by Teresa Genaro
Minutes before the gates opened for the $1.25 million Travers Stakes (G1), the “Runhappy” concept came crashing down.
The title sponsor of 150th running of Saratoga’s premier race, Runhappy was everywhere: on signs, on sidewalks, on walks, in the program, on the infield screens.
And about 45 minutes before post time, Runhappy was also on the turf course, in the form of long, white, oblong signs blazing the stallion’s name and “Fox,” the network broadcasting the race. Pointing west directly at the afternoon sun, the signs’ shiny white paint reflected not only a substantial marketing investment by Runhappy’s owner, but a distinct glare visible from even a furlong away, and sharply by the jockeys on the track for the Travers.
Jockey Javier Castellano, riding Looking at Bikinis, represented the jockeys and told an outrider that the signs were unsafe, and track maintenance staff rushed to the signs that they had set up a short time before and knocked them down, their shiny faces planted firmly onto the grass of the Mellon turf course.
And then they ran the race, which was a worthy renewal of the storied race, complete with a rousing stretch drive that ended with Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez getting his third graded stakes win on the day when Code of Honor drew off to a three-length win.
It was favored Tacitus who was the early front runner, joined before long by second choice Mucho Gusto, who wrested the lead from Tacitus through fractions of :23.11 and :47.26. Settled far back on the rail, running in ninth, third-betting choice Code of Honor saved ground before moving into the two-path and picked off horses at will, went five-wide coming off the turn, and joined Tacitus and Mucho Gusto, the three of them running abreast towards the wire before Code of Honor took command.
Tacitus was second and Mucho Gusto third, impressive performances given the swift early pace.
The Travers win was the fourth for trainer Shug McGaughey and first for owner W.S. Farish. Velazquez won the race in 2005 with Flower Alley.
It’s the first Grade 1 win for Code of Honor, who was a promising Kentucky Derby (G1) contender after winning the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park in March. Third in the Florida Derby (G1) and placed second in the Kentucky Derby (G1), he bypassed the Preakness Stakes (G1) and the Belmont Stakes (G1), winning the one-mile Dwyer Stakes (G3) at Belmont in early July and skipping the Travers preps early in the Saratoga meet.
“He’s been a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde horse,” said McGaughey. “Today, he put it all together.”
“I never had any doubts about distance as a problem,” said Velazquez, “just him putting his mind to running. Obviously, we’ve been looking for this kind of performance for a long time. He’s a late foal, not really knowing what to do (even though he’s) run some really big races. He’s never really put it together until today.”
Concerned that his horse was dawdling at the three-eighths pole, McGaughey said that he was a “little bit worried,” but had confidence in Velazquez.
“He knows to wait, and he knows that he kind of needs to let [Code of Honor] be watching something to keep his focus. We had a decent pace in front of us, and Johnny did exactly what he portrayed to me in the paddock: save some ground around the first turn, then try to get him out going down the backside and have him in position at the three-eighths pole to where we could make a run if we had horse.”
Owned and bred by Farish, Code of Honor is by Noble Mission (GB), a multiple Group 1 winner in Europe. His dam is Reunited (Dixie Union), herself a graded stakes winner, and dam of the graded stakes placed Big League.
Said Velazquez of the signs on the turf course, “You definitely cannot do anything like that in a big race. We had no clue.
“We don’t want to be surprised when we’re running, that’s all it is. Put the signs down and be safe.”
Explaining the decision to contact the outrider, Castellano said that the jockeys were shielding their eyes from the glare and were concerned that horses might shy from the unfamiliar objects and light coming off the signs.
McGaughey said that he was unaware of the signs or any concerns about them.
“That was one thing I didn’t have to worry about,” he said.
The Hall of Fame trainer feels confident that at this point in the year, Code of Honor is the leader of the three-year-old division, based on the horse’s performance and the inconsistent races by other top sophomores. McGaughey was noncommittal about where the chestnut colt, who has run well with time between races, might prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
“With a guy like this there’s going to be no hurry,” he said.