The headline event to the 36th Breeders’ Cup once again finds itself in the position to most likely crown champions in two divisions and more than likely Horse of the Year by the time the 10 furlongs of the Breeders’ Cup Classic are complete Saturday at Santa Anita Park.
Heading into the day Horse of the Year for 2019 is very much in doubt, with turf horses, sprinters and older females in the hunt. A handful of recent exceptions aside, history shows the voters favor males who run long on the main track and that means all paths lead to the $6 million Classic.
The race doesn’t feature ousted Kentucky Derby “winner” Maximum Security, the 3-year-old most consider the best in North America, but it does include Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Code Of Honor, Whitney winner McKinzie, Pacific Classic winner Higher Power, Gold Cup at Santa Anita and disqualified Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Vino Rosso Preakness and Preakness winner War Of Will.
Any of those five could stake a claim at a title – some more in the divisional realm – with a victory. And let us not forget Elate, the brilliant mare looking to topple males and keep her record clean at 1 1/4 miles in her final start. She could find herself up against it for a title even with a victory if Midnight Bisou finishes her season undefeated in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff a little more than an hour earlier.
Many of those names graced the track at Saratoga Race Course this summer and victories there helped lead them to Saturday. We wrote about them in The Saratoga Special and thought the pieces would make for some good pre-race reading, especially for all in the Eastern part of the country waiting out the time difference.
Here’s a selection of stories about some major players in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Enjoy.
Your Honor. Farish, McGaughey, Velazquez team up on signature triumph. Written for the Aug. 25 Saratoga Special by Sean Clancy
Shug McGaughey walked straight to his pole, the one that offers a view and an escape. Second row, back right corner of the finish-line box, on the edge of the steps. Will Farish and his family settled into the first row boxes. Alison McGaughey stood in a third-row box over her husband’s right shoulder. The Fox TV crew, holding cameras and microphones, wedged into gaps, fans with beers and wine glasses filled in the steps, a waiter ran a ticket for a lunch order.
As Larry Collmus announced that the Travers field was at the gate, McGaughey turned and smiled, almost smirked, raising his eyebrows to his wife.
If looks had words, it was ‘Well, this is it.” After that McGaughey stood silently like he was being read his rights, shifting from the right side of the pole to the left side, that’s it, for 2:01.05 of the Travers Stakes. McGaughey didn’t utter a word, didn’t pump his fist, didn’t react as Alison screamed, “Come on Code. Come on Code. Come on Code.”
And, yeah, Code came on.
Code Of Honor and jockey John Velazquez rallied from ninth to win the $1.25 million stakes by 3 lengths over favorite Tacitus and third-choice Mucho Gusto. As Code Of Honor streaked past McGaughey, the Hall of Famer turned away from the pandemonium, walking down the back steps like he was heading home instead of the winner’s circle. That direction offers a moment of solitude, a moment of reflection.
“That was fun to watch,” McGaughey said.
For all the reasons.
Code Of Honor, a horse McGaughey had believed in since breaking his maiden here last summer, gave the trainer his fourth Travers victory and first since Coronado’s Quest in 1989.
Making his eighth career start, Code Of Honor earned his first Grade 1 victory. A victory that had confirmed McGaughey’s confidence in the chestnut homebred who had never finished worse than fourth in his career but had never won the big one. Tantalizingly close in the past, Code Of Honor had arrived.
“That’s the horse we always expected. That’s him,” McGaughey said, as he turned past the old binocular stand. “It looked to me at the three-eighths pole, he wasn’t going anywhere but I knew he couldn’t get in this race with a long, dueling run. He was going to have to do it and I think Johnny knew it too.”
Oh, Johnny knew it.
Two days before the Travers, Velazquez was asked about a horse he had ridden in six of his seven starts, a horse that made the Hall of Fame jockey eschew any other options when the money was down, staying the course from a debut maiden win going 6 furlongs to a rough-and-tumble second via DQ in the Kentucky Derby to a Dwyer romp in July.
“The big horse. I love this horse, we’ve been very patient with him,” Velazquez said before the Travers. “I loved him for the Derby. I’ve always loved him. That’s why I’m still on him. He’s got a really good chance brother.”
After the Travers, Velazquez remembered that first conversation.
