As we reach the halfway point of the Saratoga season, it is safe to say that the first half has been scintillating. The Jim Dandy and Whitney Handicap were much anticipated this year and the Travers, the marquee event of the meet is just 19 days away. What have we seen thus far?
People have different reasons why they like horse racing. Most people want to win money by betting, which everybody can understand. Frankly, it’s the bettors that keep the sport going, and things like 10 cent superfectas and pick sixes have certainly enhanced the betting experience. Others just enjoy the beauty of the animals while others love the speed. For me, it’s the tactics, the fractions, the pace and the strategy of the race that excites me. The old saying, “pace makes the race,” is very relevant to me. Maybe, that’s because I’m an old broken down distance runner, who had to come up with a race plan for each and every race. When it comes to pace, the best racing in the land is in New York, where the winning times are usually much better than the other tracks across the country.
The Whitney Handicap was one of the races which makes you adore horse racing if you, like me, follow the pace of a race. In that race, there were two speed horses, Cross Traffic and Fort Larned. Both are very good horses, speed horses who like to be on or near the lead. Fort Larned won the Breeder’s Cup Classic last year, and came into the Whitney as the defending champion. In his previous race, he won the Stephen Foster Handicap by setting the pace and wiring the field. He won by six lengths and made it look easy.
Cross Traffic is also a front runner who likes to be on the lead. His last race came on Memorial Day, when he led for .999 miles in the Metropolitan Handicap, aka the Met Mile at Belmont Park. He was nosed out by Sahara Sky, by an agonizing inch or two.
The strategy was set. Two speed horses, two horses who like to be on the lead. The one real question concerned Cross Traffic; could he get the distance of 1 1/8 miles? For Fort Larned, it was a never a question, but because Cross Traffic was nudged out in a mile race, there were some legitimate concerns in his camp, and they were echoed by histrainer, Todd Pletcher.
When the race began, Fort Larned was rated as Cross Traffic did his thing and went to the lead. Tactically, for Fort Larned, this proved to be a mistake. Even though he sat near Cross Traffic, keeping him back, even slightly, tired him out. When it was time to run, Fort Larned didn’t have it and faded to fourth. Cross Traffic proved getting the distance was not a problem, and despite darting to the right in the final 100 yards was much the best in 1:47 and change. As a race it was disappointing because it appeared that trainer Ian Wilkes outsmarted himself by not letting Fort Larned get the lead. We don’t want to be too simplistic here, but as I watched the race, I yelled at the TV, screaming “let him run.”
Fort Larned will be back. He is too good of a horse not to be. In fact, he ran a clunker in the race before the Foster, then dominated there. He is certainly capable of coming back and coming back strong. I would think he would be a great candidate for the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont this fall, and then it would be off the Santa Anita to see if he can defend his Breeder’s Cup Classic title.
Cross Traffic ran a brilliant race. He set an easy pace of 24.17 and 47.96, and ran an impressive third furlong, reaching six in 1:10.24. Pletcher certainly had him in peak form after the Met Mile. We know Pletcher won’t run him in the Travers, as he likes to give his horses nice long breaks between races. He will be intriguing to watch this fall as the Breeder’s Cup gets closer. If he runs well in his next start, he will be a live wire come November and the only question would be the distance of 1 1/4 miles. But, this is a lightly raced colt whose best race may still be in the offing.
As the Travers nears, the favorite will be and should be Verrazano, who has dominated in his two races since the Triple Crown. He won the Haskell prep race, the Pegasus Stakes, then blew away the field in the Haskell. He ran well before the Kentucky Derby, then slogged to a 14th place finish there, but he certainly has regained his form at the right time. Palice Malice is also in great form, proving in the Jim Dandy that his Belmont Stakes win was no fluke. Oxbow, the Preakness champ, sprained an ankle in the Haskell and likely will wait to the fall before racing again. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas can use the ankle as a legitimate excuse, but he looked tired in the race and even with a healthy ankle wasn’t going to beat Verrazano on that day.
Quick Hitters: Uncaptured won the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, running 1:55.89 in the 1 3/16 mile Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie (Ontario) Race Track. The race took place on Tuesday, July 30, and went off at 7:45 pm, an unusual time for a $500,000 stake race. But, give the track credit. With Saratoga and Del Mar dark, the hard core racing fan took note and 10,000 fans came to the track to see the race. It was a miracle that the race even took place. Fort Erie was supposed to close after 2012. The obituaries were written, the memorials had taken place, but the old track (which I’ve been to several times) got a stay of execution and the race became a reality for 2013. I will hold out hope that Uncaptured, the son of 2004 Kentucky Derby runner-up Lionheart might show up at the Travers, but don’t hold your breath.
Harness racing doesn’t get a lot of love these days, but we’ll give it some here by saluting Royalty for Life for winning the most prestigious race there is for trotters, the Hambletonian, which carried a $1 million purse at Meadowlands Racetrack last Saturday. Give the trotters credit. The organizers went back to the old elimination style, meaning that Royalty for Life had to run twice in one day by qualifying for the final, then running the final. I wonder what Todd Pletcher thinks of that?