by Richard Rosenblatt
Let’s try not to get too far ahead of ourselves, not with prominent Grade 1 races such as the Whitney Stakes coming up Saturday at Saratoga Race Course, and the Arlington Million on Aug. 10, and the Pacific Classic on Aug. 17 at Del Mar, among others.
But we can’t help it. Summer racing is all about the $1.25 million Travers Stakes, isn’t it? And it seems to be shaping up to be one of the more intriguing fields in the storied history of the 1 ¼-mile race dubbed the Midsummer Derby.
Does it really matter that none of the three winners of the Triple Crown races will be in the field on Saturday, Aug. 24? Subbing for “official’’ Kentucky Derby winner Country House, Preakness winner War of Will and Belmont Stakes winner Sir Winston likely will be Maximum Security. You know him: He finished first in the Derby but was DQ’d to 17th for interference. But he comes into the Travers with a victory in the $1 million TVG.com Haskell Invitational (G1). Not to mention he’s currently rated the top 3-year-old male.
Out to get him will be not only rivals returning from the Triple Crown trail, but some late rising stars out to prove themselves worthy of champion status.
Let’s start with Tax, a $50,000 claimer who ran beautifully under Irad Ortiz, Jr. and won the $600,000 Jim Dandy (G2) at the Spa on Saturday, cruising past War of Will and defeating Tacitus (who stumbled badly at the break) by three-quarters of a length.
“It’s a wide-open division, he was unfortunate a couple of times,’’ Tax trainer Danny Gargan said of his gelding who finished 14th in the Derby, but has a record of 8-3-2-1 and earnings of $756,000 for owners R.A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Hugh Lynch and Corms Racing Stable. “The Derby was a throw-out race because of the way the break went and the way the track was. If you take the Derby out, he’s run as good as anyone all year. With the right trip and the right situation, he can be right there.”
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert will be back at the Spa with Game Winner as the trainer seeks his fourth Travers victory. Game Winner, last year’s 2-year-old champion, was fifth in the Derby but comes into the Travers with a victory in the Los Alamitos Derby on July 13. He’s earned over $2 million with a record of 8-5-2-0 for owners Gary and Mary West, who also own Maximum Security.
And there’s Code of Honor, Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey’s impressive Dwyer (G3) winner who skipped the Jim Dandy and is training up to the Travers. Code of Honor, you recall, ran third in the Derby but was moved up to second when Maximum Security was DQ’d. Owned by Will Farish, Code of Honor has a record of 7-3-2-1 and earnings of $1.2 million.
We’ll go on and with the field of improving 3-year-olds: Highest Honor, winner of Friday’s Curlin Stakes at the Spa is Travers bound, along with stablemate Looking At Bikinis (third in the Curlin, and both trained by Chad Brown).
Tacitus, who in addition to a second in the Jim Dandy, was third in the Derby and second in the Belmont, will try again in the Travers. Also probable are Owendale, third in the Preakness and winner of the Ohio Derby in his previous start on June 22, Curlin runner-up Endorsed and fourth-place Jim Dandy finisher Laughing Fox. King for a Day, who beat Maximum Security in the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park in June, may also run in the Travers.
While it’s likely Maximum Security, trained by Jason Servis, will be the horse to beat, the betting options are wide open. A bigger question may be who will be the longest shot in the field? The Travers has produced its share of surprises, including, of course, Keen Ice’s stunning upset of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015.
It should be noted that in 2017, the first time since 1982 that the winners of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont all ran in the Travers, the winner was not among them. Baffert’s West Coast pulled off the victory.
Stay tuned. Surely there will be additions and subtractions to the Travers in the next few weeks, but all in all, this could be the race of the year – for 3-year-olds, at least.
Enable outduels Crystal Ocean in a thriller
Speaking of races of the year, or maybe for the ages, Enable nosed out Crystal Ocean after a thrilling stretch duel and won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Group 1) by a neck that had just about everyone at Ascot cheering on the two champions.
Enable’s trainer John Gosden was amazed with the way his filly dug in and pulled out her 11th consecutive victory, nine of them Group 1s.
“You had the best older horse and the best older filly taking on horses with that level of quality, and they outclassed the whole field,” said Gosden. “It was a proper King George — what more could racing have asked for?”
Enable has already won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Group 1) twice, the Oaks (Group 1) three times, the Coral-Eclipse (Group 1), and the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), and according to Gosden has a goal of winning the Arc one more time before being retired.
Even though the King George was a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” event, it’s doubtful Enable will run again the Turf.
And now back to the States, and the Spa. Prior to the running of the Jim Dandy, in which Tax – fourth choice at 9-2 in a field of six – returned $11 on a $2 bet, top sprinter Mitole was upset in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt (G1) and Channel Cat won the Bowling Green (G2).
Imperial Hint: Record-setting Vanderbilt
Imperial Hint wowed the crowd of 34,517 with a record-setting victory over sprint star Mitole in the $350,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt – his second straight win in the Grade 1 Vanderbilt.
With Javier Castellano aboard, the 6-year-old Imperial Hint ($13.60) sat third as Mitole and Strike Power set out for an opening 21.77-second first quarter mile. Making a three-wide move Imperial Hint, blew past the pair after a half-mile and won by four lengths, covering the six furlongs in 1:07.92 – the previous record of 1:08.04 was shared by Spanish Riddle and Speightstown.
“He did it again. It’s very impressive. He did this last year in the same race,’’ said Castellano. It’s unbelievable. He’s a very good horse and I always have a lot of confidence in him. He’s a little horse with a big heart.”
The win put Imperial Hint, a son of Imperialism, over the $2 million earnings mark for owner Raymond Mamone.
Diamond Oops, at 29-1, finished second with Mitole third in the field of six. The Steve Asmussen-trainee came into the Vanderbilt riding a seven-race winning streak, including a victory in the Metropolitan Handicap (G1) last month.
Channel Cat dials in to take Bowling Green
Channel Cat, sent off at 13-1 in a 12-horse field, set the pace and dug in late for his first graded stakes victory – a half-length decision over Ya Primo in the 1 3/8-mile Bowling Green on the turf.
Trainer Todd Pletcher said the next start for the son of English Channel could be the $850,000 Sword Dancer (G1) on Aug. 24, Travers Day. Channel Cat returned $29.20 on a $2 win wager.
Ya Primo, trained by Chad Brown, was a four-time group winner in his native Chile before making his North American debut.
“I never got in front of him. Channel Cat has a lot of heart. It opened up and he got out, but Channel Cat kept going,” said Ya Primo’s jockey Jose Ortiz.
Del Mar: Cistron takes Bing Crosby
The 5-year-old Cistron earned his first Grade 1 victory by taking the $300,000 Bing Crosby, with Victor Espinoza in the irons. The Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In’ race give Cistron a free pass into the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) in November.
Trained by John Sadler, Cistron held off Desert Law by a half-length. Winning time for the six furlongs was 1:09.95.
Next up is uncertain, but Sadler says if Cistron runs again it will be in the $200,000 Pat O’Brien (G2) on Aug. 24.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.