(Evvie Jets / Photo Courtesy of NYRA)

From the NYRA Media Team:

Evvie Jets is tasked with a seemingly impossible test, taking on five contenders from the barn of four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown, when she tries her luck in Friday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Just a Game, at Saratoga Race Course.

Trained by Mertkan Kantarmaci for the Estate of Robert J. Amendola, the 6-year-old Twirling Candy mare, at 15-1, is the longest shot on the morning line in the seven-horse field. But that doesn’t faze Kantarmaci, who watched the tenacious bay eschew her usual frontrunning tactics here last summer by taking back under Manny Franco and surging up the rail to win the Grade 2 Mohegan Sun Ballston Spa by a head at odds of 29-1 over the Brown-trained Fluffy Socks.

“That day, we wanted her to be on the front but another longshot [Sister Bridget] and Chad’s Brown good horse – Technical Analysis – they went so fast, and she couldn’t keep up that pace,” Kantarmaci recalled. “Manny let her be her own pace and step-by-step got closer to them and took advantage of the rail. She responded really well at the three-eighths and by the quarter-pole – it was a really aggressive ride Manny gave and she kept going.

“Fluffy Socks was coming, but she [Evvie Jets] is stubborn,” Kantarmaci continued. “She’s always going to answer who comes if she’s in front. It doesn’t matter how long – it could be two furlongs – but she’s responding to that pressure.”

In her three prior stakes wins in the 2022 Grade 3 Noble Damsel and Listed scores last year in the Plenty of Grace and Perfect Sting, Evvie Jets had been on or pressing the pace.

Kantarmaci’s decision to take a chance against strong competition in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa allowed him to learn something new about his game mare.

“She taught us she doesn’t have to be in the front. She only has to be her own pace and then keep going in the stretch after the turn,” Kantarmaci said.

Evvie Jets only had three Brown trainees to take down last year, but on Friday she will face five from one of the strongest turf barns in the nation, including Grade 1-winners Gina Romantica [3-1ML], Beaute Cachee [6-1ML] and Whitebeam [5-2ML]as well as dual graded stakes-winner Chili Flag [4-1ML] and the Grade 2-placed Coppice [3-1ML].

Kantarmaci admitted it’s difficult to strategize a game plan against such formidable opponents, but said he has every confidence in Dylan Davis, who picks up the mount from post 5.

“He [Brown] has a front horse, middle-pack horse and all the way coming-from-behind horses,” Kantarmaci said. “It’s all going to change on how we break and how his horses break. It’s Dylan’s decision in the race. Of course, you have to have Plan A, Plan B and maybe Plan C. However, she has options. She can handle the pace and the course. I don’t think it will be so fast pace – it will be a slow pace, so we have to be close to the lead. We don’t want to make up so much ground.”

Evvie Jets, third in the Grade 1 First Lady in October at Keeneland, was haltered by her current connections for $80,000 out of a runner-up effort in September 2021 at Belmont. She now boasts a lifetime record of 24-7-6-3 with $777,768 in earnings and brings a determined attitude against Brown’s quintet that features blue-blooded homebreds and the $1.025 million yearling purchase Gina Romantica.

Kantarmaci said punters can draw a line through Evvie Jets’ most recent outing in the Grade 2 Distaff Turf Mile on May 4 at Churchill Downs when eighth over good turf while racing off a seven-month layoff.

“I think the track condition wasn’t in her favor in May. Now, she’s ready,” Kantarmaci said. “She’s trained really good. I’ve brought her back to breezing in the morning and she was good. I worked her three times to come to the race and she never bounced on me. She’s eating good and come back good and happy. I think her fitness is much better than what we were thinking off the layoff.”

Kantarmaci, a fixture atop the leaderboard of NYRA’s popular Under 20s Challenge Series designed for smaller barns competing in overnight races, is thrilled to be racing at the highest level this weekend.

