On Track With Johnny D: Spa-Tacular

Yours truly is fresh off four days in Saratoga and the trip was…Spa-tacular! It was the 17th time side-kick Will and I have made the trek northward to Saratoga for Travers week. At the conclusion of this year’s sojourn, we both agreed that this was the best ever.

It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what made this trip so wonderful. I suppose it could have been the weather--clear, cool, bright and beautiful with little humidity. A second layer in the morning gave way to shorts and a polo shirt in the afternoon. Clouds floated high against a clear, blue sky—white and fluffy--in stark contrast to the ominous darkness that had invaded the Spa several times earlier this meeting.

Then again, it might have been the company that made this trip so memorable. In the beginning, Will’s pre-teen son Drew would join us. I remember him in the car passing hours in the back seat playing Madden football. An air mattress on the floor of the room sufficed. Afternoons at the track he’d handicap before, understandably, becoming a bit bored. In 2003, the late trainer Wally Dollase, crouched to Drew’s eye-level and touted him, “Make sure to bet my horse tomorrow. He’ll win. But don’t tell your dad.” Ten Most Wanted complied over Peace Rules at $7.50.

As they say, times change. Drew’s now a couple of years out of college and working in D.C. He reunited with us for this season’s Spa trip--minus the air mattress, so his father reserved an extra room. Since Will and I golf very early in the morning, Drew used the time to sleep and to handicap the afternoon’s races. Travers Day the extra work almost paid off big-time. Unfortunately, in the Sword Dancer, leg 4 of a pick 5 wager, he neglected to include favored Annals of Time ($7.10) trained by Chad Brown. It paid over $6,300!

Ouch! I felt so badly for him—like I would for any fellow horseplayer in a similar situation. Good news for Drew is that he’s got plenty of time to recover. The bad news, as every horseplayer knows, is that Drew’s disappointment is merely the first in a very long and wonderful string of agonizing losses interrupted by occasional celebrations.

If neither weather nor company mainly was responsible for the Spa-mazing trip, perhaps it was the racing? I can’t remember a Travers card with more competitive finishes than those that occurred last Saturday.

Despite the absence of a sophomore superstar, the Travers field promised a competitive race. In the end, it was all Code of Honor. Winner of the Dwyer, Fountain of Youth and Kentucky Derby show horse (moved to second via disqualification), Code of Honor stamped himself as a force to be reckoned with going forward. Pre-race there were questions about his ability to effectively cover a mile and one-quarter. They’ve been suitably answered. In the stretch, he ran down California invader Mucho Gusto, who probably prefers shorter, and favored Tacitus, who added blinkers and then raced on and near the early lead. Some horseplayers, finally, may be tired of backing Tacitus, waiting and hoping for him to ‘put it all together.’ The Travers was his big chance to do it and once more he ran well but came up short. He’s now been runner-up in the Belmont, Jim Dandy and Travers, consecutively. Not bad, really.

In the first of six graded stakes races Saturday, Mitole exited stage right in stakes-record time while well clear of runner-up Firenze Fire and others. The former now has established himself as one of the seasons most exciting runners, rectifying a smudge on his resume last out when third in the Vanderbilt. Before that he had won all four 2019 starts. His sophomore season was almost as spectacular when he won four of six starts. The mouth waters a bit to consider a possible BC Sprint collision involving Mitole, Imperial Hint and others.

Come Dancing, a 5-year-old mare that’s now won seven of 12 starts and nearly a million in purses, won the Grade 1 Ballerina as heavy favorite to continue a solid 2019 season that has seen her win three of four, with a second to the talented Midnight Bisou at a mile and one-sixteenth. She’s unbeaten at less than seven furlongs and currently seems at the very top of her game.

The Grade 1 Allen H. Jerkens featured the return of Shancelot, winner of the Spa’s Amsterdam in a jaw-dropping, track record-setting performance. While few figured the soph son of Shanghai Bobby would exceed or even repeat that performance, he clearly figured as the one to beat. And he was…right up until the shadow of the wire when Mind Control and Hog Creek Hustle bested him with Rowayton fourth. Speedy Shancelot surrendered a seemingly insurmountable two and one-half length stretch lead and just missed in an exciting and close finish—a nose, a nose and a neck separated the top four. It’s clear Shancelot is speedy and talented but perhaps seven furlongs is not his ideal trip. Had the race been six furlongs he’d have won easily.

Chad Brown trained the winner of the Grade 2 Ballston Spa at a mile one one-sixteenth for fillies and mares. And in other news…the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl…again. Lately, the question isn’t ‘if’ Brown will win a NYRA graded turf stakes race but rather ‘with which horse?’ The meet’s leading trainer saddled three in the Ballston and got Significant Form, the longest price, home on top at 7-1. A graded stakes winner at two, the daughter of Creative Cause won just a single race at three. She’s now won two graded stakes this year—the Grade 3 Intercontinental at seven panels and the Grade 2 Ballston Spa at a mile and one-sixteenth. It’s not unreasonable to expect to see her win again this year. Indian Blessing was second, Starship Jubilee third, Fifty Five fourth and Conquest Hardcandy fifth—all separated by a neck, a neck, a nose and a neck in another blanket finish.

Fans who thought they had seen close conclusions in the Jerkens and Ballston Spa were further impressed by the finish of the Grade I Personal Ensign at a mile and one-eighth. Elate, under jockey Jose Ortiz, turned into the stretch looking a near certain winner. In racing, unfortunately, nothing is certain until the ‘official.’ Midnight Bisou, moving on the outside, unleashed a determined charge through the lane that steadily gained on the leader. They hit the finish as one. Moments later, only a polaroid could definitively separate them. Midnight Bisou had won her sixth consecutive graded stakes race and Elate had finished behind that foe for the third consecutive time. A stage set for conflict between two perfectly matched foes often disappoints. One or the other lays an egg and the whole thing fizzles out. Not Saturday. ‘Bisou and ‘Elate both gave it all they had. Can’t wait for them to meet again.

Chad Brown saddled Annals of Time to win the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at a mile and one-half on turf--one of three entrants in the race from the multiple Eclipse Award-winning conditioner’s stable. In character with most of the afternoon, Annals of Time won by a mere neck over Sadler’s Joy, a 6-year-old horse and a $2 million earner.

Everyone knows that Chad Brown ‘wins because he gets all the good horses.’ Well, this 6-year-old’s resume serves as evidence as to why ‘he gets all the good horses.’ Annals of Time broke maiden first-out in November of 2015. He made just three starts the next year, finishing first, second and third—annexing the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby. He didn’t start in 2018. This year he’s made three starts—a close second in a mile turf optional/allowance and a nearly five-length at a similar level and the Sword Dancer victory. Point is that it takes a very talented trainer (and patient owner) to produce the way Brown has with Annals of Time.

Clearly, there’s no one particular reason my 2019 Travers trip was Spa-tacular. It was all great. And I can’t wait to return.

Race On!

On Track With Johnny D: Spa-Tacular

On Track with Johnny D |