“I told you I loved this horse,” Velazquez said. “It’s very gratifying when you know you like your horse and he gives you everything he can. That’s why I stick with him, man. I stick with him from way back. And, now, he’s paid me back.”
Code Of Honor broke professionally from stall 2 and Velazquez perched quietly, allowing Owendale to clear from his inside and Highest Honors, Tacitus and Laughing Fox to clear to his immediate outside. Farther outside, Mucho Gusto, Tax, Scars Are Cool and Looking At Bikinis, who recovered from a bobble, formed another forward cluster.
Favorite Tacitus, equipped with blinkers for the first time, won the pace chores by default, leading Mucho Gusto by a half-length after a quarter-mile in :23.11. Owendale, Highest Honors and Tax formed a line. Looking At Bikinis set up outside them. Everfast and Scars Are Cool filed in the next tier. Velazquez settled Code Of Honor along the rail around the first turn, clear of Chess Chief, Laughing Fox and Endorsed.
Jose Ortiz tapped the brakes on Tacitus and Joe Talamo let out the gas on Mucho Gusto to take over through a half-mile in :47.26. Jim Dandy winner Tax loped outside in third, in front of a five-horse cluster. Velazquez began to slide Code Of Honor outside, at least 10 lanes off the inside rail and enough to be ready for the passing lane when needed.
Continuing the hot-potato pace, Tacitus jumped back to the lead from the inside as the field rolled past the half-mile pole, opening up a half-length on Mucho Gusto. Tax traveled well in third while Highest Honors and Owendale began to feel the pinch. Scars Are Cool, Looking At Bikinis and Everfast were nothing but pylons in front of a swinging Code Of Honor while Endorse began to rev up from down town.
Passing the quarter pole, Tacitus and Mucho Gusto galloped away from Tax, Highest Honors and Owendale but that was it, they were just galloping, a daunting 2 furlongs still to go. While they were simply trying to keep peddling, Code Of Honor was rolling from the outside. Velazquez flicked his unturned whip once, turned it over and smacked twice, and pulled down a pair of goggles as he reached even terms with Mucho Gusto and Tacitus. Even terms didn’t last long as Code Of Honor poured it on with every stride, swapping to his left lead a few strides before the wire.
“He showed up,” Velazquez said. “That’s what we were expecting out of him. He broke good, he got a good position, I was very confident in the way he was doing things and he responded right away.”
Just like McGaughey knew he would.
McGaughey recognized something this week that doesn’t always come around to a trainer who has engineered the best and endured the worst: Excitement.
Excitement at how Code Of Honor had developed since the Kentucky Derby, excitement about how he won the Dwyer, excitement about how he had trained into the Travers, especially a Monday morning drill that filled the final chamber for a long-sought target.
“When I see what I’ve been seeing. When I saw what I saw Monday morning, I was excited. I’m sure I’ve been excited before but not that much. Not that much. I was really excited about today,” McGaughey said. “My confidence, being older and being through this stuff is a lot more than maybe it was 30 years ago. When you were a kid and you thought all of them were supposed to win. You figure out that that’s not the case. You’ve got to figure the horse, you’ve got to be able to understand that if something doesn’t go right that maybe it will go right the next time.”
Things hadn’t gone right in four out of seven previous starts for Code Of Honor. Sure, there was the impressive debut win, the breakout win in the Fountain of Youth and the facile score in the Dwyer.
But in between, well, there were blips. Second behind Complexity in the Champagne, scratched with a fever before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a dull fourth in the Mucho Macho Man, a third behind runaway Maximum Security in the Florida Derby and a third, moved up to second, in the Derby.
Sometimes blips can be blessings.
“That’s what I told Mr. Farish,” McGaughey said. “We’ve had a couple of bumps in the road but we might not have been here without them. And I want to be here.”
Code Of Honor made sure of it.
No Traffic. Baffert runner adds another Grade 1. Written for the Aug. 4 Saratoga Special by Sean Clancy.
Bob Baffert walked down the steps to the winner’s circle, hugged his wife, high-fived an owner and explained his week leading up to the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga.
“I was nervous all week,” Baffert said. “I was so nervous about this race.”
“You know why?” Baffert said. “I didn’t think there was any way he could get beat.”
