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Watchmaker: Strange strategy by Travers jockeys
Sometimes you have to do a reality check and remember that this game is contested by flesh and blood creatures, ridden by human beings, who sometimes affect strategy that makes a committed horseplayer scream, “W(hiskey) T(ango) F(oxtrot).”
The Grade 1 Travers Stakes is the biggest race of every Saratoga meet. But even with a bit of time to think about it, I’m still dumbstruck at how Saturday’s renewal of this near classic race was run. It seems that the questionable strategy that frustrate horseplayers in cheaper races on midweek cards on a consistent basis has now metastasized to the biggest events at our premier boutique meets.
Everyone knew that Haskell winner Bayern was the only true front-runner in this Travers. But that normally significant strategic advantage was mitigated by the fact that Bayern was a big question mark going two turns on a track where route races are not easily won, and was an even bigger question mark going the 10 furlongs of the Travers.
For that reason, it was a shock, at least to me, to see Tonalist, winner of the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes, and Wicked Strong, a two-time graded stakes winner going nine furlongs and a good fourth in the Kentucky Derby at 10 furlongs, go after Bayern the way they did in the early running.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I did expect Wicked Strong and Tonalist to make sure that Bayern didn’t walk on the early lead. With the vastly improved speed Wicked Strong showed with blinkers on when he won the Jim Dandy, and with the early foot Tonalist demonstrated when he won the Peter Pan, they had the capabilities to make sure Bayern wouldn’t steal the Travers. But I never expected Tonalist, and to only a slightly lesser extent, Wicked Strong, to go after Bayern through a first quarter-mile that rivaled the first fractions of the Grade 1 sprint stakes that immediately preceded the Travers. Questionable strategy, indeed.
I mean, if you have a horse who has already proven capable of staying a real distance, why take your horse completely out of his game just to run an opponent who is questionable at the trip right into the ground?
I don’t want to take anything away from V. E. Day. He got up to win the Travers, and no one can ever take that away from him. But he was able to get up because the last quarter-mile of the Travers was run in 26.33 seconds, and because Wicked Strong and Tonalist were spent from being inexplicably used they way they were early. V. E. Day might have gotten the money, but Wicked Strong and Tonalist ran better races.
Close Hatches ran better than Beyer indicates
Close Hatches’s winning performance in Friday’s Grade 1 Personal Ensign was a dominating one in every respect but one – one that is often a critical component in assessing quality: Her winning Beyer Figure was only 99.
Although I know it is but one tool in the handicapping arsenal, I believe completely in the importance of speed figures. Moreover, I feel winning figures, far more often than people might think, generally wind up being good fits for their respective races, and are pretty indicative of what went on. But the Personal Ensign was one of those infrequent instances when the winning Beyer did not do the race real justice.
The 99 Beyer Close Hatches earned Friday is lower than what you would expect for the most accomplished older female in the country, and make no mistake, Close Hatches is the clear-cut leader of her division right now. But the number came back relatively low because Close Hatches went the fourth quarter of the 1 1/8-mile Personal Ensign in 25.82, and the final furlong in 13.68. That is not fast.
However, Close Hatches had an excellent reason for not coming home fast: She went very fast early. Her first quarter in 23.05 and half in 46.61 was really moving compared with what you usually see in routes at Saratoga, and even more so because Friday’s track was wet. Close Hatches might have come home slow, but no one could even hint at making a dent in her because she bottomed her field out early, leaving them gasping.
Most players today know that how a figure is earned is as important as the figure itself. It’s also important to try and understand why figures come back the way they do. Close Hatches was dominating Friday, even if her Beyer doesn’t say so.
Awesome effort by Artemis Agrotera
Artemis Agrotera could not have been more impressive winning Saturday’s Grade 1 Ballerina, powerfully drawing away to demolish a field that, admittedly, wasn’t a compelling one. However, Artemis Agrotera, a 3-year-old, crushed seven older females, and ran the seven furlongs in .46 of a second faster than 3-year-old male sprinters did in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop in the race before.
At this point in time, the female sprint division is, like others, very unsettled. But I can’t think of a filly I would want more right now in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint than Artemis Agrotera. That’s how impressive she was in this performance.
Wide trip dooms Filimbi
Filimbi’s ascension to the higher levels of the female turf division was put on hold with her empty performance in Saturday’s Grade 2 Ballston Spa. Caught three-wide on the first turn in a six-horse race that lacked real pace, Filimbi made a mild three-wide move on the far turn, and then surrendered turning for home. But Ballston Spa winner Abaco had a big win coming to her. She has been running far too well for too long not to win one of these.
The Big Beast wins the hard way
The Big Beast was a lot better winning the King’s Bishop than his win margin of a neck would suggest, and is a serious sprinter. That said, much of what he had to overcome was the result of the strategy employed on him. The Big Beast was taken in hand immediately out of the gate, and that sprung Fast Anna, who was able to set not only an uncontested pace, but also a slower pace than maidens did in Saturday’s opener. So, despite gifting a colt in Fast Anna who galloped in his only two starts the easiest sort of lead, The Big Beast still came and got him for his third straight win.
As for Coup de Grace, I thought he was less impressive winning the Amsterdam early in the meet than The Big Beast was winning an allowance event in the race immediately before the Amsterdam. Coup de Grace could only manage third in the King’s Bishop, but he did seem bothered having to run between horses. Then again, that’s something Coup de Grace needs to get over if he is to be a serious horse.
