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Horse racing’s rich history defines its essence. When a sport has races that have been run since 1864, amidst a country deeply immersed in the middle of a Civil War, you know that it’s been passed down for generations.
As its 150th running approaches this Saturday, the Travers Stakes (G1) has been built upon by the legends of the sport. When it comes to the race’s winning trainers, the greatest names in the eons of horse racing sit atop the list of all-time winners:
• Hall-of-Fame trainer Bert Mulholland leads all trainers with five lifetime Travers wins, recorded between 1939 to 1963, including with Jaipur in 1962.
• The great Elliott Burch is the only trainer with four Travers wins, which occurred between 1959 and 1972, including with memorable horses such as Sword Dancer, Quadrangle, and Arts and Letters.
• Seven trainers have each amassed three Travers wins, including some of the greatest of the modern era, such as D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert.
Hall of Famer Claude “Shug” McGaughey also has his name on the list of trainers with three Travers triumphs, and on Saturday, he has a chance to become only the third in the history of this great race to win it at least four times. His hopes rest on the talented, multiple graded stakes winner Code of Honor.
McGaughey’s previous winners were the Hall of Famer Easy Goer (1989), Rhythm (1990), and Coronado’s Quest (1998) in a famous three-horse photo. It’s been 21 years since McGaughey’s last Travers score, but he will have one of the top choices in this year’s prestigious “Mid-Summer Derby” for 3-year-olds run covering 1 1/4 miles on the Saratoga main dirt track.
“When you start winning them, you think you’re going to win them all the time, and it doesn’t always happen that way,” McGaughey said. “We’ve had some other opportunities, but they didn’t work out. It would be a thrill for us to be able to win it again.”
Of all the trainers to win the Travers at least twice, Hall of Famer James Rowe, Sr., had to wait the longest between wins, going all the way back to between 1883 and 1909 (a 26-year gap).
Will Shug make history on Saturday and add his name to the top three all-time Travers-winning trainers? This year’s edition is wide-open thanks to a topsy-turvy 3-year-old class, so I’ll highlight Code of Honor and then look at the rest of the Travers field in this special edition of the Saratoga Skinny.
Code of Honor comes into the Travers as one of the classiest horses in his crop. The Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) and Dwyer Stakes (G3) winner’s resume is already enough to make him a stallion prospect at owner Lane’s End Farm when his career comes to a close, but a win in the Travers would cement his spot.
The Noble Mission colt, out of the Dixie Union mare Reunited, is a homebred who RNA’d for $70,000 out of the Keeneland September 2017 yearling sale. Lane’s End principal Bill Farish opted to campaign the colt himself, and he didn’t disappoint, starting his career with an impressive debut win at Saratoga last August. A late-running second in the Champagne Stakes (G1) after he stumbled from the gate set him up for a big run in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile (G1), but Code of Honor got sick just before the race and had to scratch.
His return in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park to start 2019 resulted in a disappointing fourth, and McGaughey learned that he needed to lean harder on Code of Honor during his training. The result was a flashy, late-running Fountain of Youth win in March, and McGaughey has worked him in a similar fashion in preparation for the Travers.
“We’ve been aggressive with him,” McGaughey said. “His works have all been good. He’s had two solid 5 (furlong) works his last two works (at Saratoga) and a blow-out (on Monday). I think he likes to train. I think he likes to be trained.”
After finishing third in April’s Florida Derby (G1), where he caught a slow pace behind eventual winner Maximum Security, Code of Honor trained well for the Kentucky Derby (G1) and crossed the finish line third in the Run for the Roses. One of the several horses that Maximum Security infamously affected was Code of Honor, who was sneaking up the rail and was actually the leader at the stretch call in the official chart. Maximum Security’s disqualification resulted in Code of Honor ultimately placing second.
“I do think he was (impeded),” McGaughey said. “I think it was probably a little bit of an on-purpose thing. When (Maximum Security) went out and he saw (Code of Honor) making that move down on the inside and (Maximum Security’s jockey Luis Saez) adjusted him to the inside, I think he wanted to tighten it up on Code of Honor. I think at that time that (Code of Honor) just wasn’t really mentally prepared for that. I think it probably hampered his chances a little bit. Not that he was going to win; I’m not saying that if that hadn’t happened, but I think it hampered his chances a little bit.”
