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Horse racing's dog days of summer

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

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Between the needless trolling of NFL holdouts, the drone of baseball pennant races that cry out for September desperation and the slam-dunk GIFs that come from flashes in the NBA summer-league frying pan, these really are the dog days.

 

Horse racing is no exception.

 

Just this week came news that Mandaloun would be out until at least late September. A sore foot cost him the rest of the summer. So which comes next — his next race, his retirement or his seemingly inevitable promotion to victory in the Kentucky Derby? If only we could bet on that.

 

Oh, did anyone open an early futures pool on the Aug. 28 Travers Stakes at Saratoga? Someone who had the wherewithal to book it would be making out like the banker on “Deal or No Deal” who just saw a contestant open the $500,000 and $1 million briefcases too soon.

 

First, Preakness winner Rombauer was sent to a California farm to freshen up for the fall. So much for the Belmont Derby on the turf. Or the $1 million Haskell on the Jersey shore. Or the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Or the $1.25 million Travers.

 

Then nine days after he was disqualified from his Haskell Stakes victory for interference, Belmont Stakes runner-up Hot Rod Charlie was ruled out of his hometown Pacific Classic and the Travers.

 

How many more briefcases are left to open, Howie? Actually, at least two. And two big figures are still on the board: Essential Quality and Medina Spirit.

 

If nothing else, Mandaloun’s cranky foot resolved Brad Cox’s Travers dilemma. He would not have relished putting Belmont winner Essential Quality against stablemate Mandaloun — or choosing between them. One is owned by Godolphin, the other by Juddmonte. The royal family of Dubai vs. the royal family of Saudi Arabia. It was one thing to match them in the Kentucky Derby. There was no sense walking that tightrope again before the Breeders’ Cup.

 

The enticing possibility still exists of seeing Essential Quality getting another shot at Medina Spirit. Now that trainer Bob Baffert has that temporary restraining order in his lawyer’s vest pocket, he can ignore the New York Racing Association’s cold shoulder and send all the horses he wants to Saratoga.

 

When Illumination showed up from the Baffert barn last weekend for the Grade 1 Test Stakes, Earth did not stop revolving around the sun. As an 8-1 fifth choice who finished sixth, it was not exactly a drop-everything-you’re-doing moment.

 

Medina Spirit, however, would be another matter entirely. He finally got back on the Del Mar work tab the last couple of weeks, most recently firing a 59.6-second, 5-furlong bullet Thursday. Since his under-the-microscope third-place finish in the Preakness, he had worked only once before getting a break. It would not be unheard of for Baffert to throw a horse back into the deep end of the pool for the Travers. Look how it worked out five years ago with Arrogate.

 

The glare of the Kentucky Derby contretemps would be certain to blind pedestrian bettors seeing Medina Spirit’s name show up among the Travers choices. While the colt has quietly gone about his business at Del Mar, his urine sample remains the source of amusing arguments in front of adults wearing robes. Perhaps in our lifetimes, one of those judges may decide whether Medina Spirit really won the Kentucky Derby — and whether a little dash of betamethasone constituted constitutional cheating.

 

If Medina Spirit and all his baggage wound up in the Travers, no shortage of bettors would say they’d refuse to put a dollar on him simply because of Baffert. They collectively said the same thing before the Preakness. Then they still made Medina Spirit the 2-1 favorite. And they were steaming when he finished third.

 

“He must have been clean this time. No wonder he lost.”

 

Sure, never mind that Rock Your World’s early speed was left at the Derby gate. That Medina Spirit did not get a loose lead in Baltimore. That Rombauer was there to close on an honest pace. Hey, it must be the betamethasone.

 

Now that the dog days are here, the vox populi of bettors can be heard rising all over again on different matters.

 

“Aaron Rodgers? I knew he would be back all along.”

 

“The Lakers are 7-2? Come on. They’re too old.”

 

“I don’t care if the Astros are 7-1. I won’t put a cent on those cheaters.”

 

Yeah. That’ll show ’em.

 

That sort of dog-days bluster plays right into the script at the Travers — and with any bookmaker showing the foresight to take action now. If Baffert showed up with Medina Spirit, he would get the Astros treatment from the public. At least verbally. And he would still attract a pile of money.

 

Too bad Life Is Good will not be in the Travers. The former futures favorite for the Derby was the wintertime darling of the Baffert barn. Then came surgery in March to deal with an ankle chip. After Medina Spirit’s first urine sample came back positive, racing powerbrokers Elliott Walden and Teo Ah Khing whisked him from Baffert to rival trainer Todd Pletcher. Now Life Is Good is being aimed for Travers day, but not the Travers. Instead, Pletcher told the Daily Racing Form he is being leaned toward the 7-furlong Jerkens Stakes.

 

Again, though, if someone had been making book on Travers futures, Life Is Good might have attracted some early betting interest before the Jerkens alternative was broached.

 

For most players, betting on the Travers will not open until the morning of the race. By then all the value that might have come with a midsummer wager will be gone. That, of course, is kind of how it works with futures.

 

It is also how it works with the dog days. The holdouts will report in the NFL. The pretenders will be pushed aside in baseball. The dust will settle on NBA free agency. And the field for the Travers will look more modest than it did when Saratoga opened.

 

Wasn’t it a month ago when these words were written here?

 

The start of the Saratoga meet comes annually with the fantastically cockeyed hope that the Travers will be loaded, that all the Triple Crown race winners will be there. If it happens this summer, it would be the first time since 2017.

 

As the late Greg Lake wrote 48 years ago, welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. Hey, come to think of it, didn’t Emerson, Lake and Palmer play Saratoga in the summer of ’72?

 

In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. The next episode will originate from Arlington Park near Chicago, where this weekend’s final running of Million Day precedes the anticipated closing of the track next month. Top trainer Larry Rivelli, leading jockey Jareth Loveberry, Equibase chart caller Nicolle Neulist and DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello are the scheduled guests. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

 

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