The Jockey Club Gold Cup trophy carries the names of four Triple Crown winners: Gallant Fox (1930), Whirlaway (1942), Citation (1948) and Affirmed (1979).

Happy Saver-JCGC preview
Happy Saver (right) shakes pursuer Mystic Guide in deep stretch of last year’s Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Happy Saver seeks to be the 11th repeat champion of one of the New York Racing Association’s most historic events. (Image: Chelsea Durand/NYRA)

You’ll find Hall of Famers like Man o’ War (1920), Hill Prince (1950), Sword Dancer (1959), Buckpasser (1966), Damascus (1967), Forego (1974), John Henry (1981), Easy Goer (1989) and Cigar (1995). You’ll find nine Kentucky Derby winners among its winner’s roll. And you’ll find the legendary Kelso’s name on the trophy five times. He won the event five consecutive years, from 1960-64.

Dating to 1919, the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup — new Saratoga edition — remains one of the most prestigious events on the New York Racing Association calendar. Saturday’s featured Saratoga race sends its 3-year-old and up horses 1 ¼ miles in search of a Grade 1 win and a Breeders’ Cup Classic berth.

One of those contenders is last year’s champion: Happy Saver (9/5). He’s trying to be only the 11th repeat champion. Should he do so, he’ll keep company with the likes of Nashua, Shuvee, Slew o’ Gold, Skip Away, Curlin and the last member of that club: Tonalist.

Happy Saver won his graded-stakes debut here

Last year, Happy Saver turned away eventual Dubai World Cup winner Mystic Guide, winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup in his first graded-stakes start. That gave the son of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver his fourth consecutive win opening his career. After trainer Todd Pletcher gave him seven months off, Happy Saver opened his 2021 account winning a mile Belmont Park allowance in May.

The streak ended July 3 in the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes, when Happy Saver’s stalking kick let him down. He got four wide and couldn’t save enough ground down the stretch to catch Max Player and Mystic Guide. That third by nearly three lengths did come with a 110 Equibase Speed Figure, as Happy Saver suffered his first career loss on a sloppy, sealed track.

“I don’t think he ran that badly on an off track last time,” Pletcher told the New York Racing Association. “The way the race unfolded going a mile and a quarter at Belmont and drawing the outside is never a good thing. I thought he ran well all things considered. He kept closing and it was only his second start of the year, so hopefully he moves forward.”

Max Player needs an encore to win Jockey Club Gold Cup

Speaking of Max Player (5/2), he awaits Happy Saver yet again. And he does so coming off a career-best 101 Beyer Speed Figure after that Suburban Stakes victory at 11.80/1. That was Max Player’s career-best race in many regards: speed figure, quality of vanquished competition and reminder that he did finish third in the 2020 Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes.

Max Player was that 11.80/1 afterthought, because he missed the board in his four previous starts going into the Suburban. He needs to duplicate that effort here to have a chance at beating Happy Saver again.

“It was nice to see him step up again and run to his ability,” said Scott Blasi, trainer Steve Asmussen’s assistant. “This is a logical spot to run him back. He’s done well up here, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Can Forza Di Oro be the Happy Saver of 2021?

Both Happy Saver and Max Player bring name recognition to the proceedings. Yet, neither is the favorite. That would be Forza Di Oro (8/5), who comes in equal parts lightly raced and heavily in form. The 4-year-old son of Speightstown clocked a 101 Beyer en route to an allowance optional claiming win July 21.

That came after trainer Bill Mott gave Forza Di Oro eight months off. That hiatus came after Forza Di Oro registered that same 101 Beyer, capturing the Grade 3 Discovery Stakes at Aqueduct. Even in his first 10-furlong outing, Forza Di Oro’s stalking style may take a back seat if jockey Junior Alvarado sends him early to capitalize on the lack of front-end speed.

Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup/Saratoga

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Forza Di Oro, 8/5 (Junior Alvarado/Bill Mott)
  2. Max Player 5/2 (Ricardo Santana Jr./Steve Asmussen)
  3. Chess Chief, 15/1 (Luis Saez/Dallas Stewart)
  4. Happy Saver, 9/5 (Irad Ortiz Jr./Todd Pletcher)
  5. Night Ops, 5/1 (Manny Franco/Brad Cox)
  6. Forewarned, 50/1 (Sonny Leon/Uriah St. Lewis)

“I’ve been pleased with his works, visually,” Mott said about his 3-for-3 charge. “He’s indicating that he needs to be tried in that good company.”

The pick: Forza Di Oro. He has the speed to run with Happy Saver and if he manages to shake his rival, could go gate-to-wire. The speed answers the bump-in-class question and Mott said he can handle the 10 furlong distance. Include Happy Saver on your multi-race tickets, but keep an eye on Night Ops (5/1) for down-ticket exotics. He likely won’t win here; he’s 6-for-24 lifetime, but has a good chance to fill out your trifecta.