by DICK POWELL
There were two major three-year-olds stakes races last weekend that were supposed to serve as prep races for the Travers (G1) on August 26 at Saratoga. But, instead of providing answers, they both raised even more questions about the male crop of 2014.
First, on Saturday, the Jim Dandy (G2) was run at Saratoga going nine furlongs on the main track. We have already raised some concerns about the addition of clay and sand to the Saratoga main track and how it was going to perform on race days.
On Saturday, in perfect weather and in front of a huge crowd, the main track played to speed on the inside. Some were heavy favorites that were going to win no matter which path their rider chose but when horses tried to rally wide, they lost their action and momentum. When horses came up the rail, they finished strong. This bias appeared to hold up all day but the final running times were relatively slow.
But a funny thing happened before the Jim Dandy. And being there, I can attest to the fact that it did not rain. Yet, the Saratoga main track was soaked before the race and when you look at the horses after the race, they looked like they raced over a sloppy track.
At the start, Johnny Velazquez sent Kentucky Derby (G1) winner ALWAYS DREAMING to the lead as Mario Gutierrez inexplicably did not send recent speedy maiden winner PAVEL. Always Dreaming had a clear lead going around the clubhouse turn while racing down on the inside. Pavel came over and bumped GIUSEPPE THE GREAT on the first turn knocking him up close to CLOUD COMPUTING’s heels and forcing Luis Saez to lose his rhythm.
While this was going on, here was Johnny Velazquez aboard the Derby winner with a four-length lead down the backside through a first half-mile in :48.53. If you watched the early dirt races, you couldn’t help but think that the Jim Dandy was over.
With Gutierrez trying to rate Pavel, Javier Castellano had no choice but to go up and send Preakness (G1) winner Cloud Computing to apply pressure to Always Dreaming since nobody else was. A third quarter was run in :24.96 but now the top three horses had bunched up going around the far turn.
Nearing the top of the stretch, Saez had Giuseppe the Great in a drive and when he closed the gap on the leading trio, he swung to the far outside and loomed boldly. Joel Rosario had wound up first-time-dirt horse GOOD SAMARITAN and was making up ground with giant strides.
When it looked like we might have a thrilling five-horse battle to the wire, it suddenly turned to a romp as Good Samaritan went right on by to win by 4 3/4 lengths in the final time of 1:50.69. Giuseppe the Great battled on gamely to get second and Always Dreaming was third. After the race was over, Always Dreaming actually galloped out best of all.
Good Samaritan made his first career starts on the turf and WinStar Farm president Eliot Walden felt that it was time to try the dirt. He looked good doing it and gave every impression that the ten furlongs of the Travers in four weeks will not be a problem. Giuseppe the Great stayed on grimly from the three-eighths pole and will also go on to the Travers if he trains well in the interim.
Todd Pletcher was very complimentary of Always Dreaming’s effort and seemed to indicate that he would go on to the Travers. He is unlikely to drop back to seven furlongs for the Allen Jerkens (G1) going seven furlongs since his owners also have BATTALION RUNNER pointed for it. Pletcher will train Belmont S. (G1) winner TAPWRIT up to the race so he has some decisions to make. The Kelso H. (G2) at Belmont and the Cigar Mile (G1) at Aqueduct might be the better route to take for the Derby winner.
On Sunday, the Haskell Invitational (G1) was run at the same distance as the Jim Dandy over a track that was playing much faster in terms of final times. Going in, it looked like anyone’s race and in the actual race, anyone, with the exception of HENCE had their chance of winning.
At the start, Dwyer (G3) winner PRACTICAL JOKE bore in and squeezed TIMELINE and BATTLE OF MIDWAY. IRISH WAY CRY wound up having a brief lead but Flavien Prat sent Battle of Midway up the rail in a determined run to make the lead. Rajiv Maragh aboard Irish War Cry let him through and now had a perfect stalking target.
In behind on the rail, seemingly in a perfect spot, was Javier Castellano aboard the undefeated Timeline. But this is when the Haskell got weird as Castellano felt that Timeline was too aggressive and sent him up between Battle of Midway and Irish War Cry to battle for the lead.
After giving him his head, Timeline refused to settle down and he raced in between the other two leaders. Irish War Cry wound up three wide on the outside and Battle of Midway had Timeline pressing him. The perfect trip, at this point, was going to Practical Joke as he was in behind three horses on the lead with a gap behind him.
With a half-mile in :47.34, and the leaders trying to rate their energy, MCCRACKEN and GIRVIN began to close in. Practical Joke had nowhere to go and had to bide his time as McCracken went up four wide on the turn.
For a moment, Irish War Cry took a brief lead but McCracken had all the momentum. Practical Joke finally got room to run and he was in between horses and Robby Albarado had Girvin in a drive on the far outside. The three of them pulled away from the others and Girvin got his nose down on the wire over McCracken on the rail with Practical Joke another half-length back in third.
With the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) coming up on September 23, it would be smart for Timeline, Irish War Cry and Battle of Midway to re-group and try it again going nine furlongs. Even McCracken is a question mark going ten furlongs as he was run down going nine so the only two I like out of the Haskell for the Travers are Girvin and Practical Joke, and the latter might instead run in the Allen Jerkens.
Luckily for the Travers, it will still have Tapwrit, IRAP, who won the Blue Grass (G2) and then the Ohio (G3) and Indiana Derbies (G3) in his last two starts, and WEST COAST, who won the Easy Goer on Belmont Stakes day for Bob Baffert. With $1.25 million on the line and prestige of the “Mid-Summer Derby,” I would expect a full gate of 14 this year since nothing has happened on the track to scare anyone away.