Completely agree with you Mike Watchmaker! What the heck were those riders thinking? You simply can't dispute the lead going those fractions and get home over that trip. Everyone seems to think that US racehorses can't get a distance of ground and that 10-12 furlong races are out of their reach. Well I got news for you - if a European, Australian or Irish mile and a half distance horse went that fast early in a mile and a half race - they wouldn't get home either! Plenty of US horses would get a mile and a half if they were ridden to do so. The fact is that riders seem to think you can go sprint or even mile pace and get home over further. You can't. Look at human athletics. The 1500 meters is run at a slower early pace than the 800, which is run at a slower early pace than the 400 and so on. US horses don't get a distance of ground because they are ridden suicidally, not because they are incapable of getting the distance.
I think people are misjudging what happened upfront in the Travers. Tonalist was not rank early. He was allowed to get out by Rosario. I think it's clear that Rosario used Tonalist early not to pressure Bayern but to get first jump on Wicked Strong. WS is a better finisher in the lane and Tonalist wanted a margin to work with. However, Rosario misread the strategy of Garcia on Bayern. Garcia wanted to use Bayern's speed early and force the field to come after him late. After Rosario chased Garcia, he had no alternative but to continue on. Maragh clearly misjudged the pace and was a few lengths too close. Also, we need to not give Tonalist a pass on this race. He was dead fit. I was at both Saratoga races and he was in much better condition for the Travers. We need to start the conversation that maybe Tonalist benefited from tired horses on the Triple Crown trail in the Belmont. We should make us show that performance again and not write this off as jockey error and play him at low odds again. In the interest of full disclosure, I won the P4 on V.E. Day but was alive to four others as well. I thought the ride was excellent by Castellano and despite the questionable jockey work upfront, V.E. Day deserves credit as a potentially strong horse on turf or dirt going forward. Really hard to knock a horse that has won four in a row with increasing difficulty. He should have never been let to float up to 19-1 considering the field. There were still people betting Kid Cruz and CD specialist Commanding curve ahead of him in this race. Absolutely crazy.
I'll tell you one thing that is a FACT, a 100% fact, I lost my arse in the Travers. lol never even remotely dreamed of putting VE day on top. Who?
Great column, Mike. It's times like this that I realize just how much I have to learn. I plan to go back and re-watch the races you covered and try to follow your points. On another topic: I watch a lot of overseas racing, and I'm struck with how much better I think they do "over there" with their race camera work. At times, you feel like you can smell the sweat of the horses, it's that close. Am I the only one who thinks American tracks need to re-vamp their camera angles and coverage of the races? Why the heck can't they put some cameras on the backstretch instead of having to spend several seconds at almost every track watching the shrubbery and foliage trying to catch a glimpse of how the race is playing out at that very critical moment of the race? JMHO
The connections of Cal Chrome and Shared Belief should send a gift to Baffert/Bayern. This speed duel pretty much decided the 3 year old HOY for either Cali horse. I would like to see them hook-up in the BCC at Santa Anita. I think Shared Belief is the real deal and pray that he stays healthy. That 117 on Poly should allow him to approach the 120's if they go any faster than that on the dirt. We haven't seen that since the Zapper's days and Mr. Robert Frankel.
Playing the part of "Monday Morning Quarterback", I'll chime in. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the race until I watched a replay Sunday afternoon. Bayern: Definitely the high-point scorer with regard to pace, but I think everyone felt that he would have a difficult time lasting the distance. (Front runner do well off the bench and he was cranked for the Haskell. Asking him to do 10 furlongs after shooting his wad in the Haskell was a bit of a stretch.) Tonalist: The Belmont Stakes was grueling for sure. He is a natural front-runner with tactical speed. However, this lightly-raced horse is lightly-raced for a reason. True, he can run with the best of them when he is right, but racing aggravates whatever is ailing him. This was evident in his lackluster Jim Dandy, which I thought that he was only using as a prep for the Travers. Now that the Travers is over, I think we saw the last of Tonalist. Wicked Strong: I theorized he popped something in the Remsen and aggravated it in the Wood Memorial. He only beat a lackluster Tonalist in the Jim Dandy, exactly repeating his effort from the Belmont Stakes (according to my mathematical model). Glad to see that whatever was bothering him earlier this year may be resolved. V.E.Day: Deceptive horse in that he only seems to run as fast as he has to. He circled the field in the Curlin; it takes a good horse to do that. He proved that he could run 10 furlongs on the turf. My calculations didn't have him as the overall fastest horse, but his turf race had him as one that gallop for awhile and then close with authority. This is just what he did in the Travers. Kid Cruz: Been running without a break. Should have rested about the time he won the Dwyer to have had a serious shot. With some rest, the Kid could be a pleasant surprise in the next couple months. No...I didn't play...but I did look at V.E. Day and am not surprised by the outcome...not at all.
Great writing - it seemed like the "big 3" decided it was 100% between them and ran that way - the danger of that showed up in the last couple of jumps before the wire.
I expected a big improve on VE Day because of his decent not spectacular past performances, speed, and pace figures and because Castellano was on top.
The biggest reason Close Hatches came home slow is that she didn't need to run any faster. If someone was pressing I don't see any reason why she would not have turned on the afterburners. You don't get a bigger payday for getting a 100+ Beyer.
Of course you see a race like this and scratch your head as to what Rajiv was thinking pushing from the outside even after he sees Tonalist go but then you get a race like yesterday where King Kreesa is allowed to walk around to the half in 50 and honestly it's even more infuriating.