Binoculars Focus: Lake George Stakes at Saratoga


The 2017 renewal of the G3, $150,000 Lake George Stakes at Saratoga this Friday afternoon is about life. Life is about connections. And, longtime trainer Jim Toner, who will saddle Defiant Honor, has been connected to Saratoga for quite a while.

In 1983, Toner’s charge, Buzz My Bell, won the G3 Adirondack Stakes and the G1 Spinaway Stakes. Toner’s brilliant turf filly, Memories of Silver, won the G2 Diana H., the Lake George Stakes, and the G3 Nijana Stakes at the Spa. Her daughter, Winter Memories, won the G1 Diana Stakes, and the G2 Lake George Stakes on the same turf.

Now, Toner brings the Speightstown filly, Defiant Honor, to Saratoga looking for her first stakes win in the Lake George for her owners, Phillips Racing Partnership and Pam Gartin.

And, all three will bring a lot of history of fondness for this track and this turf with them.

Defiant Honor’s full sister, Recepta, broke her maiden at Saratoga, and won the Fasig-Tipton De La Rose Stakes over the lawn here.

In fact, this female family is no stranger to Saratoga either. Honor Bestowed, the dam of Defiant Honor, is a half-sister to the first winner of the G1 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, Soaring Softly. Another half sister, Plenty of Grace, won the G2 Diana Handicap at Saratoga.

John Phillips and his team at Darby Dan Farm grew up with that family. And, that family has grown up in a history deeper than any grass course in this country.

You see, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the legendary Colonel E.R. Bradley developed a top operation just outside of downtown Lexington and stocked much of the farm with horses bought and shipped from Europe. He named that farm, Idle Hour. And, over the years, that farm produced four Kentucky Derby winners: Behave Yourself, Bubbling Over, Burgoo King and Brokers Tip.

After Col. Bradley’s death, much of the property was purchased by John W. Galbreath in the 1950s. He renamed it Darby Dan. The farm didn’t fade into obscurity with the change. If anything, it only got better. In 1962, Galbreath imported the undefeated racing superstar Ribot. He was 16 for 16. It was the making of history. Ribot’s progeny were successful, and his two sons Graustark and His Majesty went on to stamp the legacy of the game forever.

Later, under Galbreath’s direction, the farm leased Sea-Bird, and acquired Derby winner Swaps and Horse of the Year Sword Dancer. In 1963 and 1967, Darby Dan added to the history of the old Bradley farm when Chateaugay and Proud Clarion won the Kentucky Derby. In 1972, Darby Dan’s homebred Roberto won the English Derby.

In 1985, when Proud Truth won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Darby Dan became the only farm in history to breed, raise and race winners of the Kentucky Derby, the English Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

And, today, the mantle of greatness continues under the watchful eye and skilled hand of Galbreath’s grandson, John Phillips – who has seen the farm develop Sunshine Forever, Brian’s Time, Grass Wonder, Tribulation, Plenty of Grace, Memories of Silver, the 1999 Champion Turf Mare Soaring Softly (mentioned above). Recepta added to that fame and name.

Well, you get the idea.

Saratoga and Darby Dan have grown together. Not in just years. Through decades. And, they are woven together like, well, two blades of green blue grass and green Saratoga turf.

And, another chapter just may be written on Friday. In the Lake George.

That being written, all of this long history needs to be kept in perspective, because of the recent past performances of this race.

Trainer Chad Brown has his own connections to the Lake George. Brown has trained each of the last two winners of this race, Ancient Secret and Mrs. McDougal. Those fillies won with Irad Ortiz, Jr. in the irons. On Friday, Fifty Five will make her run in the Lake George with Jose Ortiz guiding her.

There are other entries, with connections here, as well. Trainer Mark Casse has entered a three-prong attack. Casse will saddle a speed horse, Victory to Victory; a deep closer, Dream Dancing; and a main track only horse in Corporate Queen.

The deepest connection to Saratoga, however, might just be the Ghostzapper filly, Proctor’s Ledge. This two-time winner on turf is looking for her first stakes victory this Friday. Her third dam, Drumtop, was a pretty good racehorse herself. Drumtop won 17 races including setting a new course record by winning the 1971 Bowling Green Handicap against colts, going 1½ miles on the turf in 2:25.4 at Saratoga.

But when it comes to Saratoga. And, things turn to the green, green grass of this turf course. There is nobody more at home than Jim Toner. And, the Phillips Racing team. And, the memories of old Darby Dan. All the way back to Col. Bradley and Idle Hour.

And, Friday just may become a homecoming of Stakes proportions.