08/23/2014 6:59PM

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.