The 3-year-old ridgling showed how special he is by adding his first Grade 1 triumph on dirt to a Grade 1 triumph on turf in his previous start when he pulled away from Mendelssohn by four lengths in the 149thRunhappy Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
It was the kind of performance that aging Robert LaPenta, part of Catholic Boy’s ownership group, has been yearning to see for decades.
“I’ve been coming to Saratoga since I was 18 years old. I won’t tell you how long ago that was,” LaPenta said. “And this race has always been my dream, even more than the Kentucky Derby. I know a lot of people don’t understand that. The Mid-Summer Derby has always been my dream.”
Trainer Chad Brown is one who understands LaPenta’s sentiments. He grew up in nearby Mechanicville, N.Y., and has targeted the Travers since he began his own operation at the end of the 2007 season. But he spiraled to 0 for 8 in the race of his dreams and has yet to crack the top three after Gronkowski, who went off as the second choice, ran eighth, and favored Good Magic a dull ninth.
Bravazo, second in the Preakness Stakes and Betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes, rallied for third. Wonder Gadot, the first filly to compete in Saratoga’s signature race since Davona Dale ran fourth as a beaten favorite in 1979, faded to last in the field of 10. Catholic Boy completed the 1 ¼-mile distance in 2:01.94.
Good Magic, known for breaking sharply, got off slowly this time for regular rider Jose Ortiz on a fast track that has been playing to speed. “We wanted him no worse than third. That’s his running style, and especially given the way the track bias has been,” Brown said. “When he didn’t get there, I didn’t feel very good about it.”
The Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve runner-up and commanding Haskell Invitational victor never menaced after that start.
Gronkowski, a surprising second in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets in his North American debut and first start on dirt, also was never a factor. He started sluggishly just as he did in the Belmont and spent part of the race tussling with Joel Rosario, his rider. “He got a little rank,” Rosario said. “I was in the back and I wanted him to settle a bit, but he wanted to go forward.”
Catholic Boy could best be described as flawless from the time he warmed up for jockey Javier Castellano, a Travers winner for the sixth time. The versatile 3-year-old was noticeably aggressive before the race and he carried that energy into the contest.
The More Than Ready ridgling sat coolly off front-running Mendelssohn before responding with a powerful kick to take control at the three-sixteenths pole.
“When I saw him still traveling nicely to the three-eighths pole, I thought we were golden,” said winning trainer Jonathan Thomas, “because that’s where he really starts to get going.”
For as long as LaPenta has been in the game, the two-month whirlwind has been unforgettable. “Take me to church!” he exulted.
In other Grade 1 races on the Travers undercard:
Glorious Empire rattled off his third consecutive victory for trainer James Lawrence, scoring by a length and three-quarters to secure an automatic berth in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf as part of the “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series. He was making only his fourth start for Lawrence. The gelded son of Holy Roman Emperor won for the ninth time in 23 career starts but had run as cheaply as $50,000 in a claiming race last July at Saratoga. “This is my first Grade 1 and we’re going to bask in it,” Lawrence said. “Of course, the Breeders’ Cup is going to be a big option, but we’re going to take it day by day.”
Abel Tasman and jockey Mike Smith withstood a torrid stretch duel with Elate to edge that foe by a neck in a memorable edition of the Personal Ensign, a “Win and You’re In” race for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Abel Tasman also withstood an objection from Jose Ortiz, who was aboard Elate, after the two made contact during the run for home. “She’s just phenomenal,” winning trainer Bob Baffert said. “She just keeps getting better with age and she’s brought us so much satisfaction.” The daughter of Quality Road prevailed for the eighth time in 14 career starts.
Trainer Dale Romans ran one-two with favored Promises Fulfilled and longshot Seven Trumpets. Promises Fulfilled, ridden by Luis Saez, backed up his 3 ¼-length victory in the Grade 3 Amsterdam Stakes with a 1 ¼-length margin here. Promises Fulfilled threw down the gauntlet early and kept going, blazing the seven furlongs in 1:21.44. “These are just two nice horses and getting better and better,” said Robby Albarado, who rode Seven Trumpets.
Whitmore won for the 11th time in 22 lifetime starts in a hard-knocking career marked by extraordinary consistency in this “Win and You’re In” event for the Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Whitmore topped heavily-favored City of Light by a length and a half. “He tries every time,” said winning trainer Ron Moquett. “He’s made a career out of outrunning his trainer, and I just hope he keeps doing it. He’s a cool dude.” Moquett will look to the Grade 2 Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland Race Course as a prelude to the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs.
Marley’s Freedom gained automatic entry in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint with a commanding 3 ¼-length score, her third victory in as many starts since Baffert took over training duties. “The quality is there, and you have to come to Saratoga if you are looking for a championship,” Baffert said. “That is why I bought her, so see how she fits. This is a pretty good field.” Baffert is undecided about giving Marley’s Freedom another start to prep for the Breeders’ Cup.