By several hours, the Hopeful Stakes get the honor of being the first Grade 1 of the year for 2-year-old males. That means it gives horseplayers the first glimpse of possible 2022 Kentucky Derby contenders.

Wit-Hopeful Stakes
Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. salutes Wit after piloting the 2-year-old to an eight-length Sanford Stakes victory in July. Wit is the 7/5 favorite to win the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes on Saratoga’s Monday closing card. (Image: Janet Garaguso/Coglianese Photos)

In this edition of the 117-year-old, seven-furlong sprint on Saratoga’s closing day, you get 11 colts, geldings, and ridglings all trying to follow in the hoofprints of Native Dancer, Buckpasser, Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, Affirmed, Afleet Alex, and Shanghai Bobby, among other winners.

That includes the race record holder, doubling as last year’s winner, Jackie’s Warrior. He covered the seven furlongs in 1:21.29.

At the same time, when it comes to Triple Crown contenders, Jackie’s Warrior comes with his own cautionary tale. He illustrated that two turns was one turn too far when it came to blazing a path on the Kentucky Derby trail. Jackie’s Warrior stumbled against true routers like Essential Quality, retreating to one turn, where he’s thrived.

Flexibility, time, patience are key handicapping tools

This means keeping a flexible mentality when it comes to sifting through what you’ll see in this year’s Hopeful. And in this case, it means keeping your eyes on the colt everyone is watching, 7/5 favorite Wit.

A product of 2016 Hopeful winner Practical Joke, Wit comes into the seven-furlong Saratoga sprint 2-for-2. Those two wins came by a combined 14 lengths, a number burnished by his eight-length dismantling of the Grade 3 Sanford Stakes field earlier this summer. That came with a 90 Beyer Speed Figure that co-leads this field.

“Wit is doing great. He’s been pointing for this since the Sanford and, except for having to make some minor adjustments around the rain, everything has gone according to plan,” trainer Todd Pletcher told the New York Racing Association. “We’re looking forward to getting him going again.”

Wit’s tactical speed overcomes gate issues

Wit came with a $575,000 price tag at the 2020 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Pletcher said he comes with the qualities that make a good router.

“He’s not real quick from the gate, but he’s got enough tactical speed to put himself in a good position,” said Pletcher, who won three Hopefuls between 2006 and 2014. “He’s got a really strong turn of foot. It will be up to (jockey) Irad (Ortiz Jr.) to work out a trip and time his move.”

Shanghai Bobby gave Pletcher that 2012 Hopeful title. Competitive Edge gave the newly minted Hall of Fame trainer the 2014 title. He also doubles as the last favorite to win the Hopeful.

Pushing Wit along is another Pletcher charge, Power Agenda (10/1). The son of Nyquist comes into the Hopeful off a gate-to-wire, six-furlong win on Aug. 14 at Saratoga.

High Oak could give Wit some Hopeful company

“Wit has the advantage of having a couple of starts. He deserves the chance to step up. I think the way Wit finished up going six furlongs, you would think seven would be no problem,” Pletcher said. “Power Agenda was game in his own start and he should be able to handle the distance.”

The other 90 Beyer in the field came from High Oak (5/2). That came at the Aug. 14 Grade 2 Saratoga Special, where the son of Gormley blew past Hopeful rival Gunite by 4 ¼ lengths. That came seven weeks after he broke his maiden at first asking on June 26 at Belmont Park.

As for Gunite (8/1), the son of Gun Runner already owns four starts. He’s 1-2-1 in those starts, showing early quickness in that Saratoga Special. His 21.82-second opening quarter-mile and 44.93 opening half-mile illustrate the front-running speed we should see.

Asmussen hoping for a three-peat

Should Gunite hit the wire first, trainer Steve Asmussen will get his third consecutive Hopeful title. He won last year’s race with Jackie’s Warrior and the 2019 edition with Basin. A Gunite victory would also give leading freshman sire Gun Runner his first Grade 1 winner.

One other candidate bears watching: Defend (6/1). He gets leading rider Luis Saez and confidence from winning his one and only start by eight lengths. That came in an Aug. 5 maiden special weight at Delaware Park as the 4/1 third-favorite.