On Track with Johnny D: One for the Books

Travers Day 2016 didn’t have to be special. The stage was set for a memorable afternoon, but, as we all know, hype often outraces performance.

The NFL’s Super Bowl is a national obsession, theoretically matching the two best football teams in the world. That, however, doesn’t guarantee an entertaining game. How many times in history has the Super Bowl game actually held your interest beyond commercials, nachos, wings and brews?

A recent trend at racetracks, especially NYRA establishments, is to make big days bulge like Christmas morning stockings stuffed with as many graded stakes races as possible. The 2016 Travers-day card is an excellent example. On an extensive 13-race card there were six graded stakes—five Grade 1s and a Grade 2. An embarrassment of racing riches like that ought to produce a memorable afternoon.

Not necessarily.

Graded stakes races normally are about as thrilling as watching summer heat brown the lawn. Favorites, who win a high percentage of those races, gallop home on top, followed home by second choices. Yawn!

If graded stakes races often are boring affairs, stacking them like pancakes on a plate at IHop ought to produce an afternoon as compelling as the Broncos February rout of the Panthers. Remember that one? It was over after the fist quarter. Ho-hum.

Not so fast, backstretch breath.

This Travers-day card was different, proving an exception to the rule. It was one for the books. From start to finish. One intriguing race followed another. Even in the Grade 1, five-filly Personal Ensign drama reigned as four runners all finished within one length. Cavorting, at just less than 5/2 odds, closed from last to win. She now has won graded stakes at ages 2, 3 and 4!

The Grade 1 Ballerina stage belonged to Haveyougoneaway, a New York-bred trained by Tom Morley (Mr. Maggie Wolfendale). The result emphasized that Haveyougoneaway is a force to be reckoned with outside of restricted races. Ballerina proceedings fell apart a bit as heavily favored Carina Mia failed to show up, so the jury’s still out on the overall strength of the race.

The Grade 1 King’s Bishop, always an interesting gathering of 3-year-old sprinters, got an added boost this year when Mohaymen, early favorite for the 2016 Kentucky Derby, cut back to seven furlongs for trainer Kiaren McLaughlin. California-based trainer Bob Baffert shipped a pair of runners east for the race–Jazzy Times and Drefong. Early workout reports suggested that both were doing well, particularly ‘Times. Unfortunately, that colt grabbed himself while training and was forced to scratch. Drefong, breaking from the advantageous outside post position, was left to represent the Baffert barn. He did so in sterling fashion, taking the early lead and never letting anyone within shouting distance. Look for him and Jazzy Times to make noise in the sprint division from here to Breeders’ Cup and beyond.

Not to be outdone by a wet-behind-the-ears sophomore, A. P. Indian struck a blow for mature sprinters when he dominated the Grade 1 Forego in the very next race. Speed figure gurus probably were elated to see two Grade 1, seven-furlong sprints carded in back-to-back races on an afternoon’s card. That doesn’t happen very often. By comparison, A.P. Indian ran a faster final time than Drefong, but not by a lot. The latter won by a larger margin and was in command the entire trip, so it’s difficult to say who was more dominant. They ought to meet on the track soon enough and perhaps Jazzy Times will join them then, too.

On paper, the Grade 1 Sword Dancer figured to be one of those run-of-the-mill, seven-runner, turf tests that the prohibitive favorite promptly turns into a handsomely paid gallop. Concerned about a possible lack of early pace in the race, Juddmonte Farms (non de course for Prince Khalid bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia), owner of favorite Flintshire, also entered longshot Inordinate as a ‘rabbit’ to keep things honest up front.

Jockey Aaron Gryder and Inordinate did what they were supposed to—keep the pace as honest as a judge. Jockey Javier Castellano aboard Flintshire, was in a gambling mood. Instead of directing the 1-5 favorite to the outside, around the field, Castellano hugged the rail like a hoop on a barrel. Turning for home, opposing jocks licked chops. They had the favorite right where they wanted him—like Jack, trapped in a box.

Fortunately for the favorite, the horse blocking the road directly in front of him was none other than fading stable-mate Inordinate. Castellano desperately dialed 911 to Gryder. The latter whipped his head left, recognized his stable-mate’s plight and immediately angled his mount out and away from the rail. Flintshire and Castellano immediately hit the opening like Moses and Israelites through the parted Red Sea.

There’s no doubt the best horse won the Sword Dancer. In fact, Flintshire clearly has demonstrated that he’s the best distance turf horse in these United States. What concerns some fans and gamblers, though, is Inordinate’s role in the race as an uncoupled Juddmonte entry. For their part, the stewards examined the colt’s outward lane shift, but correctly found no infraction worthy of disqualification. However, the question lingers: Were wagers on Inordinate compromised because his role in the race was to act as sacrificial lamb for the favorite and not as a potential winner?