“In December 2017, I brought two horses here and claimed two more,” Kantarmaci recalled. “It’s a big move coming from Philadelphia Park and to keep it up in New York for more than six years. We’re focused on that next step up and we’ll try our best again.”

And as for Evvie Jets being the longest shot on the board?

“I don’t like to be the favorite anyway. People forget about you and then we show up. That’s better,” said Kantarmaci, with a laugh.

***

Antiquarian schools at the gate ahead of G1 Belmont Stakes

Centennial Farms will look to double their tally in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets when they send out Antiquarian in Saturday’s 10-furlong test for 3-year-olds, at Saratoga Race Course.

Trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, the $250,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase will look to follow in the footsteps of Centennial’s 1993 Belmont Stakes-winner Colonial Affair. He was conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Scotty Schulhofer and ridden to victory by future Hall of Famer Julie Krone, who became the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race.

Antiquarian graduated at second asking over a sloppy and sealed main track in February at Fair Grounds, earning a shot there in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby where he broke through the gate before the start. He was reloaded and endured a difficult trip when sixth, defeated four lengths by the victorious Catching Freedom.

The talented chestnut, by the Centennial Farms-campaigned Preservationist, redeemed himself last out, overcoming being bumped at the break by Deterministic before racing three-wide from third position and making a five-wide bid through the turn en route to a three-quarter length score over returning rival The Wine Steward.

Antiquarian galloped on the Oklahoma training track on Wednesday before visiting the gate for a schooling session that went off without a hitch with Don Little, Jr., president and co-owner of Centennial Farms keeping close watch.

“Right after the Louisiana Derby, the first time he went to the gate he stood there for two or three minutes and had no issues whatsoever,” recalled Little, Jr. “I think in Louisiana, when the handler cocked his head straight, he thought it was gate time and anticipated it a little bit. I’m not worried about it. He’s doing great. He’s on the right path and couldn’t be doing any better right now.”

Antiquarian, piloted through all five starts by Hall of Famer John Velazquez, will look to become the tenth horse to complete the Peter Pan-Belmont Stakes double following Counterpoint [1951], High Gun [1954], Gallant Man [1957], Cavan [1958], Coastal [1979], Danzig Connection [1986], A.P. Indy [1992], Tonalist [2014] and last year’s winner Arcangelo.

Little, Jr. said Antiquarian’s Peter Pan score, in which he surged past The Wine Steward inside the final sixteenth, confirmed his status as a serious horse.

“It really solidified what Todd – and Johnny – had thought and told us, that he had a lot of room to grow,” Little, Jr. said. “He put it all together and it was a great performance. The neat thing about this horse is he’s very intelligent and he’s gaining from every experience.”

With the ongoing construction of a new and reimagined Belmont Park downstate, the Belmont Stakes will be contested at 1 1/4-miles at the Spa – but Little, Jr. noted his horse is one that may have thrived at the 12-furlong ‘Test of the Champion’ distance.

“We’ve said that right from the beginning,” Little, Jr. said. “Everyone says there’s an asterisk, but you can put an asterisk on a lot of events. The fact that this race is still a little bit longer than he’s gone will help him. I think he’ll be right there at the end.”

Centennial Farms has been involved in the highest levels of thoroughbred racing and breeding and, through the use of racing partnerships, has opened the door for many people to enjoy the sport.

Little, Jr. credits a loyal group of longtime owners as well as racing manager Dr. Stephen Carr and yearling trainer Paula Parsons for helping support and develop another potential Classic winner for Centennial. And he is hopeful that there will be more reasons to celebrate come Saturday.

“We have a very good tactician on his back,” Little, Jr. said. “Hall of Famer Johnny Velazquez has ridden him every time and he’s helped him grow every time. I think we’ll be stalking right there and be ready to run.”

Perhaps the fact that Antiquarian, who also paddock schooled Wednesday, will exit post 5 is a good omen as he will be wearing the same number that his sire sported en route to victory in the Spa’s 2019 Grade 1 Woodward.

