Travers teaches new lessons

Travers teaches new lessons

August 29, 2017 3:00 AM


While I am writing a new book titled, “Lessons Learned from a Wild and Crazy Life,” I must confess to having learned quite a few lessons about my chosen profession this past Saturday at Saratoga.

For instance, all of us should keep this in mind about Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert: Whenever Baffert ships a good horse 3,000 miles to run in an important race, it is foolish to believe he is looking to gain frequent travel miles.

For clear proof, we only need to recall Baffert shipped his rapidly developing Arrogate to win the 2016 Travers in track record time for the 1-1/4 mile distance! So, was it really a surprise Baffert’s late developing West Coast would be hard to beat in the 2017 Travers?

I certainly cannot forgive myself for picking Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming to stalk the pace and go past West Coast. While Always Dreaming did get a perfect stalking trip, he faded from contention at the mile marker as if there was nothing left in his tank.

 Consider also that Baffert shipped America’s top sprinter Drefong to Saratoga to dominate the 7 furlong Forego Stakes on the Travers’ undercard. This, after Drefong had thrown his jockey Mike Smith in his first and only start this year – the Bing Crosby at Del Mar, July 29. Given Baffert’s exceptional horsemanship, wasn’t it logical to expect Drefong’s issues would have been resolved before Baffert put him on a plane to Saratoga?

After all, Baffert does not go out of his way to embarrass himself or his horses. Win or lose, whenever this man – who ranks among the top half dozen trainers of my lifetime – makes a 3,000 mile move with a horse who endured a troubled last race, Baffert’s history says the horse is likely to run a terrific race.

Drefong merely won the Forego by four lengths and earned a career best 107 Beyer Speed Figure in the process. That was just a point below the career best Beyer earned by West Coast in the Travers.

Baffert aside, here are a few more lessons this veteran horseplayer learned – or were reinforced – by the way Saratoga’s amazing, stakes-loaded-card played out on Saturday.

Songbird, voted the champion 2-year-old filly in 2015 and champion -year-old filly last year after winning all but one of her 12 career starts, came into the $700K Personal Ensign stakes with three more wins this year. That led to Songbird going to the post at 2-5 odds. As repeatedly stated in this space, I believe it is unwise to bet on any horse at such low odds. Obviously, Songbird’s narrow loss on Saturday to Forever Unbridled reinforced that wagering perspective, even though the winner only needed a modest 98 Beyer to win this 1-1/8 mile contest.

Going back to the Travers – to reinforce a lesson I should have kept in mind before I made my selection of Always Dreaming – I knew this subtle truth about Todd Pletcher: Although a force to be reckoned with at Saratoga for several years, Pletcher actually has been difficult to support at the betting windows when competing in the Spa’s top stakes.

My bad, a lesson relearned, as Pletcher was not close to scoring a victory with six of his best horses in the five stakes he entered. Meanwhile, Pletcher’s most persistent New York training rival Chad Brown, won two Travers’ Day stakes.

One of Brown’s victories was scored by the remarkable, Lady Eli, who earned a 103 Beyer Figure, typical for this 5-year-old female turf specialist. To her enduring credit, Lady Eli never has finished worse than second in 13 career starts while earning $2.9 million. At 4-5 odds, I could not bet her; but the exacta with longshot Dickinson – who beat Lady Eli earlier this year – certainly deserved a few dollars.

In the spirit of sharing what I learned and re-learned on Saturday was this extremely important handicapping principle that readers should commit to memory for any similar circumstance: Whenever a horse shows a specific liking for an unusual distance – or an unusual distance on a specific racing surface – it is wise to give that horse extra credit, or at least a strong second look.

This occurred in the $1 million Sword Dancer at 1-1/2 miles on Saratoga’s inner grass course. The horse fitting the bill was 7-1 shot Sadler’s Joy, who earned his first career win last summer at this same 1-1/2 mile distance over the same inner-turf course!

On Saturday, Sadler’s Joy effectively used his practical experience to rally from last to victory under Julien Leparoux after none of the pace setters acted as if they had speed in reserve. In the process, Sadler’s Joy earned a career best 105 Beyer.

Moving forward, both Saratoga and Del Mar will conclude their special seasons with more top races through Labor Day Monday, Sept. 4. Given the lessons learned and re-learned this past week, I do hope to end the summer on a positive note.