McGaughey’s only Kentucky Derby win came in 2013 with Orb, and while another win would’ve been sweet, McGaughey marched on, keeping his eye on continuing Code of Honor’s development.
“I knew, unless he won the Derby, I wasn’t going to run him in the Preakness and the Belmont,” McGaughey said. “He’s a late foal. He was physically a little immature and mentally also, so we chose the mile to set him up.”
That mile was the Dwyer in early July at Belmont Park, where Code of Honor returned from a two month layoff to display his dominance, manhandling the field by 3 1/4 lengths as the even-money favorite.
After the Derby, McGaughey’s plan was to always focus on a try at the Travers, and the Dwyer may have been the perfect interlude.
“I think coming off the mile race going back to 1 1/4 miles (in the Travers) is a good set-up spot for him, and that’s why I decided to use that race (the Dwyer),” said McGaughey. “I kind of had my mind on the Jim Dandy and Travers, but decided against the Jim Dandy because coming back off that effort that quick, I thought might not be in his best interest to get him to the Travers.
“If I had been wrong, I would’ve been wrong two times, instead of just one,” McGaughey joked. “I think we’ll be fine.”
After the Dwyer, Code of Honor shipped up to Saratoga, where he has been working over the Oklahoma Training Track in preparation for the Travers.
“So far, so good,” McGaughey said of his works. “He’s had a good four weeks up here and we’re pleased where we stand.”
The major question with all horses (even the ones who ran in the Kentucky Derby) is if they will excel at the classic 1 1/4-mile Travers distance, but Code of Honor’s strong Derby run gives McGaughey confidence.
“(The distance) doesn’t concern me at all,” McGaughey said. “Does he want he want to run 1 1/4 miles? I don’t know, but I think he does. That was the same thing that was asked going into the Dwyer. They said, ‘How’s he going to come from 1 1/4 miles back to a mile?’ That obviously wasn’t a problem. I think going from a mile to 1 1/4 miles is a good step up.”
Code of Honor is undoubtedly one of the most talented horses in the Travers field, but the expected pace may not work out the best for him.
“My best scenario for me would be to catch a hot pace and have him be back and make the one run,” McGaughey said. “I think if he wants to press too much, then I don’t think that’s his style of running.”
A hot pace may not ensue in the Travers, though, after the recent announcement that Maximum Security will skip it and point to the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) next month at Parx.
That leaves Chad Brown’s Looking At Bikinis as the likely Travers pace-setter, as he did in the Curlin Stakes.
Another horse who can show early speed is the Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) winner Tax, who will be forwardly placed under jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., for trainer Danny Gargan.
A late addition to the Travers field came Monday morning when it was announced that Bob Baffert’s Mucho Gusto will ship east. After firing a 5-furlong bullet work in :59.20 at Del Mar, he takes the place of his stablemate Game Winner, who was pointing for the Travers before coming down with a virus. A four-time graded stakes winner, Mucho Gusto has shown a penchant for setting the pace in the past and may do so again here.
Code of Honor won’t be the only one hoping for a hot pace and looking to make a big move late. Tacitus is the crop’s no-luck horse after sufering bad trips in each of his last three starts: the Kentucky Derby (shuffled back and finished fourth, then placed third via disqualification), the Belmont Stakes (wide throughout with a runner-up finish), and the Jim Dandy (bad stumble from the gate and trip on a dead rail to get another runner-up finish).
Highest Honors is another closer that should have a shot in the Travers, but he benefitted from an outside favoring-track while defeating Looking At Bikinis in the Curlin.
Endorsed ran second to Highest Honors in the Curlin and was sixth behind Code of Honor way back last October in the Champagne. The Kiaran McLaughlin trainee is yet another hoping to successfully use his late kick.
Others expected for the Travers that likely won’t add to the early pace include Chess Chief (for trainer Dallas Stewart), Everfast (Dale Romans), Laughing Fox (Steve Asmussen), Owendale (Brad Cox), and Scars Are Cool (Stanley Hough).
As the saying goes, pace makes the race, and early pace-setters like Looking At Bikinis, Tax and Mucho Gusto may have a tactical advantage over the closers like Code of Honor, but that doesn’t deter McGaughey.
“I think if everything goes good (leading up to the race), then they’re going to have us to beat,” he said. “To be able to win it for Mr. Farish, it would be that much more of a thrill.”
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