Varsity Level

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Joe Bravo stays busy this time of year, especially with Monmouth Park only running live Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. He’ll bounce between Monmouth, Delaware Park, Parx Racing, with the occasional trek north to Saratoga. Today’s is one of those days and he’s back at Saratoga to ride Varsity back in the $100,000 Troy Stakes. Bravo’s been aboard the 6-year-old Indian Charlie gelding for 11 of his 14 previous starts, including a good third here opening weekend in the Fiddlers Patriot Stakes going the Troy’s trip of 5 ½ furlongs on the Mellon Turf Course.

“He’s a pretty nice horse, just a pure athlete,” Bravo said Wednesday afternoon as he got ready to ride his lone mount of the day at Parx, a 2-year-old maiden named Union Label for John Servis. “We’ve been lucky together. There must be something about him, I traveled all the way across the world to be with him.”

Bravo’s trip around the world was to Dubai, for the $1 million Al Quoz Sprint earlier this year. They finished sixth of 16 in that spot, beaten only six lengths by Shea Shea, and Bravo’s been aboard when the gelding’s raced at Gulfstream, Monmouth, Pimlico and last time out at Saratoga.

The three times Monmouth’s 13-time leading rider wasn’t aboard Varsity he can offer good excuses.

The first time was Varsity’s third start, in allowance company March 27, 2011 at Gulfstream, when Bravo was in New Mexico to ride Nacho Saint to a sixth in the $800,000 Sunland Derby. He missed a mount on him again in Oct. 2011, Varsity’s 12th-place finish in the Grade 3 Woodford at Keeneland while Bravo won the Mazarine Stakes at Woodbine on Blue Heart. The last time Bravo didn’t ride Varsity was July 28, 2012 for the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup at Penn National when he stayed at Monmouth and finished third in the Desert Vixen Stakes on Composition for Christophe Clement, who trains Varsity.

Clement and Bravo agree that Varsity had an excuse in the Fiddlers Patriot, his second start since the trip to Dubai. He finished 1 ¼ lengths behind fellow Troy entrant and 7-2 morning-line second choice Strong Impact that day after breaking a step slow. He probably could be given an excuse for his first start after Dubai, too, after drawing post 9 of 10 in the John McSorley Stakes going 5 furlongs at Monmouth.

To a man, Clement, Bravo and his longtime agent Danny Nied all agree that the poor break might not have been such a bad thing.

“He was just taking a step back when they opened the doors,” Bravo said. “At first it looked like such a shame, but it actually worked out. There was tons of early gas in there, he sat off of it and was finishing well at the end.”

“He ran very well,” Clement said of the Fiddlers Patriot. “He missed the break, which probably cost him something, but he was still running at the end.”

“He’s a nice horse,” said Nied, a former jockey who won nearly 1,000 races. “He actually showed he can run off the pace last time. Usually he wants to be right on it, but he closed a little bit.”

Varsity previously showed plenty of early speed, especially in victories in the Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint this year, John McSorley last year and in his first start on grass way back in February 2011.

“I rode him in his first start before that, too, on dirt,” Bravo said. “They came in telling me how great he was and he faltered that day. Second time out on the grass he was gone. That’s his hole-key. He does love the grass.

“I tell you, I’ve got to give it to Christophe Clement and his team though. He’s an agile horse, but he’s huge. Being so big I’m sure you could come up with a list of problems just because he’s so big. But they do a great job with him. He’s just a pleasure to be around. I’ll go wherever he goes.”

Bruce Brown brings Strong Impact to the Troy off a three-quarter length win in the Fiddlers Patriot, the A. P Jet gelding’s third victory on the grass at Saratoga to go with two seconds and a third.

That affinity for the turf here and how well he’s bounced back from the July 21 race, as evidenced by a strong half-mile breeze last week, makes him one to beat.

“He came out of the race he won here last time [Fiddler’s Patriot] unbelievable,” Brown said. “He really loves it up here. His record speaks for itself up here at Saratoga.

“He gets a little bit better with age, seems like every year he gets better. He’s a turf horse and a gelding and a lot of times they don’t hit their best stride till like 7 or 8 so there’s nothing that says he couldn’t be better in a year or so. He’s very sound, knock on wood we haven’t had many problems with that. He should have a long career in front of him still.”

Great Mills, fourth in last year’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, is the 3-1 morning-line favorite for trainer Steve Asmussen. The 5-year-old by War Front comes off a nealry seven-month lengthy layoff for the Troy, but won the Quick Call Stakes as a 3-year-old in his only start at Saratoga.

Others in the field are Hogy, winner of the Grade 3 Hanshin on Polytrack at Arlington and making his first start for Wayne Catalano, Bob Baffert’s Smash, Florida shipper Tripski, Mop Head and Hear the Footsteps. Leave of Absence is entered for the main track only.

Trainer Linda Rice entered Hear the Footsteps in Thursday’s West Point and would definitely run there if today’s race comes off the turf. The New York-bred Read the Footnotes gelding is undefeated in three starts this season, once going 6 furlongs and twice going 7.

“Obviously we’d prefer to go 7/8ths,” Rice said. “We’re just going to have to choose which race fits us the best. The weather might force us into the West Point. The horse couldn’t run on dirt.”