Triple Crown races are an extremely enticing lure for horsemen.
Yet for a wise, experienced trainer like Shug McGaughey, avoiding a Triple Crown race to point for a mid-summer gem such as the Runhappy Travers Stakes was much easier now than it might have been a couple of decades ago for the 68-year-old Hall of trainer.
“I couldn’t have done this years ago,” McGaughey said. “One of the lessons I learned from Orb [the 2013 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands winner] is that I made a mistake. I had to run him in the Preakness, I shouldn’t have run him in the Belmont Stakes. That always went through my head afterwards.”
Orb never won a race after the Kentucky Derby and the lesson learned back then came to the fore Aug. 24. McGaughey stuck to a plan he devised in May and was rewarded with a fourth win in the Travers Stakes as William S. Farish’s Code of Honor and jockey John Velazquez posted a three-length victory over favored Tacitus in the 150th edition of the “Mid-summer Derby” before a crowd of 48,213 at Saratoga Race Course that helped build a record Travers Day all-sources handle of $52,129,344.
“We wanted to have a summer horse, and this where I wanted to be and where we got it,” McGaughey said after winning the centerpiece of the Saratoga meet for the first time since 1998 and tying Elliot Burch for second on the list of all-time Travers victories with four.
It didn’t take McGaughey long to pivot from spring to summer as immediately after the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes winner was elevated to second in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, he ruled out the Preakness and Belmont Stakes and circled the Travers on his calendar.
Using a victory in the Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes July 6 at Belmont Park as the homebred son of Noble Mission’s lone prep, he trained Code of Honor with expert precision during the ensuing seven weeks and came into the Travers with a horse that gave him an unusual amount of confidence.
“I was confident that he had a big chance. I had about as much confidence today as I have had in a long time,” he said. “I was confident I couldn’t have done a better job than I had done. It was the best I could do.”
Needless to say, the best that McGaughey could do was good enough to provide the 80-year-old Farish with his first Travers win.
“He was someone we’ve been hoping for,” Farish said about Code of Honor.
Whether the Travers is enough to crown Code of Honor as the champion 3-year-old male is a lively debate, especially with Maximum Security, the disqualified Kentucky Derby winner, and 2-year-old champion Game Winner, missing the 1 ¼-mile classic. Yet Code of Honor certainly boosted his stock in the summer’s premier stakes for the division.
“Everybody still has some work to do, but I don’t see how anybody can be above him. His race record is pretty darn good,” McGaughey said about the winner of three of six starts in 2019 who was second in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes as a 2-year-old.
The lack of a clear-cut leader in the 3-year-old division was reflected in the bulky field of 12 that turned out for the Travers.
While there was little shock about Tacitus being the 2.40-1 favorite, there was some surprise in the early stages. Equipped with blinkers for the first time by trainer Bill Mott, Juddmonte Farms’ normally late-running homebred Tapit colt took the early lead after an opening quarter-mile in :23.11 while Code of Honor was content to bide his time in ninth.
“Really, we thought they’d go ahead and clear us. We thought that Mucho Gusto, Tax [seventh], they’d clear us, and Looking At Bikinis [11th], we thought might clear us,” Mott said. “We made the choice beforehand to go ahead and try and get him in the race, let him break and if they want to try to outrun you, make them work for it a little bit.”
As the field turned onto the backstretch, it was TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes runner up Mucho Gusto who took the lead by a length with Tacitus settling into second on the rail with Jim Dandy Stakes winner Tax alongside him.
As the field reached the quarter-pole, Tacitus and Mucho Gusto were locked in a battle for the lead after a mile in 1:35.49.
They stayed together to the eighth pole when Code on Honor arrived on the scene outside them. After rallying about eight wide, Farish’s homebred rushed past the dueling leaders and drew off to cross the finish line in 2:01.05 and pay $10.80 to win while giving Noble Mission, a Lane’s End stallion, his first Grade 1 winner.
“I never had any doubts about distance as a problem, just him putting his mind to running. Today, I made sure, when I got him out to the clear, he responded right away, so I was very happy for him. Obviously, we’ve been looking for this kind of performance for a long time. He’s a [May] foal, not really knowing what to do [even though he’s] run some really big races. He’s never really put it together until today,” Velazquez said after his second Travers score.
Tacitus, who was moved up to third in the Kentucky Derby and a wide second in the Belmont, bested Mucho Gusto for the place by a half-length, adding another runner-up finish to his 2019 resume that now includes two wins, three seconds and a third in six starts.
“Hey, the winner came running,” Mott said. “I had one eye on the winner and one eye on mine. It looked like there was a good chance we were going to outduel Mucho Gusto, but the winner, I mean he rolled by pretty fast.
“No excuses. Looking back, I don’t know what else we could have done.”
Michael Lund Petersen’s Mucho Gusto, trained by Bob Baffert, settled for third, 1 ¼ lengths ahead of Godolphin’s Endorsed.
“The plan was to have a summer horse,” the winning trainer said. “I didn’t want to take a chance and mess that up.”
As you might expect from Shug McGaughey, he didn’t.
