The Carter Handicap is that rare Grade 1 race sitting on an undercard featuring no other Grade 1s. But there it sits, the sixth race on Aqueduct’s Saturday card, almost an afterthought on Wood Memorial Day at the Big A.

Mind Control-Carter
Mind Control owns seven victories and more than $1 million in career earnings. He’s also the only one of the five Carter Handicap entries with a Grade 1 victory. (Image: Susie Raisher)

The $300,000, seven-furlong Carter, however, holds court as the first Grade 1 race on the 2021 New York Racing Association calendar. It sends five horses – some with recognizable names – those seven furlongs in search of a shot at sprinting stardom. Win the Carter and you keep company with the likes of Forego, King’s Bishop, Bold Ruler, race record-holder Artax, Congaree, and last year’s winner, Vekoma.

When Vekoma rolled to a 7 ¼-length victory in the slop last year, he did so at Belmont Park in early June. This year, the Carter moved back to its customary spot on the Wood Memorial undercard. The Wood Memorial was a COVID-19 casualty last year after Aqueduct closed in late March.

The Carter holds its historical chops as the only American Thoroughbred stakes race finishing in a triple dead heat. That happened in 1944, when Brownie, Bossuet, and Wait A Bit crossed the wire at the same time.

Not much digging required in this Carter field

If that happened in this year’s Carter, 60% of the field would be involved. In this small field, three candidates stand out as the anchors for your tickets.

The first is Mischevious Alex, who goes for his third consecutive victory for new trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. He took over for the indicted Jason Servis. Joseph guided Mischevious Alex to a January allowance optional claiming victory and a resounding win in the Grade 3 Gulfstream Park Sprint in mid-February. He recorded his top two career Equibase Speed Figures: a 107 and 108.

“I feel pretty confident with him at six furlongs. He’s won at seven furlongs and he’s won over that track already at a mile,” Joseph told the NYRA. “I like that he’s won on the track, and I think seven furlongs is well within his reach.”

If Mischevious Alex sounds familiar, he should be familiar to Derby watchers. He won the one-turn Gotham Mile last year on a Derby trail dabble. That followed a victory in the Swale Stakes, both Grade 3s.

Mischevious Alex finds trouble in Grade 1s

But, every time Mischevious Alex ventured into Grade 1 company, it didn’t go well. He finished a pedestrian fourth out of five in the Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard, folding in the stretch.

Six weeks later in the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial at Saratoga, Mischevious Alex finished sixth by seven lengths. Again, he had nothing in the stretch.

In both races, Mischevious Alex finished behind multiple-Grade 1-placed Shoplifted. An Into Mischief colt like Mischevious Alex, Shoplifted finished third in both the Woody Stephens and Jerkens. He too, made a Derby trail cameo last year, winning the 2019 Remington Springboard Mile, finishing third in the Smarty Jones, and fourth in the Southwest Stakes, both at Oaklawn Park.

Shoplifted didn’t spring out of Springboard

That Springboard Mile represents Shoplifted’s last victory. He’s 0-for-his-last-6. Again, Shoplifted is one of those horses who’s good against B and B-minus stakes runners, but who has yet to distinguish himself in a Grade 1.

That brings us to Mind Control, the only returner from last year’s Carter. He’s also the only entry with a Grade 1 win on the resume. In Mind Control’s case, three of them. Those came at the 2018 Hopeful Stakes during his 2-year-old season, the 2019 Woody Stephens, and the 2019 Jerkens.

In other words, Mind Control won the two races neither of his competitors could. Yet, the Carter eluded him last year, when he finished a well-beaten sixth. Mind Control opened 2020 winning his first two at Aqueduct, the Toboggan and Tom Fool Handicap, both Grade 3s. That gave him four wins in his five Aqueduct starts.

Can Mind Control cast a spell in this Carter?

Like Shoplifted, Mind Control is 0-for-his-last-6, with no finish better than a third.

Parsing through this year’s Carter makes it clear why it’s a Grade 1 undercard. Understand there is not a Vekoma, Artax, or Congaree coming out of Big A’s gates this year. But New York Grade 1s need to start somewhere, and they’ll get better very quickly as 2021 progresses.