Reigning champion male sprinter Whitmore has shown no signs of slowing down in his 8-year-old campaign and the veteran gelding will again look to put his ability on display, facing some of the top sprinters in the country in the 37th running of the Grade 1, $350,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga Race Course on July 31.
Whitmore, co-owned by trainer Ron Moquett with Robert V. LaPenta and Head of Plains Partners, arrives at the six-furlong Vanderbilt with $4,434,350 in the bank, and a record of 41-15-13-4, including seven graded stakes victories at four different racetracks. The son of Pleasantly Perfect capped his award-winning 2020 campaign with a 3 ¼-length victory in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland.
Whitmore has not found the winner’s circle in 2021 but has come close in all three starts. After a game second by a neck to C Z Rocket in the Hot Springs on March 13 at Oaklawn Park, he returned to run second to his rival once more in the Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint on April 10 at the Arkansas oval. Whitmore was last seen finishing a close third in the Grade 1 Churchill Downs on May 1, where he was seven-wide in upper stretch and crossed the finish line in tandem with Flagstaff and Lexitonian.
“His record says he’s 0-for-3 this year, but he’s 3-for-3 in effort,” Moquett said. “All we can ask is for him to try. Are there some things that may have resulted in a better outcome? Probably. But at the same time, he brought his A game. You’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some. It’s all about bringing the effort.”
A winner of the 2018 Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga, Whitmore was second in last year’s Vanderbilt to Volatile.
“He was going to be the favorite for the Vanderbilt during his 4-year-old year, but we had to scratch him because he pawed from the airplane in Albany to here. He would have been a short price,” Moquett said. “We learned from that. He’s training us on how to train him and we learned that we need to move him well in advance or, if he’s going to be on a van, it’s going to be ours. Someone that won’t stop and just go straight through. He can’t do a milk run.”
Whitmore captured last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint at 18-1 odds, after running a respective eighth (2017), second (2018), and third (2019) in the previous three runnings.
Despite arriving at last year’s Breeders’ Cup as a longshot, Moquett said he felt a strong sense of confidence in Whitmore, who was fourth in the Grade 3 Phoenix at Keeneland, a race he won in 2017, in his previous effort.
“When I ran against (2019 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner) Mitole the previous year, I thought we were going to need someone to hook him or get him out of position, but I didn’t feel like that against any of the ones we were up against last year,” Moquett said. “I figured we could run our best race and they could run theirs, but we could still be in front. I threw the Phoenix out. It was a speed and rail-favoring surface. We got a little far back, but he finished up well and needed the race. There were some good horses in there, but there was no (2018 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner) Roy H or Mitole. I just knew that we were sitting in a good post and had enough ability.”
Fresh off a Grade 1 triumph aboard Maracuja in last Saturday’s Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr. seeks an eighth triumph aboard Whitmore, whom he will ride for the 18th time from post 6.
Mr. Amore Stable’s Firenze Fire also is an accomplished veteran with nine graded stakes triumphs over four different tracks, including victories in the Grade 3 Runhappy and Grade 2 True North at Belmont Park to commence his 6-year-old season. He has finished fourth in the last two editions of the Vanderbilt.
Trained by Kelly Breen, the son of Poseidon’s Warrior boasts a record of 34-14-5-3 with earnings of $2,534,350, including victories in the Grade 3 General George in March 2020 at Laurel Park and the Grade 3 Gallant Bob in September 2018 at Parx Racing. His lone graded win at the Spa came during his juvenile campaign when taking the Grade 3 Sanford in July 2017. Third to Whitmore in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Firenze Fire notched his only Grade 1 triumph in the 2017 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park.
Firenze Fire was a game second last out in the Grade 2 John A. Nerud on July 4 at Belmont Park, where he battled gamely down the stretch to the inside of Mind Control, finishing a head shy of victory.
“He’s on his game and doing well,” said owner Ron Lombardi. “After that last race he came back to the barn that night and felt like he didn’t even run, He went for a jog the next morning. At this level they’re all tough races, but he’s doing great.”
Lombardi said the results might have been reversed had it been Firenze Fire dueling to the outside in his most recent engagement.
“If he’s on the outside he probably runs that race but it’s all a part of the game. It was a duel with Mind Control last time, and we just missed,” Lombardi said. “That was the first time we went gate to wire which is something I’ve always wanted to try. Jose [Ortiz] did that with him, and it worked out.”
Ortiz will return aboard Firenze Fire from post 3.
Cash is King and LC Racing’s Mischevious Alex proved a force to be reckoned with following decisive graded stakes victories earlier this year, and cuts back to six furlongs after running third in the Grade 1 Met Mile last out on June 5 at Belmont Park.
The Saffie Joseph, Jr.-trained 4-year-old son of Into Mischief displayed excellence in his first three starts this season, defeating optional claiming company on January 10 at Gulfstream Park en route to a victory in the Grade 3 Gulfstream Park Sprint on February 13. A winner of the Grade 3 Gotham in March 2020 at Aqueduct, he returned to the Big A with vigor in capturing the Grade 1 Carter in April by 5 ½ lengths under a hand ride by Irad Ortiz, Jr., garnering a 109 Beyer Speed Figure.
“He is training for this as well as he did for the Carter,” Joseph, Jr. said. “I thought he had a real good work here a couple weeks back. He’s going over with a really good chance. I think six to seven is his best distance. This race is six and the next one will be seven. I think that’s most suitable.”
Ortiz, Jr. will return to irons from post 2.
Calumet Farm’s Lexitonian will seek to make amends following a lackluster sixth in the Grade 1 Met Mile for trainer Jack Sisterson.
The 5-year-old chestnut son of Speightstown, who won the 2004 Vanderbilt, was previously a game second finishing a nose in front of Whitmore in the Grade 1 Churchill Downs.
Lexitonian, who scratched at the gate in last year’s Vanderbilt, finished second by a nose to Collusion Illusion one week later in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby at Del Mar. During his sophomore season, he won the Grade 3 Chick Lang at Pimlico at 17-1.
“He has so much heart. He’s never a flashy work horse or in running,” Sisterson said. “He may come off the bridle, but whoever is riding him knows he responds to pressure and that’s just the way he likes to be ridden. Ideally, his best running style is being forwardly placed in a dog fight. He really shows his true colors when asked to be set down and that’s how he’ll be ridden. He’ll be forwardly placed. We’ll be aggressive out of the gate and put him in the race and see who wants to come and catch us.”