Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott is not afraid to try something new before a big race. So when the discussions came up to race Tacitus with blinkers for the Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers, he was not hesitant to make the equipment change.
Juddmonte Farms' homebred dual Grade 2 winner sported blinkers when beginning “Mid-Summer Derby” preparations, which included a final breeze on Saturday morning over the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga Race Course when the gray or roan Tapit colt went five furlongs in 1:00.48 in company with Seismic Wave. Regular rider Jose Ortiz was aboard for the journey, the fastest of five recorded works at the distance.
“It was what we were looking for. He was a bit more focused with the blinkers,” Ortiz said. “There was a loose horse, so we pulled up at the quarter-pole and when he galloped to the seven-furlong [pole] he was very focused. Before, he used to look around and play around, but he doesn't do that now, so that makes me more confident. He worked unbelievable. He has a nice way that he goes, he can do 12s the whole way around there.”
Tacitus, who is out of 2014 Champion Older Filly Close Hatches, enters the Travers off a pair of runner-up finishes in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets and the Grade 2 Jim Dandy presented by NYRA Bets, where he stumbled coming out of the gate, but managed to recover enough to finish a strong second to fellow Travers aspirant Tax.
“It was a small field, but it was very impressive what he did,” Ortiz said. “He went to his knees, got up and ran a very nice race. I think he's probably one of the best three-year-olds but he's just been very unlucky. Hopefully, we turn the tables in the Travers. We talked about [adding blinkers] after the [Jim] Dandy and we both agreed. He [Mott] said he'd think about it. He ran third in the Derby, second in the Belmont, so we didn't want to change much.”
Mott was pleased with how Tacitus trained with blinkers and said that he appears much more focused than before.
“I think the blinkers seem as though they helped him focus a little bit. Even in the workout, it looked like his head carriage was a little more straight and level,” Mott said. “Does he absolutely have to have them? Maybe not. But if they help him an inch it'll be worth it. The good thing is that they didn't make him anxious or rank. They just helped him focus through the stretch.”
Mott added he was satisfied with the work.
“I thought it looked good. He tracked [Seismic Wave] and joined him at the head of the lane. It looked like he cruised on by with not a lot of encouragement,” Mott said. “He was very focused. He galloped out nicely.”
Tacitus began his 3-year-old season on a high note with victories in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby and the Grade 2 Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets and was subsequently placed third in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby. Tacitus was unfortunate in his last two outings, where he had a wide post and trip in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes and stumbled badly coming out of the gate in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy.
“When he arrived at the eighth pole in the Jim Dandy, Jose still thought he had a little more horse and he started to play with them a little bit,” Mott said. “Part of that could have been fatigue as well. Sometimes horses start to fatigue and maybe they're a little more apt to not be as forward. Maybe he had a little more but the fatigue might have taken over.”
Give the outside post that Tacitus drew in the Belmont, Mott would prefer to break elsewhere in Travers.
“We thought [the outside post] would be okay in the Belmont and it didn't work well for us. I thought we'd get a clean trip, which we did, but we also got a wide trip,” Mott recalled. “The winner [Sir Winston] was forced to be inside and because of where the field required him to be, he was down inside and it opened up and he went. It was a terrific ride by Joel Rosario [aboard Sir Winston] and a perfect run by the horse, but it was circumstances on his part and circumstances on our part. You see that a lot of times, you're stuck inside and it forces your jock to save ground. They don't have an opportunity to come out and it opens up and away they go. Each race is different, you can't predict what will happen.”
With the recent defections of reigning Champion 2-Year-Old Game Winner and two-time Grade 1 winner Maximum Security, Tacitus could end up being the favorite for the Travers.
“At this juncture, anybody who has a horse just hopes they stay healthy until race time, whether it's a soundness issue or whether there's a virus,” Mott said. “You cross your fingers and hope you stay in good shape. I don't think you want to be acting joyous over someone else not being able to run because you could be in the same shoes. We were bringing Hofburg up last year and he got sick right before the race. I'm just worried about my one horse and cross my fingers that he stays healthy for race day.”
On Travers Day, Mott also plans on doubling up in the Grade 1 $700,000 Personal Ensign presented by Lia Infiniti with dual Grade 1 winner Elate, who enters the 1 1/8 mile test off of a repeat win in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap. The Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschnieder homebred daughter of Medaglia d'Oro will breeze on Sunday morning for Mott.
Mott said her royally bred stablemate Golden Award, also by Medaglia d'Oro, will likely also be entered in the Personal Ensign. The Summer Wind Equine-owned half-sister to 2012 Grade 1 Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another won her first graded stakes last out in the Grade 3 Shuvee at Saratoga.
Mott went on to report that Mrs. J.V. Shields and E.J. McFadden's graded-stakes winner Mitchell Road would not race in the Grade 2, $400,000 Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa. The half-sister to this year's Kentucky Derby winner Country House was previously fifth in the Grade 1 Diana following a victory in the Grade 3 Gallorette at Pimlico.
Also on the Saturday morning work tab for Mott was WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and Head of Plains Partners' Yoshida, who went a half-mile in 49.46 over the Oklahoma training track. A Grade 1 winner on both dirt and turf, the Japanese-bred son of Heart's Cry out of Grade 1 winner Hilda's Passion will seek a repeat victory in the Grade 1, $750,000 Woodward presented by NYRA Bets, which is slated for August 31.