“I hope so,” said Little, Jr., with a laugh. “Preservationist got off to a good start. He had [stakes winner] Band of Gold with Kenny McPeek and, percentage wise, his number of winners is pretty good. Airdrie breeds nice horses. We’re fortunate they took him in as a stallion and we’re hoping Saturday adds to Preservationists’ success as a stallion.”

***

New York-breds The Wine Steward, My Mane Squeeze gear up for respective G1s for Maker

Trainer Mike Maker is preparing two strong New York-breds for Grade 1 events at the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, including Grade 1-placed The Wine Steward for Saturday’s $2 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets, along with Grade 2-winner My Mane Squeeze in Friday’s $500,000 DK Horse Acorn, at Saratoga Race Course.

The Wine Steward galloped over the main track Wednesday morning as he approaches the 10-furlong Belmont Stakes, where he will emerge from post 4 under Manny Franco, and is tabbed at 15-1 on the morning line.

“He went to the main track at 5:30 for a routine gallop,” Maker said. “He shipped up well, energy is good, eating well. No complaints.”

Owned by Paradise Farms Corp. and David Staudacher, the Vino Rosso bay won his first three starts, graduating last May at Belmont ahead of stakes wins in the Bashford Manor in July at Ellis Park and the Spa’s state-bred Funny Cide presented by Rood and Riddle in August.

The Wine Steward made his next three outings with close runner-up efforts in graded company, rallying to miss by a half-length to Locked in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity in October at Keeneland and by three-quarter lengths to Encino after a more prominent trip in the Grade 3 Lexington in April at Keeneland.

He was last seen landing three-quarter lengths back of returning rival Antiquarian after a forwardly-placed trip through fractions of 23.95, 47.96, 1:11.62 and 1:36.23, with a final time of 1:48.99 in the nine-furlong Grade 3 Peter Pan.

Maker said he hopes The Wine Steward can sit off a pace duel in the Belmont before making his run.

“I’d like to see a pace duel develop and us maintain a stalking position,” Maker said. “If there was more of an honest pace last time, he would have appreciated it and maybe would have won it. We will hope for better luck this time. The owner has been very supportive of me and of New York. It would be great to win for them.”

Bred in the Empire State by Sequel Thoroughbreds, Lakland Farm, and Mark Toothaker, The Wine Steward will look to join Tiz the Law [2020], Forester [1882], Fenian [1869] and Ruthless [1867] as New York-bred winners of the Belmont Stakes.

WinStar Farms and William Butler’s sophomore filly My Mane Squeeze [post 5, Luis Saez, 12-1ML] will stretch out in the nine-furlong Grade 1 DK Horse Acorn from a two-length score in the seven-furlong Grade 2 Eight Belles on May 3 at Churchill Downs.

There, the Audible dark bay traveled three-lengths back in fourth position during the early stages before coming with a four-wide bid and surging to the front over the sloppy and sealed going. Previously, she finished a distant eighth in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 Fantasy on March 30 at Oaklawn Park after being unruly in the gate and racing in last-of-10 through the first two points of call.

“It was a great effort [at Churchill]. I’m happy to see that she turned it around from the debacle at Oaklawn,” Maker said. “We’ll hopefully see a true test at two turns. I’ve always had the impression that the further the better for her. I don’t know what set her off at Oaklawn, but hopefully we can cross that out and keep moving forward.”

Bred by William “Buck” Butler, My Mane Squeeze captured three consecutive state-bred stakes contested at Aqueduct Racetrack, including the one-mile Maddie May and Maid of the Mist and the 6 1/2-furlong Franklin Square before making her graded stakes debut in the Fantasy.

Maker said he hopes to add the Grade 1 on Saturday for the owners and longtime breeders’ Buck Butler and WinStar Farm.

“From a breeding standpoint, WinStar stands Audible so that would be a plus and Buck [Butler] is from New York and a win would be extra special for him, as well,” Maker said.