Personal Ensign Stakes Presented by Lia Infiniti: There are times when equine matchups like Elate vs. Midnight Bisou fail to live up to the hype, especially in a setting like Saratoga, where championship dreams can quickly come to an end.
Yet on the afternoon of the 150th edition of the Travers, the two distaff stars put on a show as good as two horses possibly could as they crossed the finish line together at the end of the 1 1/8 miles in the $700,000 Personal Ensign Stakes, a “Win and You’re In” race for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
As onlookers collectively held their breath and waited for the photo finish camera to decide the winner, Jeff Bloom, one of Midnight Bisou’s owners, was putting on a brave front while his stomach was moving around like a rollercoaster.
“I passed out internally three times waiting for the photo,” said Bloom, whose Bloom Racing Stable owns Midnight Bisou along with Sol Kumin’s Madaket Stables and Allen Racing. “I thought she got the bob because this filly knows how to win.”
Indeed, she does.
As much as the multiple Grade 1-winning Elate and jockey Jose Ortiz seemed headed for victory when she forged to the front at the top of the lane, Midnight Bisou and jockey Mike Smith moved up from last in the field of six and launched a furious stretch drive to move within a head of Elate at the eighth pole.
“It was unbelievably exciting,” said Steve Asmussen, who trains Midnight Bisou. “They both came into the stretch with a lot of horse. You could tell how confident Jose was when he came into the stretch, and you knew they were going to lock up.”
What happened in that final furlong merits inclusion in a time capsule as Midnight Bisou, a 4-year-old Midnight Lute filly, and Elate, a homebred 5-year-old Medaglia d’Oro mare, courageously battled to the wire, with Elate seeming to hold an edge until the last stride when Midnight Bisou prevailed by a nose.
“It was a fight to get by Elate. She’s a champion in her own right,” said Smith, who dedicated the win to Carmen Barrera, the New York Racing’s Association’s longtime director of horsemen’s relations who passed away this month. “With the extra pounds [Midnight Bisou gave Elate four pounds], it took a bit to get her going, but when she did, I was happy I had the mile and an eighth.”—Bob Ehalt
The 6-year-old son of Temple City’s impressive turn of foot was on full display for the Saratoga audience as he rallied six wide in the lane to win the $850,000 Sword Dancer Stakes by a neck.
“When he tipped out, I thought we had a good chance because he has a really good, strong closing kick,” Brown said. “But it was a little tight near the finish. I’m glad he got up in time.”
“He’s a good horse. I don’t know if I’ve seen a horse that, no matter if the pace is slow or fast, he always finishes really well,” Castellano said. “I’m very proud of him. Some horses have to have pace in the race but this horse doesn’t need one.
“You can see the pace was very slow, but he still responded and passed all the horses. I took my time. It’s a mile and a half and it’s the first time he’s gone a mile and a half. You don’t want to rush it to be close to the pace. I rode with a lot of patience and it paid off today.”—Meredith Daugherty
The 5-year-old daughter of Malibu Moon broke a step behind and chased four rivals early as Separationofpowers and Mia Mischief dueled for the advantage in the seven-furlong sprint. But jockey Javier Castellano immediately got 3-5 choice Come Dancing back into the game, and the dark bay mare galloped up to third as the half went in :45.86 after a :23.31 quarter.
“When I saw her just sit out there in third, I said, ‘She’s so comfortable,’ ” said trainer Carlos Martin. “When she gets into that comfortable rhythm, it means she has a lot left coming back.”
When the front-runners began to tire, Come Dancing easily took control at the head of the lane and increased her advantage to 3 ½ lengths at the finish line. Dawn the Destroyer was second, and Special Relativity finished third behind a final time of 1:21.48.—Claire Crosby
H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes Presented by Runhappy: In a dramatic photo finish involving three horses, Mind Control was declared the victor by a nose over a stout-closing Hog Creek Hustle and Shancelot in the $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes.
The 3-year-old son of Stay Thirsty is perfect in two starts at the Spa, having won last year’s Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes while on the front end. John Velazquez gave him a stalking trip in the Jerkens, and he cut through horses late to get the win. The seven furlongs went in 1:21.43.
With Shancelot a strong 3-10 favorite, Mind Control paid $22.80.
Shancelot, by Shanghai Bobby, ran off the screen July 28 in the Grade 2 Amsterdam Stakes, winning by 12 1/2 lengths and getting 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.01. Owned by Ivan Rodriguez, Albert Crawford, and Michelle Crawford, he’s trained by Jorge Navarro.
Perhaps the “Graveyard of Favorites” and an additional half-furlong got the best of him. Dropping a Grade 1 race by two noses should hardly tarnish his speedy reputation.—Evan Hammonds
The 4-year-old son of Eskendereya, widely considered the best sprinter in the land this spring, entered Saturday's race off a third-place finish in the July 27 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at the Spa. He completed the seven furlongs in 1:20.80, just two-fifths of a second off the track record set by Darby Creek Road in August 1978.
The winning time set a stakes record, surpassing the previous record held by A. P. Indian (1:20.99).
“That’s the caliber horse he is,” winning trainer Steve Asmussen said. “It’s great to see him back at the top of his game.”—Evan Hammonds