Saturday, in the Travers, my exotics hopes were pinned on Mendelssohn at 13-1 and Bravazo at 10-1. Both ran well to finish second and third, respectively. Heavily favored Good Magic occupied a mere defensive position on my tickets. I didn’t ‘like’ him to go a mile and one-quarter but respected his ability and wasn’t about to let him beat me. In concert with proverbial ‘wise guys,’ I figured Good Magic a poor wager at the price but a possible exotics participant. I also used Chad Brown-stablemate Gronkowski, assuming that the meet’s leading trainer wouldn’t totally misfire with two runners in the same race. He did.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see Travers winner Catholic Boy coming. He blindsided me. Hit me with a knockout sucker-punch that detonated mutuel opportunities—win, trifecta and superfecta quicker than you can say ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’
And Catholic Boy didn’t get lucky to win. He didn’t catch a head-bob in a tight photo. Ride the rail. ‘Sit the trip.’ Nope. He took the fight to them. Dominated. Broke well from the 11-hole under jockey Javier Castellano, showed speed to force the pace outside Mendelssohn, moved to the lead off the final turn and widened his advantage through the lane. The official margin was four lengths, but it seemed like more.
So, how come yours truly didn’t board this bullet train? You know, the one that instead ran him over. Easy. I didn’t look both ways before crossing the tracks.
According to Thoro-Graph speed figures, Catholic Boy wasn’t fast enough to win the Travers. Not on dirt, not on turf. Not even close. In a deep, contentious field he was easily dismissed. Thoro-Graph speed figures are an important component of my handicapping process. Have been for years. Live by the figs, die by the figs. They’re an invaluable way to gauge how fast a horse has previously run. You might say I rely on them religiously (rim shot!).
Slow figs aren’t the only reason I discounted Catholic Boy’s Travers chances. Last out he had won the Grade 1 Belmont Derby on turf. That may seem like a positive, but I viewed it as a negative. Usually, horses prefer one surface over the other. In entire careers few horses are capable of winning Grade 1 races on turf and dirt. Catholic Boy was attempting a Gr. 1 surface-switch parlay. Just doesn’t happen.
I also misjudged Catholic Boy’s early speed; didn’t realize he was that fast. On paper I saw Mendelssohn gaining an early advantage (correct). I also anticipated that Castellano and Catholic Boy would be forced to ‘go’ from the far outside post (also correct). What I didn’t figure was that ‘Boy would be quick enough to establish such an excellent early position–two-wide into the first turn–and that he’d be able to survive after pressing a solid early pace on dirt.
You might counter with the obvious, ‘Catholic Boy had shown early speed on turf, so why not on dirt?’ Because early pace in turf races isn’t nearly as fast nor as demanding as it is in dirt races. Grass horses usually gallop along comfortably before unleashing a furious final burst. On dirt the emphasis is early speed and competitors are forced to ‘run’ throughout. I surmised that if Catholic Boy was close to a much faster early pace he wouldn’t have anything left for the drive (wrong, dead wrong).
Three-year-old races are intriguing handicapping puzzles partly because sophs can substantially develop in a few months. That’s one reason results from the first Saturday in May rarely replicate in late August. New stars often emerge in the Travers. Happened this year.
But it’s not like Catholic Boy was a complete stranger before Saturday, although he did skip the Triple Crown madness. At two he won the Grade 3 With Anticipation on Saratoga turf and then finished a close fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf behind Mendelssohn. Switched to dirt he won the Grade 2 Remsen. First out at three he came up just short against Flameaway in the Sam F. Davis. Off that race I wagered on him to win the Florida Derby. He bled that afternoon and finished fourth at 2.40 to 1. Away until early June he was moved to turf for the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge. In that race and in the subsequent Belmont Derby, Catholic Boy either gamely re-rallied to win, or Analyze It pulled himself up to lose by a neck and a head, respectively. Probably a bit of both.
Credit for Catholic Boy’s development goes to trainer Johnathan Thomas, a former jump jockey and assistant to Todd Pletcher. Thomas is intelligent, well-spoken and obviously a risk taker. After winning a Gr. 1 turf race how many other trainers would even suggest moving a horse to dirt for his next start? And Thomas didn’t merely ‘suggest’ the move, he was confident in it.
If Catholic Boy should win the Breeders’ Cup Classic—and he’s second choice to do it—could he possibly appropriate Outstanding 3-Year-Old or Horse of the Year Eclipse honors from in-the-clubhouse-leader Justify? It would be racing heresy to deny a Triple Crown winner that hardware. Jusify’s only the 13th in history to accomplish the feat and merely the second undefeated Triple Crown winner ever. However, the colt’s short career wasn’t exactly your grandfather’s Triple Crown campaign and voters are a fickle lot encumbered by short memories. We last saw Justify perform in June. Come November Catholic Boy will attempt to swap the image of Justify’s glorious Belmont Stakes romp for a fresh impression of his own dominant BC Classic tally.
Even if Catholic Boy’s furious charge toward year-end honors comes up a tad short, we have witnessed an outstanding equine achievement. Hats off to Catholic Boy and his connections! By winning a Grade 1 turf stakes race and a Grade 1 dirt race in consecutive starts, they’ve accomplished something notable. This blogger recalls seeing all-time great John Henry, at age six, in 1981, parlay a Gr. 1 dirt victory into a Gr. 1 turf score twice—Santa Anita Handicap/San Luis Rey Stakes in March and the Jockey Club Gold Cup/Oak Tree Invitational in October and November. Others have cashed Gr. 1 surface-switch parlays–Lava Man in 2006, the filly Affluent in 2001 and sprinter Sheik Albadou in 1991–but the feat is deliciously rare.