McKinzie might have rattled Baffert’s nerves leading to the $1 million stakes but the 4-year-old colt soothed his soul with a comfortable 1 3/4-length win over Yoshida and Vino Rosso. Second-choice Preservationist led early before fading to fourth.
Owned by Karl Watson, Michael Pegram and Paul Weitman, McKinzie had won three Grade 1 stakes in his 11-race career. But, let’s face it, they were the Los Alamitos Futurity through disqualification, the Pennsylvania Derby over Axelrod and the 7-furlong Malibu over Identity Politics. In the big ones, the son of Street Sense hadn’t rung the bell, fading to 12th in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, missing by a nose in the Santa Anita Handicap in April and checking away the Met Mile in June. The last one stung.
“I was so frustrated after the Met Mile. That’s why I didn’t take him to Dubai, I wanted to win the Met Mile with him,” Baffert said. “When he got beat, I said I have to win a sexy race with him. I’ve got to take him to Saratoga and run a mile and an eighth in the Whitney.”
Hence, the nerves.
McKinzie drew post 6 in the field of eight, which was reduced to seven when Thunder Snow scratched with a cough and a fever Saturday morning. McKinzie, 7-5 favorite on the morning line, was sent off 4-5.
McKinzie broke sharply but needed Mike Smith’s best “Bobby Adair” ride from the gate, draping low and urging for a few strides, just enough to claim a definitive stalking spot outside Monongahela and inside second-choice Preservationist. McKinzie took the spot from Monongahela, but stayed wide, forcing Junior Alvarado to make a move aboard Preservationist who toured wide around the first turn. The Suburban winner took over from McKinzie as the field straightened down the backside. A half-length off and inside Preservationist, Mike Smith made the move of the race, asking for a half halt from McKinzie. He listened like he remembered the barroom brawl from the Met Mile, sliding back and out. The hunted had become the hunter.
“I tapped on the brakes, hoping no one jumps on me real quick,” Smith said. “I wanted some room and I made some room. Now I’m happy.”
Preservationist rolled through a half-mile in :47.48 as McKinzie stalked a length off the leader. Third choice Vino Rosso tracked 3 lengths off McKinzie. Outsiders Monongahela, Imperative and Forewarned tried to stay apace and Yoshida, winner of last year’s Woodward, lagged in last. Preservationist led through three quarters of a mile in 1:11.30 but Smith was twitching on the trigger.
“He grabs the bridle, then you can slingshot him,” Smith said.
McKinzie pounced on Preservationist, surely spent after going wide and going early. Vino Rosso tried to rally to the outside of McKinzie and Yoshida swung widest of all. Smith stayed low, flicking a left-handed whip and McKinzie did the rest, holding off Yoshida with ease.
“There was horse left, Bob,” Smith said to Baffert after the race. “There was horse left.”
McKinzie finished 9 furlongs in 1:47.10, easing Baffert’s nerves.
“I was going to be disappointed if he didn’t win,” Baffert said. “I was nervous because I know he’s the best horse. He’s one of the top horses I’ve ever trained and he’s getting better.”
Beyond easing Baffert’s nerves, the win established McKinzie as the best older horse in the country and erased the Met Mile debacle.
That day, Smith allowed McKinzie to fall back to last along the inside rail, waited on the rail, hesitated behind horses for the first time in the middle of the far turn, slid out three lanes, then checked behind horses at the eighth pole before trying to split Mitole and Thunder Snow.
McKinzie finished second, an unfinished-business second. The worst kind.
Baffert knew it. Smith knew it.
“I was upset, but I didn’t crush the guy,” Baffert said. “I know he knows better, he just made a wrong move. It’s easy, I’ve seen the best riders do it, they all do it.”
Smith and Baffert talked, cleaning the air.
“Mike, you’re not riding him with a lot of confidence. This is one of the best horses I’ve ever trained. I hope you have him figured out by now. Forget about it.”
Smith shook it off the best he could.
“Oh, I needed this one, especially after that last one. I should have been more patient and let all that (stuff) happen, of course, I didn’t know it was going to happen,” Smith said. “It was really hard but I’m not going to let it affect me. That one hurt. The bad thing for me is when something like that happens, I’m only riding those kind of races any more so everybody sees it. It’s not like it’s just a race and I can go on to the next.”
