Improbable was surely the operative word in the 93rd and most unusual edition of the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes.
Having perhaps about 100 people watching the race live at Saratoga Race Course was strange enough. Yet in the seconds before the 1 1/8-mile race began and right after the starting gates opened, two events took place that profoundly shaped the outcome.
Shortly after the field of five was loaded into the gate, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. on Improbable could be heard yelling, “No, no, no” at the top of his lungs to stop the starter from opening the gates. A second later, Improbable reared in his stall, a sight often seen in the 4-year-old’s races outside of California.
In the past, Improbable had been his own worst enemy in races such as the Pennsylvania Derby and Preakness Stakes when he lost after being unruly or breaking slowly. Yet this time, with some expert help from the starting gate crew, Improbable quickly calmed down and when the starting gate opened, he departed smoothly and flawlessly.
The same could not be said for the favored Tom’s d’Etat. Though he was a good actor in the gate, the 7-year-old horse and winner of four straight races stumbled leaving the gate under jockey Joel Rosario and came away last.
After that, it was a highly predictable outcome for a horse with a name that conjures up thought of unlikely occurrences.
Without Tom’s d’Etat to press or stalk the pace, Improbable chased a slow pace in second, then took charge with five-sixteenths left and sailed to a two-length victory over By My Standards Aug. 1 in the $695,000 Whitney Stakes to earn a free spot in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic through the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In.”
“Improbable showed up today. It was very impressive. He’s put it all together. He’s one of the prettiest moving horses you’ll see and he was in a great rhythm today,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who won last year’s Whitney with McKinzie and became the first trainer since Scotty Schulhofer in 1994-’95 to register back-to-back wins.
“It was a nice half-hour,” he added, referencing Thousand Words’ win in the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar, which took place shortly before the Whitney.
Improbable’s performance came on the heels of a sharp victory in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup Stakes and allowed the son of City Zip to finally reach the potential he displayed at 2, when he was a Grade 1 winner, and last year at 3, when he was the beaten favorite in both the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and the Preakness Stakes. Back then, he was known around Baffert’s barn as “Little Justify.” Part of that might have stemmed from having similar owners as the Triple Crown winner, yet he was surely as dynamic as his illustrious stablemate Saturday.
“He was always cut out to be a good horse, but he was so immature. Collected was like that,” Baffert said about a Grade 1 winning son of City Zip he trained. “Those City Zips get better when they get older. I train for a great group and they let me take my time with him.”
For that ownership group of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and SF Racing, there were some anxious moments before the race but relative calm during it as Improbable won for just the second time outside of California.
“Obviously, we had to get over the gate [issues] a little bit and Irad and the gate crew did a wonderful job,” WinStar Farm CEO Elliot Walden said. “He’s always got a little blowup in him and then he settles down. He broke great, Irad had him in a super position and felt great all the way around there. Bob had him ready to go, as usual, when he comes east. When he got in the position that we had hoped for, which was kind of tracking Mr. Buff, we felt really good.”
An awkward start coupled with slow fractions basically eliminated G M B Racing’s Tom’s d’Etat from the mix as he came away several lengths behind the field and was six lengths back in last in the small but stellar field of five millionaires after longshot Mr. Buff carved out a dawdling :49.74 opening half-mile.
“He stumbled coming out. There was a lot going on,” Rosario said. “He was standing fine, he just missed the break. The horse to the inside of him was moving a little bit, he was straight, he just stumbled a little bit. It changed my plan because I had to really get riding from there. I couldn’t take my time.
At that point, Improbable and By My Standards, who was third, were poised to blow past the tiring leader, which they did before the quarter pole. From there, Improbable edged away to open a safe three-length lead over By My Standards at the eighth pole.
Third-choice Improbable ($8.50), who opened 2020 with a three-quarters-of-a-length loss to Tom’s d’Etat in the Oaklawn Mile Stakes, traveled the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.65.
Vexatious Earns Breakthrough Grade 1 Win in Personal Ensign
There may not have been any fans, just a smattering of horsemen and licensed owners.
Only a couple of concession stands were open, and despite the gorgeous weather, there was none of the buzz and electricity that could always be felt on Whitney Stakes day at historic Saratoga.
Yet not even the COVID-19 pandemic could change one of the Spa's most famous traditions.
The “Graveyard of Champions” was indeed open for business Aug. 1 as Calumet Farm's Vexatious staged a classic Spa upset by outdueling champion and 3-10 favorite Midnight Bisou to win the $485,000, Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes.
“It's a great win, whether it's at Belmont Park or Belterra Park. It's our first win at Saratoga, so it's cool that it's a Grade 1 with the history behind the race,” said trainer Jack Sisterson, a longtime assistant to Doug O'Neill who claimed his first Grade 1 win since opening his own stable in 2018. “We always thought she had a big win in her, and all credit [goes] to [her]. She always tries 110%.”
The win, which earned Vexatious a Breeders' Cup Challenge spot in the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff, was not without some element of controversy. As Vexatious and jockey Jose Lezcano were battling to stave off Midnight Bisou, they came out about two paths near the eighth pole to move within inches of their rival. As the two mares raced side-by-side and appeared to brush lightly with 40 yards left, Vexatious refused to let Midnight Bisou go by.
The move prompted Ricardo Santana Jr. — who was subbing for Mike Smith on Midnight Bisou due to coronavirus restrictions — to claim foul and stewards called for an inquiry that ultimately left the result unchanged. Replays showed little contact between the two distaff runners, but that, of course, was a matter of perspective.
“We could have gone around one more time and I still would have been in front with my filly,” Lezcano said.
Sisterson was nervous but said, “I didn't think [Vexatious] jeopardized Midnight Bisou's chances of winning the race. She had every chance to go by and couldn't."
Majority owner Jeff Bloom of Bloom Racing Stable said the incident affected Midnight Bisou's momentum at a crucial stage of the race.
“I think it definitely caused a shift in momentum,” said Bloom, who owns the 2019 champion older dirt female in a partnership with Allen Racing and Madaket Stables. “The more I watched the replays, the more I thought we had a chance [to move up via disqualification]. If you watch the head-on [replay], that horse came over and she got bumped at a point where a horse is just starting to dig in and collect themselves.”
For Vexatious, a 6-year-old daughter of Giant's Causeway, it was her first Grade 1 victory and first victory of any type since Oct. 21, 2018, when she was declared the winner of the Rood and Riddle Dowager Stakes. She snapped a streak of nine losses, though her previous start was a highly promising second to another champion, Monomoy Girl, in the July 11 Ruffian Stakes at Belmont Park.