The Tour of the Missing continues for horse racing’s best 3-year-olds. After not showing up last weekend at Del Mar, the stars of the show will next skip Saturday’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
For the second year in a row, the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes will not be there to answer the bell at 5:44 p.m. EDT. But it is different from last year when they were all just one horse. This time it could be argued that four classic winners are missing from the $1.25 million Grade 1 race that usually singles out a serious contender or even the leader for the 3-year-old championship.
Maximum Security and Country House – the disqualified and anointed winners of the Kentucky Derby – will not be there. The same goes for War Of Will and Sir Winston – the winners of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Oh, throw in – or out – one-time Kentucky Derby favorite Omaha Beach.
Hey, Saint West – the son of Kanye and Kim – is not in the Travers, either. So this really is a star-studded list of the absent 3-year-olds.
The question this weekend is whether the Travers will provide bettors the value that they got with Higher Power stepping into a sudden spotlight by winning the Pacific Classic at odds of 9-1. The problem this time is there may be a star in waiting.
Tacitus (5-2 morning line, 3-1 best price off shore and overseas) may not have won since April in the Wood Memorial. But his promotion to third in the slop at the Kentucky Derby and his troubled runner-up finishes in the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy make him worthy of being the morning-line favorite for the Travers.
“I think we’re just looking for that breakout race and for him to have his day in the sun,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who is adding blinkers to Tacitus. “I think they might help him focus a little bit.”
The kneejerk reaction to Tacitus’s failure to find the winner’s circle in his last three races – and as a favorite in the last two – is to say that he finds trouble. It is more accurate to say that trouble has found him.
After steadying early in the Kentucky Derby traffic, Tacitus was rolling on the backstretch but got a wide trip into the final turn and made contact with Game Winner in the stretch. He drew wide and could not do much about it in the Belmont but still came within a length of catching Sir Winston at the wire. He broke badly in the Jim Dandy and was caught on a dead rail before closing within three-quarters of a length of Tax.
Even his win in the Wood Memorial was fraught with peril. Tacitus got caught in the domino effect of Joevia being, as the chart writer put it, “heck-bent on a mission for the front end” with a get-outta-my-way move out of the gate to the inside of the track. Then he had his heels clipped before jockey José Ortiz could really get him going. By the end of the race Tacitus was going eyeball to eyeball with Tax before emerging a 1¼-length winner.
Now Tacitus will start from post 6 in the field of 12. “You can get a good trip from that post or a bad trip from that post,” Mott said. “We’re hoping for a good trip.”
If he gets it, it is hard to imagine Tacitus being beaten over what should be a dry 1¼ miles. Promoted Kentucky Derby runner-up Code Of Honor (4-1, 3-1) comes in off a win last month in the Grade 3 Dwyer at Belmont Park, but that was a one-turn mile. Tax (6-1, 9-1) is likely to try and set the pace from his outside post, but he adds six pounds not to mention an extra furlong that appears out of his reach.
With Game Winner unavailable after catching the bug that has gone around the barns at Del Mar, trainer Bob Baffert has sent Mucho Gusto (6-1, 6-1) to try and get him his fourth Travers win and his third in the last four years. Runner-up to Maximum Security in last month’s Haskell, Mucho Gusto figures to be chasing the early pace set by Tax and Looking At Bikinis (10-1, 20-1), one of two Chad Brown entries. The big question for him will be going 1¼ miles for the first time not to mention the eight added pounds that he and Joe Talamo must carry.
While I am putting Tacitus at the top of my ticket and Code Of Honor underneath, I will add the Endorsed (15-1, 16-1) on the strength of his possibly coming off the turn with first crack at the pace-setters and Highest Honors (10-1, 9-1), the “other Chad” that won the $100,000 Curlin Stakes last month at Saratoga.
Mott is looking for Tacitus to bring him his first win in the Travers the same year that he broke through in the Kentucky Derby with Country House, albeit through the disqualification of Maximum Security. “It would mean as much to me as a Triple Crown race,” he said. “I’m not sure it wouldn’t mean more.”
Racing news and opinions
Anticipating a court ruling next Friday as he tries to be allowed back in at Golden Gate Fields, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer granted 10 good minutes last Saturday at Del Mar in an interview posted on the latest episode of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. “I’ve tried to maintain level thoughts on everything,” Hollendorfer said in reaction to being banned temporarily from Del Mar and indefinitely from The Stronach Group stables at Santa Anita and Golden Gate. Asked if he was ever told specifically by TSG what rules he broke, Hollendorfer said, “We don’t have all the facts. We learn more every day.” Hollendorfer was clearly made a scapegoat for the deaths of 30 horses during the winter and spring at Santa Anita, since four were from his stable. “While it’s been a big negative for my barn,” he said, “we’ll try to pick some positive about it where we can.”
Catalina Cruiser (4-5) figures to be a heavily bet favorite for the $200,000 Grade 2 Pat O’Brien Stakes, a seven-furlong dash on the Del Mar dirt Saturday at 9 p.m. EDT. This represents a cutback from the two-turn win he had last month in the San Diego Handicap. It also marks the first time that trainer John Sadler will saddle him with Flavien Prat. Joel Rosario had ridden Catalina Cruiser until now, but his front-running ride to victory in the San Diego was less than emphatic against an outclassed field. Pace-setting Lieutenant Dan (20-1), 2-for-2 in southern California stakes, and Jalen Journey (5-1), a wide-running third in the Bing Crosby, fill out my ticket.
To avoid getting in the way of the building of the New York Islanders arena at Belmont Park, the New York Racing Association has pushed back the post time for its autumn meet to 3 p.m. local time Wednesday, Thursdays and Fridays starting Friday, Sept. 6. The weekend post times will stay at 1 p.m. There will be only 23 days of racing at Belmont Park before an early switch to Aqueduct starting Oct. 11.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. After dealing with racehorse deaths early this year, Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer needed a court order to be allowed back in at Del Mar. He is trying for the same thing at Golden Gate Fields, and he talks about that on the RFRP. The New York Racing Association’s Andy Serling previews Saturday's Travers Stakes card at Saratoga. And Ron has a comment about the late Jack Whitaker and his influence on racing. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.