Out of the three-time winning Speightstown mare In Spite of Mama, My Mane Squeeze is a half-sister to the Maker-trained and Butler homebred Rotknee, who is entered in Saturday’s Grade 2 True North presented by F.W. Webb.

***

G1-winner Al Riffa steps back up

When trainer Joseph O’Brien touts the talent of one of his horses – enough to ship him across the Atlantic and take on the likes of Charlie Appleby and Chad Brown – one should probably take note.

The 31-year-old Irishman enters the physically imposing Al Riffa into Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Resorts World Casino Manhattan, seeking his third American Grade 1 win and second at The Spa following State of Rest’s 21-1 shocker in the 2021 Saratoga Derby Invitational. With his only other stateside top-level win being the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf with 13-1 Iridessa, it is safe to assume that winning on big American race days is well within his wheelhouse.

A dual-winning 4-year-old son of Wootton Bassett, Al Riffa has raced just six times and enters off a fourth in April’s Group 1 Prix Ganay at Paris-Longchamp, losing by a half-length in a five-horse blanket finish after suffering from a wide trip.

“He’s doing really well and had a really good comeback run in France, so we’ve kept him rolling from there over to here,” O’Brien said. “I would have liked to have got more cover in the race, but that was just how the race unfolded. It was a messy race and he didn’t get a perfect setup, but we were still very happy with his run. We selected this race because we thought it suited him and his program, timing-wise, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Owned by Al Riffa Syndicate, the French-bred bay charge is named after a region in Qatar – home of original owners Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Attiyah and Jassim bin Ali Al Attiyah, the latter in whose colors he won the 2022 Group 1 National Stakes to close out a three-race, two-win juvenile season.

After a couple minor setbacks prevented him from prepping for the Group 1 Irish 2000 Guiness and contesting the classic, itself, he belatedly returned on July 1, running second in The Curragh’s 10-furlong, Group 3 International Stakes, his first start beyond seven furlongs.

The $214,327 Tattersalls October 2021 Yearling purchase returned six weeks later to take on a proverbial monster in Ace Impact, finishing second by three-quarters of a length and defeating 2022 Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Victoria Road in the process. Ace Impact, of course, would go on to dominate the Group 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and be named Europe’s Horse of the Year.

“He had a really good 2-year-old season and actually also a good 3-year-old season,” O’Brien reflected. “His run in France as a 3-year-old was outstanding against Ace Impact, but then on the eve of the Champion Stakes [Sept. 9], he had a small setback, so he missed all the big targets of the autumn.”

Returning from another rest as a stronger, more mature version of himself, Al Riffa offers an interesting prospect for the wagering public when taking on the well-fancied likes of Appleby’s Measured Time and Nations Pride, as well as Brown’s Program Trading and I’m Very Busy. The plot thickens with the addition of Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez [who piloted the aforementioned State of Rest], his ground-versatility and the first-time addition of cheek-pieces.

“The tactics will obviously be very different at Saratoga,” O’Brien explained. Every race we take differently. Obviously, we have a lot of confidence in Johnny. We know he can handle softer ground if it rains, but we are quite confident, no matter what the going is. We are pretty relaxed in that regard. That said, it’s a much tighter track than what he’s been on in the past, so he needs to be sharper away from the gate and on the turns, so the cheek-pieces are just an aid for Johnny.

“We think and hope that he still has some scope to improve and that there’s more left there. For a 4-year-old, he’s still quite unexposed.”

O’Brien, whose first Belmont Stakes Racing Festival victory came in 2021 with Baron Samedi in the Grade 2 Belmont Gold Cup, also provided a thought on Mark Dobbin’s Grade 1, $730,000 New York presented by Resolute Racing contender American Sonja, who enters off a smart win in the Group 3 Prix Allez France on April 28 and was second in last year’s Grade 3 Saratoga Oaks Invitational.

“She’s super-consistent, super-tough, run very well at Saratoga and is coming off the back of a career-best, so we think this is a very good spot for her,” he concluded. “We’re confident and hopeful both she and Al Riffa will run good races.”

