Three years after reaching the winner's circle with eventual champion turf mare Zagora, owner Martin Schwartz and trainer Chad Brown seek another victory in Saratoga's Grade 1, $500,000 Diana with Alterite, who makes her belated 2014 debut in Saturday's nine-furlong test over the inner turf.
Group 1-placed in her native France prior to her importation last summer, Alterite was sharp in her first three appearances in the U.S. last fall. After achieving Grade 1 glory in the Garden City at Belmont in September, the Literato filly finished second by a neck in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland and then third, one length behind champion Dank, as a 19-1 outsider in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Her return to competition was subsequently delayed by the removal of an ankle chip.
"She's been doing well and training well," said Brown, whose first career Grade 1 win came in the 2011 Diana with Zagora. "I would have liked to get her a prep before this race, but I didn't have time. She seems to be training really well, and we're going to give it a shot and run her off the layoff.
"I'm not running unless I think I have a chance to win," he added. "It's a tough race, and running off a layoff in a Grade 1 is a tall order. But, she's a filly with a ton of ability and a ton of class, so we'll see what happens."
Alterite has not chosen an easy spot to make her return, but the pace figures to be more honest than in last year's Diana, won by the slow pace-setting Laughing. Somali Lemonade, reborn as a front runner since the addition of blinkers last winter, led throughout in taking the Gallorette Handicap at Pimlico two back, and also set the pace before retreating to third in the one-mile Just a Game at Belmont last month.
Others with early foot include multiple Grade 1 winner Emollient, winless in three starts this year after a photo-finish loss in the Gamely at Santa Anita last time, and the Grade 2 queen Discreet Marq, who set the pace before settling for second behind Alterite in the Garden City. The latter has subsequently lost a pair of Grade 1s, the Matriarch and Jenny Wiley, by narrow margins.
Dual Grade 1 winner Stephanie's Kitten, compromised by the slow pace in last year's Diana, makes just her third start since that race on Saturday. Moved to the Brown barn over the winter after previously residing in the shedrow of Wayne Catalano, the five-year-old failed to contend in either the Jenny Wiley or Just a Game, but had dropped 12 lengths back in the latter before rallying to miss by just over two lengths.
"I thought she ran really well last time," Brown said. "I'm not sure in the first part of the race what she was doing so far back, but she came home very strong and she's trained well since."
Tannery, who's won the E.P. Taylor at Woodbine and placed in the Flower Bowl, Red Smith Handicap, and New York since September, fits on class but might be more effective going longer. Distance doesn't seem to be a problem, however, for Strathnaver, a five-year-old who won the 1 1/2-mile Bewitch last year but put in a strong enough kick to finish second by a nose in the Just a Game most recently.
"The Just a Game progressed us to the Diana. It was not something I was necessarily thinking about," said Graham Motion, trainer of Strathnaver. "The filly has won at a mile and a half, and she just got beat in a Grade 1 going a mile, so it would seem very logical that this would be a really happy medium for her. Perhaps I was a little bit surprised how well she handled the mile. This would seem more natural to her in my eyes."
Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey will be trying to give the Phipps family a fourth win in the Diana with Abaco, who landed the Cardinal Handicap at Churchill Downs in November and has subsequently placed in the Suwannee River, Jenny Wiley, and Sheepshead Bay. Caroline Thomas, elevated to victory through a disqualification in last year's Lake Placid over this course and trip, enters the Diana off a confidence-building allowance win downstate.
The Diana field is completed by Solid Appeal, a multiple Grade 2 winner at Woodbine who has generally struggled against stakes company south of the border.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will be going for a sixth victory in the Grade 2, $150,000 Sanford when he saddles Nonna's Boy in the historic six-furlong dash for two-year-olds. Owned by Mike Repole, the Distorted Humor colt thrashed four rivals in the mud last month at Belmont Park, taking his debut by 5 1/2 lengths as the 1-10 favorite.
"He's doing very well," Pletcher said. "He's training well and we're very happy with the progress he's made."
Also likely to attract serious pari-mutuel respect are Cinco Charlie and Silverhill, the respective one-two finishers in the Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs. Cinco Charlie ran his record to two-for-two with a 1 3/4-length victory in that ancient six-furlong race, with Silverhill acquitting himself nicely after graduating at Lone Star against Texas-bred maidens.
Like Cinco Charlie, Bessie's Boy also enters the Sanford undefeated from two starts. The Wesley Ward charge prevailed narrowly at Pimlico as an odds-on choice in his debut, but was more convincing when taking the $95,000 Tremont at Belmont by a widening six lengths. Returning rival Chocolate Wildcat, the odds-on favorite in the Tremont following a Gulfstream debut win, finished second in that 5 1/2-furlong test.
Longshots to keep their perfect records intact are first-out maiden winners Souper Colossal, Mr. Z, and Big Trouble, victors at Monmouth Park, Churchill Downs, and Belmont, respectively. Completing the field is Presque Isle Downs graduate Less Than Perfect, who lived up to his moniker when trailing in the $148,000 Victoria at Woodbine last out.