Beckman shooting for another upset with Sabalenka

Sabalenka won a maiden race at Kentucky Downs last year under Jose Ortiz. Grace Clark

By Tim Wilkin

FRANKLIN, Ky. – (Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023) — For his next trick, trainer Whit Beckman will attempt to light up the tote board at the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs. He has already done it once.

Beckman will saddle Dirico Racing and Breeding’s Sabalenka in the $1 million Dueling Grounds Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on Sunday.

On Thursday, opening day at the seven-day meet, Beckman’s Harlan Estate pulled down a huge upset in the $500,000 FanDuel Tapit Stakes when the 5-year-old gelding won at odds of 37-1.

Sabalenka did not get any respect on the Dueling Grounds Oaks’ morning line as she was dismissed at odds of 20-1 in the full field of 12. Beckman didn’t flinch when he saw the number.

“At Kentucky Downs, you should not care what your odds are,” Beckman said by phone. “That turf course can be an equalizer.”

The 41-year-old Beckman has been training on his own since Sept. 11, 2021. The win with Harlan Estate was his first in a stakes. The former assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher and champion trainer Chad Brown is anxious for another one.

Whit Beckman congratulates Jose Ortiz after Sabalenka’s maiden victory last year at Kentucky Downs. Grace Clark photos

“That’s the plan,” said Beckman, who also had a stint training in Saudi Arabia. “We know (Sabalenka) has run well there before. She likes the long stretch and it looks like she is ready to go.”

Sabalenka is winless in four starts this year but is coming off her best effort, a third in the Christina Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on the turf at Delaware Park July 15.

“I thought it was a pretty solid effort on a soft turf course,” Beckman said. “Since then, we just freshened her up and gave her a few breezes (at the Churchill Downs Training Center. I think we are cycling at the right time. I am excited to bring her there.”

Sabalenka is no stranger to the Kentucky Downs course. She broke her maiden last Sept. 22, winning a $150,000 race by a nose. She has a win, two seconds and two thirds in eight career starts, all of them on the grass.

This will be the first time Sabalenka has started at the 1 5/16 distance.

“She knows the place, she has experience over that turf course and the distance should really suit her running style,” Beckman said.

Although her second career win – an allowance race at Churchill Downs Nov. 22 – came in gate-to-wire fashion, that is not Sabalenka’s preferred running style.

“She wants to come from off it,” Beckman said. “That day at Churchill, (jockey Ricardo) Santana did something, I don’t know what, but he got her geared up early. The pace wasn’t that fast but she was really comfortable in that spot. She is usually slow to begin, but she always has a pretty sustained run. We know if she is anywhere near it at the end, she will keep fighting.”

Sabalenka will be ridden by Declan Cannon for the first time. Cannon was also aboard Harlan Estate on Thursday for Beckman.

“Declan and I have a good thing going,” Beckman said. “We have won some races and he fit with a lot of the horses I train. We have a great back and forth and it seems to work.”

Beckman shooting for another upset with Sabalenka - Kentucky Downs