Stakes races for 2-year-olds are where the dreams of the coming spring are born.
Especially at Saratoga, where a maiden race filled with precocious, regally bred juveniles will lead to a jammed paddock with enough well-dressed people that it could pass for a night at the opera.
Win a 2-year-old stakes at Saratoga and you can hop to the head of the line and start dreaming of the Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Oaks. Perhaps even Triple Crown glory, but for how long?
The promise of August at two usually does not translate into glory in May at three these days, except in rare cases.
On Sunday, a pair of 6 ½-furlong stakes for 2-year-olds graced the grand stage at Saratoga, the Saratoga Special for males and Adirondack for fillies. The Saratoga Special turned 109 Sunday and the Adirondack blew out 98 candles. Each, in their long history, has their share of illustrious former winners such as Triple Crown champ Whirlaway, Native Dancer and Kentucky Derby winners Bold Forbes and Swale, and distaff champions such as Storm Song and Sky Beauty.
Lately, the pickings have been slim. At best.
The winner of last year's Saratoga Special was Corfu, who did not win another race and was retired in January.
The Adirondack went to Designer Legs, who is 0-for-7 since then and has yet to finish better than fourth in any of those starts.
Not too many dreams there.
Of course, hope is always plentiful at the Spa, and some horses do indeed make that huge jump from a promising 2-year-old to a successful 3-year-old. Danza, who was third in last year's Saratoga Special, was third in the Kentucky Derby. Union Rags won the 2011 Saratoga Special and captured the following year's Belmont Stakes.
Against that backdrop on Sunday came a couple of victories and some promising efforts that may beat the odds and showcase horses who can have a say in far more important races down the road.
Alex and JoAnn Lieblong's I Spent It took the Saratoga Special as a 5-2 favorite ($7.80), showing some tenacity in overcoming traffic problems to scoot through a hole on the rail and beat 3-1 second choice Mr Z to the wire by a widening 2 ¾-length margin.
"It was so impressive. You've got be a good horse to do that. Bad horses can't do that," trainer Tony Dutrow said about his son of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver who was coming off a three-quarters-of-a-length win in a maiden race. "It's been hard for me to not tell people about how good he is. I don't want to trade places with anyone We thought we would get something from him like we saw today."
As for the future, Dutrow believes his horse has enough talent and pedigree to handle longer, two-turn distances that will await him in races like the Breeders' Cup Juvenile this fall and the major Derby preps next spring.
Dutrow understood others who have won the same race before him have issued similar words and been unable to live to up them, yet he believes an early but limited campaign can help instill the maturity any champion needs.
"I don't challenge that," he said about the diminishing role of early 2-year-old stakes. "But my guy was ready to run and I was not going to not race him [because of the time of the year]. However, he only needs another race or two this year. I've read the list of horses who have won this race and by no means is this a strike against him."
Dutrow said he will most likely skip the Grade 1 Hopeful on closing day (Sept. 1) in favor of the Champagne at Belmont Park on Oct. 4 and then head to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a two-turn test at Santa Anita on Nov. 1.
Even the connections of runner-up Mr. Z spoke longingly for races longer than Sunday's sprints.
"Two turns is what our horse needs," said Justin Zayat, racing manager for his father's Zayat Stables. "As soon we go two turns, we'll see a different horse."
Trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, Mr. Z was second earlier in the meet when he finished second to Big Trouble, who is also trained by Dutrow but is currently sidelined.
On the fillies' side, it was Stonestreet Stables' Cavorting ($9.50) who rolled to a 1 ¾-length triumph in the Adirondack for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who gushed about her.
"She's a special filly," said McLaughlin about his daughter of Bernardini, who won her only other start by 11 lengths. "We had a lot of confidence because she trained so well."
Favored Angela Renee was second and Wonder Girl was third despite some traffic issues along the rail.
Like Dutrow, Mclaughlin will most likely skip the Grade 1 stakes on closing weekend and point to the Frizette on Oct. 4 at Belmont Park and then the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
It may sound early to be discussing a race like the Breeders' Cup in November, but in keeping with the theme of Sunday's races, McLaughlin understands that sometimes the future can be now.
"We just won a Grade 2 stakes and it's important," McLaughlin said. "Rather than waiting and wondering what we have, we found out."
And in the spring we'll no doubt find out more.