn and didn't get clear until too late.


Yet, in the Grade 1 Diana, at 1 1/8 miles, he could find no excuse for Centre Court's dull performance, in which she tracked a moderate pace by upset winner Laughing and faded in the drive to fifth.


"I could throw it out," Arnold said of the Foxwoods Just a Game effort, "but I couldn't throw out the last one. It would be easy to sit here and throw it out, but I can't because it's two races in a row that weren't perfect. I think she's had a great month here. Everything's gone the right way with her, and she needs to get back on track."


Arnold has enlisted Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez to ride.


Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey will run 5-2 morning-line favorite Hungry Island in the Ketel One Ballston Spa after an extensive freshening at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland following the Just a Game.


Kentucky Derby winner Orb, who will run in the Travers on Saturday, has been getting tremendous attention for his preparation at Fair Hill, but McGaughey has sent many of his runners down there as well.


Hungry Island, a 5-year-old, won the Grade 2 Woodford Reserve Lake Placid two years ago at the Spa and last year finished second in the Ballston Spa when Zagora broke the inner turf course record in 1:39.07. Zagora went on to win the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.


"I think if she runs her race, she's probably better than the fillies that are in there," McGaughey said. "She's one I needed to get away from the races for a while. When I saw those fields and therapy units and the Tapeta track [at Fair Hill], I decided to do that.


"She's about the toughest filly I've ever had to train. She pulls, she's strong to gallop. She's not in her races, just in the morning when she gallops. If she hadn't been that way, and been settled in her everyday training, there's no telling how good she could have been. She didn't seem to be enjoying what she was doing. I was very close to pulling the plug on her for good. Then I came up with this idea and sent her down there to see how that would work."


Laughing, 7-2, enters the race undefeated in two starts this year, including the upset win in the Diana, the first Grade 1 victory for the 5-year-old Dansili mare. She went gate-to-wire that day through moderate fractions for trainer Alan Goldberg, but the pace could be more demanding in the Ketel One Ballston Spa with more speed runners signed on.


One is Pianist, 5-1 for trainer Chad Brown, who will make her first appearance in a Grade 1 race after a front-running score in the Grade 3 Gallorette Handicap on Preakness Day at Pimlico, and then a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Dr. James Penny Memorial Stakes at Parx Racing.


Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith was aboard for both of those races and retains the mount.


"We've been pointing toward this race for a while on the calendar," Brown said. "I thought it fit her. She likes some firm ground; she has some speed. It's a tough race, but let's give her a shot with these fillies and see if she belongs with them."


While Smith is in town to ride Palace Malice in the Travers, he did make the trip from California to Parx just to ride Pianist in the Penny on July 2.


Brown said he will have no instructions for the race and doesn't believe his filly has to be making the pace to win.


"A guy like Mike Smith, I'm going to have a hard time telling him what to do," Brown said. "He's ridden her well both times. He obviously is so experienced and won so many top races, there's only so much I can tell him that he isn't going to already know or is better advice than what he knows. He'll figure it out."


Trainer Michael Matz will have an uncoupled entry in Somali Lemonade, 6-1, winner of the Penny, and Hard Not to Like, 20-1, who was second in the Gallorette and sixth last time out in the Grade 2 Dance Smartly at Woodbine.


Miz Ida, 8-1, ships in from Churchill Downs for trainer Steve Margolis. She finished second, beaten just a half-length in the Penny after winning the Grade 3 Mint Julep Handicap on June 8 at Churchill Downs.


Completing the field is Embarr, 30-1, fourth in the $100,000 De La Rose on August 3 at the Spa.


Skyfall was entered Main Track Only.




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