O’Brien was second in the 2021 New York with Thundering Nights and owns a 33-4-4-4 record in America with more than $2.6 million in earnings.

***

Idiomatic strong in Wednesday gallop at Saratoga

Juddmonte’s Kentucky homebred Champion Idiomatic turned in a robust gallop over Saratoga Race Course’s Oklahoma dirt training track Wednesday in preparation for the Grade 1, $500,000 Ogden Phipps presented by Ford on Saturday at the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.

Trained by two-time Eclipse Award-winner Brad Cox, the 5-year-old Curlin mare went out to the track shortly after its 5:30 a.m. opening and galloped strongly around the foggy oval. Blake Cox, son and assistant to Brad, said he was pleased with what he saw from last year’s Champion Older Dirt Female.

“It was impressive,” said Cox. “She kind of caught come company and was rocking around there pretty good. She was doing it in hand and she’s very happy. She’s ready for Saturday. She trained up here all last summer and did well and she likes the Oklahoma a lot.”

Idiomatic arrives from an impressive seasonal debut victory in Churchill Downs’ 1 1/16-mile La Troienne on May 3 where she defeated a field that included returning rival and fellow Champion Pretty Mischievous [third]. Ridden by regular pilot Florent Geroux, Idiomatic stalked one length off the early pace set by Dorth Vader and pounced to the lead at the three-quarters call before widening her advantage throughout the latter stages and crossing the wire 3 3/4 lengths ahead of Free Like a Girl over the sloppy and sealed going.

Idiomatic rides a six-race win streak – all graded stakes – into the Ogden Phipps, which includes a win last year over the Spa’s main track in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign ahead of additional Grade 1 triumphs in Keeneland’s Spinster and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff in November at Santa Anita Park.

Cox said Idiomatic is showing the same good form as last year as she prepares for another showdown with reigning Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Pretty Mischievous.

“She is just the model of consistency, no doubt,” said Cox. “There’s not many like her, and she makes our jobs easier. You’re very confident in here every time you lead her over. Pretty Mischievous is a very good filly, and obviously we’ll see how we break, but we’re planning to break running and go from there.”

Idiomatic will exit post 5 in rein to Geroux with a morning line assessment of 3-5, the favorite in the six-horse field.

Cox will also be represented in this weekend’s Belmont Stakes Racing Festival by Godolphin’s dual graded stakes-placed Nash in the Grade 1, $500,000 Woody Stephens presented by Mohegan Sun on Saturday, and Frank Fletcher Racing Operations and Ten Strike Racing’s 2-for-2 Almostgone Rocket in Thursday’s Listed $150,000 Jersey Girl.

***

Barksdale steps up in G1 Woody Stephens

Cypress Creek Equine’s lightly-raced Barksdale makes his stakes debut in top company when taking on Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Woody Stephens presented by Mohegan Sun, a seven-furlong test for sophomores, at the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival at Saratoga Race Course.

Trained by Will Walden, the dark bay Street Sense gelding enters from a strong four-length romp in pacesetting fashion on April 26 in a 6 1/2-furlong optional claiming tilt at Aqueduct Racetrack, where he was in hand throughout under Dylan Davis and earned a career-best 91 Beyer Speed Figure.

The Aqueduct effort came just 19 days after a 3 1/2-length victory under returning pilot Tyler Gaffalione in a starter allowance at Keeneland, a race he was eligible for after running for a $50,000 tag in March at Turfway Park when fifth in his first start at a sprint distance.

“We castrated and cut him back [this year] and we put him in for a tag that day because we didn’t think anyone would claim him off his races at Churchill,” Walden said of two subpar efforts going a route of ground in November. “By doing that, we made him starter eligible, and then we decided to go to New York. It put us in the position we are now.”

Walden said he is pleased to again have the services of Gaffalione Saturday.