The whole ‘coupled’ versus ‘uncoupled’ entry argument has been around a long time and there’s no simple resolution. Specific rules governing entries vary from state to state, but basically here’s how they work: Coupled entries are presented as single wagering interests when owned or trained, wholly or in part, by the same person. Uncoupled entries race as separate and distinct wagering interests despite any affiliation between owner and trainer with any other horse in the race.

Tracks want uncoupled entries because they contribute at least one more live equine body to the race that can attract wagering dollars. Sometimes, as in the case of a possible three or four-horse coupled entry, uncoupling those runners represents a significant increase in field size and handle.

When it comes to the coupling or uncoupling question, horseplayers feel very strongly both ways. In the case of coupled entries, players complain when what would have been the bigger-priced runner in the coupled entry wins. Their reasoning, of course, is that if the horses had been uncoupled gamblers would have earned more for their investment.

With coupled entries players also complain when one-half of the entry is a late scratch and the other half then is forced to race ‘for purse money only.’ This is particularly irksome when it occurs in the middle of a pick N sequence as players are forced to live and die with a horse they don’t want.

However, on the other side of the coin, in the case of uncoupled entries, horseplayers are forever unhappy when a trainer starts two runners in a race and the longer-price wins. That seems to happen a lot, but raw stats suggest otherwise.

Personally, I detest coupled entries and see no valid reason for them. If larceny is what coupling supporters want to avoid then the stewards can handle violations as they occur.

Juddmonte was justified in using Inordinate as a rabbit. Gryder, too, was correct to allow Flintshire through along the rail because Inordinate was finished. In the stretch, stable-mate or not, jocks aboard vanquished runners should safely clear the way for others with full heads of steam. Let the best man/beast win!

The afternoon’s final graded stakes race featured the impossible return of Lady Eli, an unbeaten champion 4-year-old filly that survived against all odds in a fierce fight with laminitis. Since laminitis loses about as often as Usain Bolt, the fact that Lady Eli is alive is a miracle. That she can walk unbelievable. That she raced competitively in a graded stakes race for the first time out in over a year is a tribute to modern veterinary medicine, the Chad Brown stable and Lady Eli.

If life were a Disney production Lady Eli would have won the Ballston Spa. It’s not, and she didn’t. She finished second, by less than a length to longshot Strike Charmer in an amazing and uplifting performance.

Alert readers will note that this recap skipped the Travers; nothing like saving the best for last.

Those who think Bob Baffert returned to Saratoga and the 2016 Travers with Arrogate and American Freedom in search of some sort of redemption for last year’s heartbreaking loss in the race by American Pharoah don’t know much about horse racing. That was then and this is now–different horses, owners and circumstances. $1.25 million in fresh purse money, too. Hall of Fame trainers don’t do redemption. They’re all about winning the next big race and need it like air. Races with lots of zeroes in the purse amounts are best. Forget redemption. Baffert brought Arrogate and American Freedom to Saratoga because he thought either one could win the race.

Turns out he couldn’t have been more right. They finished first and second.

By now, you probably know that Arrogate demolished the Travers field by more than 13 lengths. He went fast early and even faster late—something horses rarely manage to do, especially 3-year-olds running a mile and one-quarter at Saratoga in the Travers Stakes. So rare was Arrogate’s performance that no sophomore, in the 147-year history of the race, ever ran as fast as Arrogate did Saturday. No horse of any age or sex ever has run as fast at that distance at that track. That’s saying something!

The performance compelled applause and huzzahs, even as the result knocked many out colder than a Marciano right…out of the pick six, pick four, exacta, trifecta and superfecta pools and sent them on dejected walks of shame toward Spa ATM machines.

Gambling’s one thing and witnessing racing history is another.

What kind of horse is Arrogate? That is the $64 question…which, adjusted for inflation, nowadays is worth around $640.

Let’s examine the evidence: Arrogate is a 3-year-old colt that defeated a pair of foes going a mile and one-sixteenth in a ‘non-winners of two other than’ at Del Mar in his fourth career start. He then shipped across country to meet 11 foes in the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes at a mile and one-quarter over a racetrack infamous for tarnishing legends. Arrogate not only wins the race by more than 13 lengths, but runs the final quarter-mile faster than the first and also demolishes both a 147-year stakes mark and a track record!

As Clarice Starling replied when asked to described Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, “They don’t have a name for what he is.”

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: One for the Books

On Track with Johnny D |