(Becky’s Joker wins the G3 Schuylerville at Saratoga on Thursday / SR Photo & Courtesy of NYRA)

From the NYRA Media Team:

Lee Pokoik’s first-time starter Becky’s Joker proved to be a serious filly for trainer Gary Contessa, winning her debut with a last-to-first rush in Thursday’s Grade 3, $175,000 Schuylerville, a six-furlong main track sprint for juvenile fillies, at Saratoga Race Course. 

“It was my idea,” Pokoik said of the decision to debut the filly in a graded stake. “It didn’t take much, because he’s [Contessa] done this before. It’s always nice to win on Opening Day at Saratoga. The last time I did it was in [1986]. I won the very first race with a horse called Can’t Catchjohn, and they couldn’t catch him.”

The daughter of Practical Joke made her first career outing off a series of works at Saratoga, including a sharp three-furlong move in 34.88 seconds Friday over the main track. Contessa said the filly has shown promise since he first saw her as a weanling in 2021.

“I don’t have a horse in the barn that can work in company with her, so I started having to work her on her own and she’s still working three-quarters [fast],” said Contessa. “She’s that kind of horse. I knew that physically she was as good as anything in this race. She trained like a stakes horse, but you don’t know what’s going to happen once the gate opens. 

“I ran a filly that I thought couldn’t lose at Belmont and when the gate opened, she started getting hit in the face with dirt and was in full retreat. So you never know, but she told me from Day One, ‘I’m the right horse, and I’m good enough for a race like this,’” Contessa added. “With Lee Pokoik, it’s easy because he always wants to run in stakes races. I didn’t have to do much convincing to the owner and I would have to just eat a little crow if I was wrong.”


Ridden to victory by Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, Becky’s Joker broke last and rushed up the rail to sit fourth as Carmelina went head-to-head with Saratoga Secret through an opening quarter-mile in 22.45 seconds over the fast main track. 

“When she broke a little slow, I wasn’t surprised because she’s so big. She’s 16.3 [hands], so I expected her to break slow and I was hoping she would engage immediately and she did,” said Contessa, who returned to Saratoga this year with a full string of horses for the first time since 2019. “She got right behind the leaders and I loved her position. I felt we had a big chance turning for home.”

Becky’s Joker was well-positioned to make a run at her foes into the turn after a half-mile in 46.03 while post-time favorite Wine On Tap ranged up on the far outside and appeared to be the major threat in the turn as Carmelina toiled along the rail. Saratoga Secret vied for the front exiting the turn, but Becky’s Joker split her foes with an impressive turn of foot and came away with the advantage at the top of the stretch.

Castellano gave right-handed encouragement as his mount drifted out greenly down the lane, but there were few anxious moments as she widened her margin from an all-out Saratoga Secret to graduate by 3 1/4 lengths in a final time of 1:12.52. 

Saratoga Secret held place honors by 3 1/2 lengths over Closing Act, who got her head down for show over Wine On Tap. Carmelina, Sugar Treat and Kiss for Luck completed the order of finish. Union Suit, Status Seeker, Dancing Diana and Mila Junes were scratched. 

Castellano, who won two races on the 10-race Opening Day card, said the move Becky’s Joker made at the top of the stretch to split rivals was a pleasant surprise for a first-time starter. 

“I liked that move at the quarter pole when she split horses and took off,” Castellano said. “She leveled off a little bit near the top of the stretch and she did it the right way today. Very professional. She has a lot of potential. To do it like today in her first time, very impressive. She did it the right way.”

Bred in Kentucky by Warran J. Harang, Becky’s Joker was a $130,000 weanling purchase at the 2021 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale with her dam Becky’s Best being a half-sister to multiple graded stakes-winner Vertical Oak. She banked $96,250 in victory and returned $44.40 for a $2 win wager as the second longest shot on the board [21-1]. 

Contessa, who teamed up with Pokoik to win the 2018 Grade 1 Spinaway with Sippican Harbor, said Becky’s Joker will point towards the same prestigious test for 2-year-old fillies on September 3.

“I bought her as a weanling right after she was born and with Lee, we always try to sell them as yearlings. If they don’t sell as yearlings, we sell them as a 2-year-old,” Contessa said. “When she went to the yearling sale, everyone said she was too big. Then we took her to the March 2-year-old sale in Ocala this year and everyone that looked at her said she was too big. I’m thinking in the back of my mind, ‘This is good, I may get to keep this one.’ That’s exactly what happened, and the same thing happened with Sippican Harbor, who won the Spinaway a few years ago. Nobody wanted her at the yearling sale or the 2-year-old sale and we got to win a Grade 1 with her, so hopefully we get to win a Grade 1 with this one.” 

Luis Saez, aboard runner-up Saratoga Secret for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, said the daughter of Arrogate ran admirably to be second. 

“I had a good trip,” Saez said. “I was right there behind the speed and when we came to the stretch, she tried pretty hard. The winner just kept going – she made a huge move at the top of the stretch, and we couldn’t keep up.”

Live racing resumes Friday at Saratoga with a 10-race card, featuring the $135,000 Wilton in Race 4 and the $150,000 Coronation Cup in Race 9. First post is 1:10 p.m. Eastern.