Suburban Handicap winner Mucho Macho Man seeks the first Grade 1 stakes victory of his career in the Sept. 1 Woodward at Saratoga Race Course.
It would also be a first grade I triumph for trainer Kathy Ritvo.
The 4-year-old son of Macho Uno is the 8-5 favorite on the morning line in a field of seven drawn for the 1 1/8-mile Woodward, which will be televised from 5-6 p.m. EDT as part of NBC's "Summer at Saratoga" series. Race 10 on a stakes-rich card that also features Shackleford in the Forego and Data Link in the Bernard Baruch, the Woodward has an approximate post of 5:45 p.m. EDT.
Mucho Macho Man crushed the July 7 Suburban field by 2 1/2 lengths under a hand ride from jockey Mike Smith last time out at Belmont Park going nine panels in a sparkling 1:46.58. Smith returns for a second trip aboard the leggy bay runner from post 3.
"He's training very good," Ritvo said of her charge, who placed third last year in the Kentucky Derby and has won four of his past five starts in dominant fashion for Reeves Thoroughbred Racing. "We're ready to go. This will be our first grade I if we're blessed with that."
Mucho Macho Man defeated Stephen Foster and Santa Anita Handicap winner Ron the Greek and United Nations winner Turbo Compressor in the Florida Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park earlier this year, then registered a two-length score in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. His only loss was a third behind Successful Dan and Fort Larned in the Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs in May.
Live Oak Plantation's Cigar Mile winner To Honor and Serve comes off a disappointing outing in the Suburban, in which he faded to fourth on a hot summer day. Before that, however, he proved his class with the Cigar Mile triumph and also won the April 28 Westchester. He was a solid third behind Shackleford in the Metropolitan Handicap a month later. The 4-year-old Bernardini colt also counts the 2011 Pennsylvania Derby and 2010 Remsen among his wins.
"We're disappointed in his race in the Suburban, but given my excuse of the hot weather, I think he'll run better if we get a decent day," said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.
Recent Hall of Fame inductee John Velazquez picks up the mount on To Honor and Serve, 2-1 on the morning line, from post 6.
Another son of Bernardini enters the Woodward, and this one hopes to put a losing streak to rest: 2011 Travers winner Stay Thirsty, returning to the scene of his greatest triumph, is 0-for-4 since pulling off the Jim Dandy-Travers double last summer at the Spa.
Stay Thirsty, owned by Repole Stable and trained by Todd Pletcher, rose to the upper echelons of the 3-year-old division last year with his back-to-back victories at Saratoga. He already had won the Gotham at Aqueduct Racetrack and finished a strong third behind Flat Out and subsequent Breeders' Cup Classic winner Drosselmeyer in his first try against older runners in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. Stay Thirsty then finished a 11th in the Breeders' Cup Classic and lost his first two races of 2012, the most recent being the Suburban at Belmont.
"He is rounding back into his best form," said Pletcher of the 5-1 third choice on the morning line. "I think he is training as well as he ever has. We're expecting a good effort from him. Everybody's making a big deal about his so-called losing streak, but he's only run four times since the Travers last year.
"One of those was the first time against older horses in the Jockey Club, in which he ran a respectable third. He ran poorly in the Breeders' Cup Classic over a Churchill surface he hates and a number of horses hated that day.
"Since then, by design, he's had a freshening pointing him toward a late-summer and fall campaign," Pletcher went on. "He ran very well first time back and got out-footed by a quicker horse and then, unfortunately, the Suburban fell on a very hot day he and a number of horses didn't really respond very favorably to. So, we've regrouped and freshened for this, and I like the way everything's coming together."
Pletcher will complete an uncoupled entry in the Woodward with Rule, a WinStar Farm runner coming off the worst defeat of his career, a ninth-place finish in the Aug. 4 Whitney Invitational Handicap.
In his prior start, the 5-year-old by Roman Ruler won the July 7 Monmouth Cup at Monmouth Park, and he has finished in the money in three out of four Spa starts.
Rule, 12-1 on the morning line, usually makes his presence felt on the pace, which figures to be strong with Trickmeister, To Honor and Serve, and Mucho Macho Man in the field.
The pace likely belongs to Trickmeister, 6-1 on the morning line, last seen dueling on the lead before fading to fifth in the Whitney. The 5-year-old by Proud Citizen was third behind Mucho Macho Man in the Suburban and has won four stakes when allowed to dictate his own terms. He is trained by Rick Dutrow Jr. for IEAH Stables, Pegasus Holdings Group Stables, and Mark Frimmel.
Trainer Al Stall, Jr., in the midst of an extremely productive Saratoga meet, sends out the 5-year-old War Chant gelding Cease for owners Adele Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm. After two losses earlier this year over synthetic and turf courses, Cease returned to his preferred dirt in his most recent start and scored by 1 1/4 lengths in a $75,000 optional claimer July 25 at the Spa.
While Cease, with morning-line odds of 10-1, is not as accomplished as his opposition, Stall sees an opportunity in the Woodward over a track on which Cease is unbeaten in three starts.
"If you draw a line through his turf, Polytrack, and the 1 3/4-mile Breeders' Cup Marathon, he's been pretty solid," Stall said. "We know we're stepping up, but he acts like its home track. This is where his best numbers and races are. If you take out the one marquee name -- Mucho Macho Man this year -- we'll try to take advantage of a short field."
Rounding out the group is Our Sugar Bear stable's million-dollar earner Gourmet Dinner, 30-1 on the morning line and fourth most recently for trainer Bruce Brown in the Aug. 18 Phillip Iselin at Monmouth.