It was a stupid question. Moments after winning the Whitney Handicap, John Velazquez was asked if he knew where Fort Larned was as he guided Cross Traffic to the lead going into the first turn of the $750,000 stakes. Like asking the Road Runner if he knew where the coyote was.
Velazquez eyes lit up, his voice raised another pitch and his words came out quicker, even for him.
“I knew where he was, buddy. I knew exactly where he went,” Velazquez said, in Spanish staccato. “I knew right away.”
Like a signature on a check, Velazquez took that knowledge and won the Whitney.
Favorite and pace candidate Fort Larned and Brian Hernandez broke from the 3 post while Velazquez and the other pace candidate Cross Traffic broke one stall to the right. They were the speed horses in the field of eight, all scenarios hinged on the decisions of Velazquez and Hernandez.
The gates sprang open and Cross Traffic instantly gained a half-length advantage over Fort Larned, Velazquez crouched and nudged Cross Traffic for the first five strides, igniting his natural speed outside Mucho Macho Man, as Edgar Prado tried to keep Mucho Macho Man in the window. Playing other people’s moves, Hernandez didn’t have a lot of choice and angled Fort Larned across the heels of Mucho Macho Man and Cross Traffic to establish a stalking position, wide and stacked. Velazquez wasn’t going to make anything easy for Hernandez.
“He didn’t break as good as they wanted him to, he didn’t leave from there,” Velazquez explained. “I squeezed my horse a little bit because Prado was coming out going into the first turn. As soon as I got to the first turn, I eased out, I knew he was going to be outside of me, I parked him all the way to the middle of the track. If he wants to run fast, he’s going to have to run in the middle of the track.”
Fort Larned applied tepid pressure from the outside as Cross Traffic managed the first quarter mile in 24.17 and a half in 47.28. Mucho Macho Man settled in third as Csaba, Alpha, Ron The Greek, Successful Dan and Fast Falcon waited, well off the pace.
Leaving the backside, Hernandez cued Fort Larned to engage Cross Traffic as Prado swung Mucho Macho Man three wide. For a moment, passing the quarter pole, Cross Traffic, Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man stacked but only for a moment. Fort Larned faltered in a matter of strides, Mucho Macho Man stayed but didn’t finish and Cross Traffic opened up a quick, commanding gap. From well back, Successful Dan rounded into the fray from the outside, but the third choice had done a lot of running to get there. Passing the eighth pole, Velazquez hit Cross Traffic left handed and he drifted out, Velazquez switched to his right and he drifted in. At the moment, Cross Traffic was wallowing, Successful Dan drifted in just enough to alter his momentum. Time’s up, Cross Traffic kept it together to win by three quarters of a length over Successful Dan, who had made up nearly 12 lengths in 9-furlong classic. Cross Traffic finished in 1:47.89 to earn his first stakes win.
Owned by GoldMark Farm, the 4-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song spanned a chasm in five starts, going from a maiden debut winner in January to a Grade I winner in August. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the $300,000 Saratoga yearling purchase snapped a bitter two-race losing streak (a head decision to Flat Out in the Grade III Westchester and nose loss to Sahara Sky in the Grade I Met Mile).
Pletcher watched Cross Traffic gallop out after those losses and confidently circled the Whitney.
“The thing that was interesting about those races is he got beat on the wire but he galloped out in front. We always felt like when we got going longer, the better. He’s got a high-cruising speed, keep-cruising kind of horse. We were always coming to this race, that was the plan,” Pletcher said. “I felt like he would get the mile and an eighth, the question was could he get the mile and an eighth fast enough against Fort Larned and those kind of horses. Everything about what he had done, figure-wise and everything, suggested he was good enough.”
Aboard for his first two wins and his latest loss, Velazquez exuded confidence about stretching another furlong, knowing he could settle if necessary and send if necessary.
“It’s always in the back of your head, you don’t know how they’re going to handle it, but the way he trains, it looks like he can go all day, you don’t know until they run, but I just thought he could do it,” Velazquez said. “He’s fast enough, he’s going to be close, he’s not crazy fast, unless you get somebody leaning on him the whole time. Today was a perfect scenario. I was outside. Plan A was to let him run to the first turn, if they take back, we’ll be on the lead, if they don’t, I’ll be laying second or third.”
Hernandez took back and went outside, Prado eased back and stayed inside. Velazquez, on a long rein, managed to ration the speed of Cross Traffic through a half-mile that was over two seconds slower than when he led the Met Mile back in May.
Watching in the stands, Pletcher recognized the blue print he and Velazquez had drawn up before the race.
“We felt like this is our horse’s strength, let him run into the first turn, if somebody goes crazy, you’re going to have make that call, but we know what our weapon is, let’s go ahead and use it,” Pletcher said. “He came out of there, they put up a 24, I just said, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’ “
GoldMark sent Cross Traffic to Pletcher last year. As a 3-year-old, Cross Traffic nearly made his debut in June but hit the sidelines and went back to GoldMark in Ocala. About four months later, he returned to Pletcher and made his long awaited debut in a maiden sprint at Gulfstream Park in January. He pressed the pace before winning by nearly two lengths. Six weeks later, he drew off to trounce the more experienced Fast Falcon. In just his third start, he took on classy veteran Flat Out in the Westchester, just missing by a head in a determined effort. A month later, he lost the Met Mile after drifting in at the start, getting pressed on the lead and being caught late by Sahara Sky who rallied wide and late. Pletcher watched him gallop out each time, thinking he had more to give.
“We always felt like he was a good horse,” Pletcher said. “But how often do you have a 4-year-old break their maiden in January and win the Whitney in August. It’s very, very rare.”