“There’s a lot of confidence to be had when Tyler Gaffalione steps aboard,” said Walden. “He got along great with him at Keeneland. It’s a big step up in class, but we think he deserves a shot and we’re going to go for it.”

All three of Barksdale’s wins have come after making the early lead and cruising on the front end to wire the field. Walden said he is hopeful that natural ability will be enough to do the same against a stacked field that includes Group 3-placed Book’em Danno and Grade 1-winner Prince of Monaco.

“He’s a horse that breaks, and you can watch Dylan or Tyler in their races – their instructions were, ‘Don’t ask him, he’ll do it all on his own,’” said Walden. “The horse just naturally has so much speed. He’s about 17 hands, but he’s a 17-hand quarter horse essentially. We’re going to find out on game day. He’s got his style and the way he wants to run. It’s pretty much as simple as break, and let the horse place himself where he wants to be.”

Bred in Kentucky by Dixiana Farms, Barksdale was a $235,000 purchase at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. He will exit post 2 with a morning-line assessment of 20-1.

Walden also confirmed Cypress Creek Equine’s three-time winner Clear the Air, who is entered in Churchill Downs’ Mighty Beau on Saturday, will instead contest Friday’s fifth race at Saratoga, a 5 1/2-furlong optional claiming sprint on the turf.

Walden said the son of Ransom the Moon, who enters off a gutsy runner-up effort to multiple graded stakes-winner Bound for Nowhere in a May 25 optional claimer at Churchill, likely wouldn’t mind if rain forces the race to be moved to the main track.

“We prefer honestly if it rains off,” said Walden. “I don’t think he prefers any kind of cut in the ground. This horse has run well on both dirt and turf. If this race comes off and he gets to go five and a half [furlongs] on the dirt, I think that would suit him just fine.”

Gaffalione is also slated to ride Clear the Air from post 3-of-12 [7-2 ML favorite] in the overflow field.

***

Frost Free fires bullet work ahead of G1 Woody Stephens

Keene Thoroughbreds’ Frost Free will look to become trainer Brett Creighton’s first Grade 1-winner in Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Woody Stephens presented by Mohegan Sun, a seven-furlong sprint for sophomores, on June 8 Belmont Stakes Day at Saratoga Race Course.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet. Right now, it’s great. In the last month, he’s just really come into himself,” Creighton said. “He has really matured and is going in the right direction. We are good.”

Tabbed at 15-1 on the morning line, Frost Free [post 5, Jose Ortiz] enters off a victory in the six-furlong, Grade 3 Chick Lang on May 18 at Pimlico Race Course. There, the Frosted gray led every step of the way over the muddy and sealed going to finish 1 1/2-lengths in front in a final time of 1:11.39, awarded a career-best 93 Beyer Speed Figure.

The Chick Lang marked the graded stakes debut for both Frost Free and trainer Brett Creighton, who launched his career in 1989.

Previously, Frost Free won a six-furlong optional-claimer on March 1 at Oaklawn Park along with a pacesetting third-place finish in the one-mile Hot Springs three weeks later without blinkers to returning rival Nash. He returned to the blinkers when a frontrunning second to returning foe Valentine Candy on April 27 in the six-furlong Listed Bachelor.

“I think we will be fine, I really do. Hopefully, he won’t have to show all that speed,” said Creighton. “I think he is rateable. I don’t see any trouble. I think he can handle it.”

Frost Free fired a bullet half-mile in 47 seconds flat over the Saratoga main track on Sunday, the fastest-of-24 workers at the distance.

“He’s doing really good. We’ve gone to the track the last couple of days and everything is alright,” said Creighton. “He is well-mannered and very smart. As long as he is doing it easy and on his own. We will just go from there.”

Frost Free, a $100,000 Texas Thoroughbred Association 2-Year-Old in Training Sale purchase, is out of the winning Union Rags mare D J’s Favorite, who is out of the stakes-winning Indian Charlie mare I’m Mom’s Favorite.