Smith rode 33 races between the Met Mile and the Whitney, winning eight of them, including three stakes.
“One thing about this business, you can’t look back,” Baffert said. “Water under the bridge, just look forward.”
After the Met Mile, Baffert looked forward, squarely and solely on the Whitney, a race still missing from his Hall of Fame resume. McKinzie went home to California, breezed three times at Santa Anita, three times at Del Mar and stormed Saratoga.
“When he got beat in the Met Mile, I said I’ve got to go to the Whitney now. I’ve got to win a prestigious race like that,” Baffert said. “He got it done. He got me a Whitney. Finally got a Whitney.”
Battle Time. Preakness winner War Of Will returns in Grade 2 Travers prep. Written for July 27 Saratoga Special by Tom Law.
Minutes after the final strides of the 2019 Triple Crown were complete, Mark Casse pegged next month’s Travers Stakes as War Of Will’s primary summer target.
He’d just won the Belmont Stakes with Sir Winston for his second American classic victory following War Of Will’s Preakness Stakes score three weeks prior and the plan started to take shape.
“We’ll have a couple days and see how he is,” Casse said, after War Of Will finished a non-threatening ninth of 10 to his stablemate. “Probably send him back to Kentucky, give him a little break . . . We’re going to aim him for the Travers. We’re not going to aim him for the Haskell, I don’t think.”
Casse stuck to his guns, skipped last week’s heat-delayed Haskell Invitational won by the disqualified Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security and sends out War Of Will in today’s $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. The Grade 2 Jim Dandy carries the day on a card that includes the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt and Grade 2 Bowling Green.
War Of Will went through his final paces for the 9-furlong Jim Dandy early Friday, walking out of his trainer’s barn on the far turn of the main track at about 5:45 and toward the Union Avenue gap. The War Front colt disappeared into the fog, jogging the wrong way on the outside of the saturated surface thanks to Thursday’s midafternoon downpour that canceled the second half of the card.
Casse and assistant Jamie Begg met War Of Will, the 5-2 third choice on the early line behind Tacitus and Global Campaign, at the gap and walked back to the barn to meet the next set that included the Amsterdam Stakes-bound Super Comet.
Casse watched that trio train from the turn and thought back to his post-Belmont comments about the Jim Dandy over the Haskell.
“I looked at it for just a little bit,” Casse said of the Haskell. “So I can’t say I didn’t look at it at all. But this made a lot more sense. This is more home for us.”
War Of Will, who breezed a half-mile in :49.40 at Churchill Downs July 7, arrived in Saratoga three days later – just after the majority of Casse’s string for the meet bedded down from various points. The colt breezed twice at Saratoga, the most recent a beat-the-heat half last Friday in :49.33 under jockey Tyler Gaffalione. Casse called it “one of his best” works while conceding his 5-furlong move in 1:00.43 on the main six days before was “pretty impressive.”
Superlatives are never far from describing War Of Will, who avoided clipping heels with Maximum Security in the Kentucky Derby thanks to Gaffalione and won the Preakness two weeks later in Pimlico. The second jewel of the Triple Crown went up on the horse’s record alongside 2019 wins in the Grade 2 Risen Star and Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds.
Casse and his team took to calling the colt W.O.W. during the run up to the spring classics, following what they started in Saratoga last summer. The trainer stayed a little more subdued Friday morning, the day before War Of Will begins what could be the final push toward a divisional championship.
“Right now I just want to try and win the Jim Dandy,” Casse said. “The Jim Dandy in itself is a good race. I’d love to add that to his resume. It is still a Grade 2 at Saratoga.”
The select field of six will attempt to join the ranks of Jim Dandy winners that also won the Travers, a list that includes 2006 champion 3-year-old male Bernardini. War Of Will also tries to be the first Preakness winner to take the Jim Dandy since Bernardini. Louis Quatorze also pulled off the Preakness-Jim Dandy double in 1996.
Maximum Security won the Haskell last week for owners Gary and Mary West and trainer Jason Servis and will most likely arrive in Saratoga next week to prepare for the Travers. The Wests could also be represented in next month’s race by last year’s champion 2-year-old male Game Winner, trained by three-time Travers winner Bob Baffert.
