It goesso quickly. Has it really been six weeks since the Saratoga meet started and here we are with just three days left of the 2014 Saratoga Race Course season? It has been a good meet; the quality of racing has been great, the weather, though not as hot as last year has been very good, and the crowds, despite the raise in admission price have been stellar. There were 45,657 for the Travers, but perhaps more impressive was the 40,500 on Alabama day the week before.
What most people forget is that the horse racing gets better AFTER the Saratoga meet. Of course, most of us go back to our regular lives and those 35,000 person crowds on a Saturday at Saratoga become 5,500 at Belmont, but the Belmont fall meet is great and the racing improves as horses prepare for the Breeder’s Cup, set for October 31 and November 1 at Santa Anita.
That said, this year’s Travers was another great race. For the third straight year, the race was won in the shadow of the wire. Last year, Will Take Charge nipped Moreno and in 2011 nobody was nipped as Golden Ticket and Alpha dead-heated for the title. This year, it looked like Wicked Strong had the race put away with a sixteenth to go, but the late rallying VE Day was able to nip the Wood Memorial and Jim Dandy winner by a nose. Both colts are trained by Jimmy Jerkens and it certainly was an emotional weekend for him. A day earlier, he accepted the Red Jacket of Honor for his father, 86 year old H. Allen Jerkens, the Hall of Famer who still trains horses. The elder Jerkens has two great nicknames; “The Chief, and my favorite, “The Giant Killer,” which was given to him after he trained Onion to an upset victory over Secretariat at the Spa in 1973.
Naturally, Jerkens was excited to win the Travers for the second time (2010 Afleet Express), but in his interviews, you could sense that he felt bad for runner-up Wicked Strong. In some ways, it’s like asking a father with two daughters, who his favorite is. If it were up to Jerkens, he probably would have put his two colts in different races, but when the owners—your employer—say they want to run in the Travers, you have to run in the Travers.
There were ten horses in the Travers and going forward, it’s fairly easy to say that we’ll see Wicked Strong, VE Day, and Tonalist gearing towards the Breeder’s Cup Classic. As for the rest of the three year olds, it remains to be seen where they will run and what they will run. Fourth place finisher Kid Cruz came up lame with a chipped bone in his knee so his 2014 season is done but trainer Linda Rice hopes to have “the Kid,” ready for a four old campaign in 2014. Had Kid Cruz stayed healthy it would be have been interesting to see where his next race would have been. After winning some lower graded stakes races, he was third in the Jim Dandy and fourth in the Travers, but was that good enough to stay in Grade I company? We’ll never know now, and success in 2015 is far from guaranteed.
Mr. Speaker was fifth and trainer Shug McGaughey is one of the best at reading a horse and knowing where to race him. I’m not sure Mr. Speaker is of Breeder’s Cup quality, but I expect to see him in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on September 27 at Belmont. If he runs well there, look out. Viva Majorca, Charge Now, and Ulanbator finished sixth, seventh and eighth and I’d be surprised to see them run in graded one company any time soon. All three could run in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby on September 20 at Parx near Philadelphia. The purse is good and the recovery time is adequate. Of course, they would be facing the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, California Chrome, but this will be Chrome’s first race since the Belmont and because of that, there’s no reason to be scared.
Commanding Curve finished ninth for trainer Dallas Stewart and the Travers proved that CC’s second place finish in the Kentucky Derby was nothing more than a fluke. He hasn’t done anything to warrant continued entries in Grade I races, so I’d be surprised to CC in any big races in the future. Bayern was last despite setting the fractions and leading at the top of the top of the stretch. He is a very good horse, and he was a dominant winner in the Grade I Haskell, where he led from wire to wire. The question after that terrific effort was could he get the 1 ¼ mile distance and was the Monmouth Park race course so speed favoring that it tainted the win. It’s safe to say that it’s probably a little bit of both and one has to think that Bayern will be pointed to Breeder’s Cup Mile . This is a dangerous colt at seven furlongs and a mile and he has some good races left in him, and Bob Baffert will make the right decisions.
The day after the Travers, the Pacific Classic was run at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in California and was won in an eye popping performance by Shared Belief. Still undefeated, Shared Belief ran the 1 ¼ miles in 2:00.28 and put up a whopping Beyer figure of 115. I don’t put much stock in Beyer figures; they’re nice for handicappers, but it’s about how you look, run and place and Shared Belief was the class of the field. Second place finisher Toast of New York ran very well and to me, only those two emerged from the race as fall season contenders. Shared Belief was injured at the beginning of the year and thus, couldn’t run in the Triple Crown races, but that’s not always a bad thing. It’s very difficult to have a three year old run the Triple Crown races and carry that out to the end of the year; you almost have to decide to go January-June or July-December. For Shared Belief the decision was made for him because of the injury, but we’ll eagerly await the California showdown between Shared Belief and California Chrome.
The only negative was that the Pacific Classic was run on synthetic, which is still a mysterious, puzzling surface. Even though it’s proven to be a safer surface, the purists scowled so loudly that tracks that installed it are removing it and next year, Del Mar will have a dirt surface. As I mentioned months ago, they either all had to switch or not switch or getting all tracks to switch was never going to happen. Shared Belief did win the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile on dirt at Santa Anita, so there’s no doubt that the colt can handle that surface.
The stage is set for the fall and the fall season will be dandy. In September, we’ll see the return of California Chrome as he prepares for the Pennsylvania Derby on the 20th and from there, the race to the Breeder’s Cup will be on in full force.
Until next time.