After a tornado almost hit Saratoga last week, and the skies opened above the track with devastating rain and lightning on multiple occasions, the weather for Travers Day couldn’t have been any sunnier or pristine than what shone down on the centerpiece day of the 2019 meet.
One of my photographer friends from the west coast, Alex Evers, told me, “I brought you the California weather.” It felt more like Del Mar all day, for sure.
The weather gods must’ve met up with the horse racing gods because the day’s racing was also top-notch. The sport’s stars shined brightly with big performances, thrilling finishes, and the agony of defeat all mixed into a day to remember.
Travers Day was punctuated by Hall of Fame trainer Claude “Shug” McGaughey’s Code of Honor blitzing the field to win the prestigious race and giving Shug his fourth career Travers victory in the process.
Everyone loves Shug, so having the pleasure to walk with him from the winner’s circle to the post-race press conference by the jockeys’ room was an experience.
While walking through the crowd out the back of the clubhouse, along the jockey path towards the open-aired picnic area, people of all ages and ethnicities stopped Shug for autographs, photos, handshakes, fist bumps, hugs, and pats on the back. The humble, short-statured, 68-year-old trainer received adoration from the cheerful Saratoga crowd of 48,213. When college dudes are yelling, “Shug, you’re my boy!” and older women are stopping him for autographs at the same time, you know that he’s loved by all generations.
McGaughey was happy, but he remained modest, calm, and respectful of all of the requests along the way. Just as you’d imagine a true professional and legend of the game would be in that scenario of hysteria.
Shug is never one to be braggadocious, but in the interview that he gave me a week before the race, he said, “I think if everything goes good (leading up to the race), then they’re going to have us to beat.”
The master was right. McGaughey finally returned to the Travers winner’s circle after a 21-year drought; his last win came with Coronado’s Quest in 1998. That gap is the second-longest between wins for any trainer in the race’s 150 years. Of all the trainers to win the Travers at least twice, Hall of Famer James Rowe, Sr., had to wait the longest between wins, dating all the way back to between 1883 and 1909 (a 26-year gap). We’re taking about 1883. They didn’t even have electricity back then!
“It doesn’t get old, but it can’t take that long again,” McGaughey joked after the race.
McGaughey knew that Code of Honor had the goods. After getting a back-of-the-mid-pack trip from Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, Code of Honor made a bold move on the turn, going eight-wide into the stretch. He gobbled up the two front-runners, Tacitus and Mucho Gusto, to win by 3 widening lengths.
Many questioned the smallish Noble Mission colt’s aptitude to excel going the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Travers, but just like he did when finishing third (placed second) in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Code of Honor proved that he is a route-distance horse – especially with a hot pace setup.
“I never had any doubts about distance as a problem, just him putting his mind to running,” said Velazquez, who notched his second Travers win and first since Flower Alley in 2005. “Today, I made sure, when I got him out to the clear, he responded right away, so I was very happy for him.”
Even though the opening 1/4-mile (23.11 seconds) was the fourth-fastest in the last 29 years, and the 1/2-mile (:47.26) and 3/4-mile times (1:11.21) were the ninth- and eighth-fastest, respectively, pacesetters Tacitus and Mucho Gusto still held on for second and third over a track that played fast all day. The only other horse to make up major ground while closing late was Endorsed, who came from dead last in the 12-horse field to finish fourth.
The impressive closing kick that Code of Honor displayed in the far turn won him the race – it quickly put him into the right position to be successful. Up next will likely be a try against elders in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) at Belmont Park on September 28 in preparation for a possible trip out to Santa Anita Park for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
“Nothing is solid with what I’m going to do with him,” said McGaughey. “The Jockey Club Gold Cup back at Belmont would sort of be the best scenario. If I wanted to wait a bit longer you’ve got the Discovery at Aqueduct in November, or the Cigar Mile. And obviously we know where the Breeders’ Cup is, so we’ll have to keep that in mind also.”
McGaughey wouldn’t get too far ahead of himself after the race when discussing where Code of Honor stands in the 3-year-old division, though: “The way he won today, you have to put him up there with them. We’ll see what happens.”
There’s the old Shug again. Humble in the wake of one of his top victories this century.
Travers Undercard Doesn’t Disappoint
As I said in the intro, the glorious Travers Day card highlighted the best of this great sport. I’ll let some of my best photos tell the stories and take you through the day:
If you follow me on Twitter (@SaratogaSlim), then you likely saw this tweet after the fourth race telling the world that Code of Honor had to get a plus. His morning workmate Performer won the fourth impressively for McGaughey, making Code of Honor a live runner later:
— Mike “Slim” Spector (@SaratogaSlim) August 24, 2019
The day after the race, trainer Steve Asmussen didn’t have plans for Mitole’s next race. “He came out of it well. He’ll train here at Saratoga before deciding what to do next,” Asmussen said.
Next up, Come Dancing lived up to the hype that her morning workouts at The Spa had built (as I discussed on last week’s Blinkers Off podcast). She absolutely throttled the Ballerina Stakes (G1) field:
Come Dancing earned an automatic entry into the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint in November at Santa Anita Park and trainer Carlos Martin said he likely won’t race her again until that race.
Moving to the H. Allen Jerkens (G1), Shancelot was the big 1/5 favorite and most people thought he couldn’t lose. The 7 furlongs ended up being too much for him, though, as he was chased down by Mind Control and Hog Creek Hustle in a thrilling three-horse photo finish. Mind Control ultimately got his nose down first for the win:
Next, Significant Form won the Ballston Spa Stakes (G2) for trainer Chad Brown, who had a mind-boggling five wins overall on Saturday:
In the race of the day (and possibly so far in 2019), the showdown between Midnight Bisou and Elate came to fruition in a classic stretch duel. Midnight Bisou got her nostril down at just the right time to win her third Grade 1 of the year. The Personal Ensign Stakes (G1) victory was also her third time defeating Elate in 2019:
Midnight Bisou is expected to make her next start in the Beldame (G2) at Belmont Park on September 28, as her final prep for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
As for Elate, trainer Bill Mott said, “We’ll have to decide if we go back to the Beldame or if we wait for the Breeders’ Cup. If we wait for the Breeders’ Cup, we’re going to give strong consideration to the Classic. It seems like [the further the better].” Elate versus her male foes would add spice to the biggest race to end the year.
Finishing the Grade 1 undercard action, trainer Chad Brown continued collecting his embarrassment of riches in the Sword Dancer Stakes (G1). Annals of Time won under a well-timed late charge by Javier Castellano:
And that’s that! Another Travers Day is in the books, and it was a successful one at that. Interviewing McGaughey a week before the race and bringing that coverage to the Racing Dudes website, along with the confidence that he had in his colt, was amazing.
I also appreciate all of the fans and Racing Dudes subscribers who reached out to me about my article in the Travers Wagering Guide. I analyzed the pace and gave out a $4 trifecta ticket and a $10 exacta ticket that combined for a $472 return using Code of Honor and Tacitus over Mucho Gusto. It feels great to help people make money at the track and enhance the experience – and stuff some cash in my pocket at the same time!
I never once take for granted the opportunity that I have to cover this wonderful sport and the support from the NYRA to cover it the way that I want for the Racing Dudes. Please follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim for my thoughts on closing weekend with a trio of Grade 1 stakes – the Woodward, the Spinaway, and the Hopeful – closing the meet!