Few races could lose the Kentucky Oaks winner and not miss her very much. That's how loaded Saturday's Grade I Alabama Stakes is.
Even without Believe You Can, whom trainer Larry Jones withdrew because he didn't like how she's been training, the 3-year-old fillies' version of the Travers has three Grade I winners: Questing (Coaching Club American Oaks), Zo Impressive (Mother Goose) and Grace Hall (last year's Spinaway).
"The Coaching Club was a big race, the Kentucky Oaks was a big race, and this is a big race," said Tony Dutrow, who trains Grace Hall. "The Alabama winner will make a bold statement as to the division."
Grace Hall's co-owner is residential real estate developer Michael Dubb, who last year finished one win behind fellow Long Islander Mike Repole for the Saratoga owners' trophy. Dubb, New York's leading owner in 2010, is in the mix at the Spa again, tied with Repole with eight wins. Grace Hall, the 7-5 morning-line favorite, is 5-for-8 with earnings of $1.14 million, and dominated the Grade II Delaware Oaks last month.
"We've chosen this path because she has the experience of being at Saratoga for the whole meet last year," Dutrow said. "We're happy with how she's prepared. I don't feel like we're swimming in uncharted waters."
Not in terms of class, but like her six opponents, the 1 1/4-mile distance of the $600,000 Alabama is a great unknown. None of them has ever gone that far. "I haven't seen her do that yet," Dutrow said, "so I can only be so confident. We're feeling pretty good about it, but until a horse has done something, we're all just taking a real good guess."
Shug McGaughey trains Sea Island (12-1 morning line), the only one that hasn't won a graded stakes. The 61-year-old Hall of Famer has four Alabama victories -- Classy Cathy (1986), Versailles Treaty (1991), Heavenly Prize (1994) and Pine Island (2006) -- and doesn't think he's just taking a stab. Although Sea Island's three wins were in a maiden and two optional claimers, her pedigree (by Pulpit out of a Pleasant Colony mare) suggests she'll handle 10 furlongs. She was bred and is owned by the Phipps Stable, whose black and cherry silks have been gracing Grade I winner's circles since the Seventies.
"She's the type of filly that wants to run that far," McGaughey said, "and some of the others in there may not want to. I think I might be throwing her to the wolves a little quick, but I do think she'll go a mile and a quarter. I think she's going to keep going.
"It's a race with a lot of tradition, and we've had some luck in it. It's a race we want to participate in, and I think we've got a good chance."