“It would be nice for War Of Will or Tacitus to win,” Casse said. “Then it would set up for a great Travers. That’s what everybody wants. I also think Game Winner is as good as anybody. He scares me as much as anybody. He was playing a little catch-up, too, this winter and spring with all the stuff going on in California.”
War Of Will looks to bounce back from his 7 1/4-length loss in the Belmont, his third defeat from six starts this year along with the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby. He never factored in the Belmont while running wide early.
Casse watched the race unfold and sensed War Of Will in trouble before the field passed the half-mile pole. He blamed the colt’s wide trip, not for any lost ground but because of some differences in the sandy surface several paths off the fence.
“That’s what got him,” Casse said. “Even down the backside they weren’t going extremely fast and Tyler was having to ask him. Usually he’s in the bit more. He was exhausted after the race, just exhausted. He wasn’t exhausted going into the race. It’s hard to explain, but I think the exhaustion was from that.
“Everybody wants to say it was the grind of the Triple Crown – but it was like walking down the beach, you’re near the water and get firmer footing. I’d put Churchill Downs in that category and I’d put the Preakness in that category. The way the surfaces are. They call Belmont the Big Sandy for a reason. It’s looser. It’s like when you get away from the water and you struggle. Look, he’s all turf. His father (War Front) has been a great turf sire, his mother is by Sadler’s Wells. He’s obviously a great dirt horse and a great turf horse, but he does have some turf tendencies. The last thing anybody wants with a turf horse is a big sandy racetrack. It’s about as far away from what you want.”
The Saratoga main track figures to be tight and fast – barring another pop up soaker like the one that hit Thursday – for the Jim Dandy.
That should suit War Of Will, but also 7-5 morning-line favorite Tacitus. He’s run well on different dirt surfaces, winning the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, finishing fourth at the finish and moved up to third in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont.
Juddmonte Farms’ homebred Tapit colt endured an even wider trip under Jose Ortiz in the Belmont, along with a slight bump with War Of Will while that one backed up at the top of the stretch. Ortiz rides again for trainer Bill Mott, who won the Jim Dandy with Chief Honcho (1990), Composer (1995), Favorite Trick (1998) and Good Samaritan (2017).
While War Of Will and Tacitus have already made noise at the top of the 3-year-old division, Global Campaign hopes to earn his way into the full conversation after the Jim Dandy.
“We hope we’re already in it, but we’d like to get further into it for sure,” said trainer Stan Hough Friday morning with a nod toward the Sagamore Farm colt three stalls down the shedrow. Unraced at 2, Global Campaign won a Gulfstream Park maiden race in January, added an allowance a month later and lined up in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth in March. The son of Curlin finished fifth after grabbing a quarter and derailing any hopes of a Triple Crown start.
“That set him back and left no doubt that you had to stop and miss those races,” Hough said. “It wasn’t just a few days and then you’re OK. He really did a number on it, and then that turned into a quarter crack and that was a problem. It’s been a nightmare. It seems like we’ve got it going in the right direction now though.”
And then some. Global Campaign returned in May to blitz four rivals – including eventual Belmont Stakes winner Sir Winston – in the Grade 3 Peter Pan at Belmont. The win and three solid works at Saratoga earned the bay colt a slot as the second choice at 2-1 today. Luis Saez rides.
“He’s a really talented horse,” said Sagamore’s Hunter Rankin. “Going a mile-and-an-eighth against these horses, he’s going to have to be, but he’s earned a start in there.”
Two others in the field – Tax and Laughing Fox – also competed in the spring classics.
Tax finished 14th via disqualification in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Belmont Stakes. He’s the 8-1 fourth choice for trainer Danny Gargan with Irad Ortiz Jr. taking the return call.
Laughing Fox won the Oaklawn Park Invitational the same day as the Kentucky Derby to earn an automatic berth in the Preakness, where he finished fifth in his most recent start for Steve Asmussen. Ricardo Santana Jr. rides.
Mihos, winner of the Mucho Macho Man in January at Gulfstream and fourth in the Dwyer last time for Jimmy Jerkens, completes the field. Junior Alvarado rides.
Additional reporting and writing by Joe Clancy.