“He worked well. He galloped out as fast of a three-quarters as Tacitus,” Mott said.
Three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown, currently at the top of the Saratoga trainer standings with 21 wins and a comfortable 10-win lead with 13 days remaining in the meet, is the overwhelming favorite to wrap up his fourth consecutive trainers title at the historic summer stand.
Brown will look to cap another successful summer with his first career victory in the Travers, saddling pair of formidable contenders in Highest Honors and Looking At Bikinis.
W.S. Farish's Highest Honors, a Tapit gray, and Long Lake Stable, Madaket Stables, Thomas Coleman and Doheny Racing's Looking At Bikinis, by Lookin At Lucky, visited the main track following the renovation break at 8:45 a.m.
Highest Honors completed five furlongs in 1:01.66.
“He went super,” said Brown. “It was a nice little maintenance move. He galloped out strong and came back with a lot of energy.”
Highest Honors finished second by a neck in his career debut on April 20 at Keeneland, and graduated in his second start going 1 1/16 miles on June 1 at Belmont Park. The rapidly improving colt won his stakes debut in the Curlin on July 26 by 1 ½ lengths over a muddy track, besting stablemate Looking At Bikinis.
“He's been looking for a mile and a quarter for some time,” said Brown. “I know he's lightly raced and lacks some experience, but I'm confident the distance will suit him.”
Looking At Bikinis posted a five furlong move in 1:00.85. The well-regarded colt won his first two career starts at Belmont Park winning his debut in September of 2018 and returning to take an optional-claiming race on June 27. Sent off as the even-money favorite in the Curlin, he broke alertly and took the lead before fading to finish third by a neck.
“He bounced out of the Curlin well,” said Brown. “We only wanted to go onto this race if he trained well and he has. I'm hoping his performance last time was compromised by the wet track. Hopefully, if the conditions are dry, he can work out a better trip and we'll see his previous form.”
Highest Honors will be ridden by Luis Saez. Hall of Fame rider Javier Castellano will be aboard Looking At Bikinis in the Travers.
Trainer Dale Romans continued a winning tradition on Friday afternoon when Cove Blue bested a salty allowance group, including Grade 1-placed Mucho as well as graded-stakes winner Do Share, going six furlongs over the main track, marking the 27th straight year that the Louisville, Kentucky native trainer has won at the Spa.
“Twenty-seven years, that's pretty good. If I live to be 75 I might catch Jonathan [Sheppard],” Romans said, referencing the Hall of Fame conditioner who won at least one race at Saratoga from 1969-2015. “I was worried a little bit because it was getting late.”
Romans reflected on his first Saratoga victory, which took place with Super Forbes on August 12, 1993.
“I bought him from my father for $50,000,” Romans said. “Brought him up here and ran him for a quarter, and he won. Then I ran him back too, and he won for fifty. I came up here with six horses and won three races.”
Romans has found plenty of success over the years at Saratoga, posting wins with Roses in May in the Grade 1 Whitney in 2004 and, most notably, a victory in the 2015 Grade 1 Travers when Keen Ice became the only horse to defeat Triple Crown winner American Pharoah during his historic 3-year-old season.
Despite striking gold at the highest caliber Saratoga has to offer, Romans said that no victory at the Spa was as exciting as when Super Forbes gave him his first trip to the Saratoga winners circle 27 years ago.
“The Travers was historic but the win with Super Forbes was the most exciting,” Romans said. “When I left Churchill with six horses, my dad told me, 'People like us don't win at Saratoga.' My career took off because we won here. People take notice when you win here. I could have won 30 races somewhere else and nobody would have noticed.”
Romans will be busy on Travers Day with a trio of top contenders, all of whom posted their final serious works on the main track ahead of their engagements.
With assistant and exercise rider Tammy Fox aboard, Promises Fulfilled went out after the renovation break at 8:45 a.m. and was caught breezing five furlongs in a deceptively easy 1:01.02 for the $600,000 Forego presented by Boston Harbor.. In the same set, Coach Rocks covered five furlongs in 1:00.65 with jockey Luis Saez aboard in preparation for the $700,000 Personal Ensign presented by Lia Infiniti.
Last out was Runhappy Travers hopeful Everfast, who went the same distance in 1:00.23 with Fox in the irons.
“It was a good morning for us,” said Romans. “All three of them went well. They look like they went about their business. All three are ready to roll. They're all good horses.”
The trainer added that he was particularly pleased with the work by Coach Rocks, the Roddy Valente color-bearer who enters the Personal Ensign off a good second to Midnight Bisou in the Grade 3 Molly Pitcher on July 20 at Monmouth Park.
“If any of them have changed, I think she's really improved this summer,” he said. ” The others are always good. She's put it together and run a couple of nice races this summer. I think she worked as good as good as she can work.”
The Estate of James Coleman, Jr.'s Chess Chief, a Virginia-bred son of Into Mischief, is under strong consideration for the Grade 1 Runhappy Travers, trainer Dallas Stewart said.
Chess Chief graduated at fifth asking on March 19 at Fair Grounds when making his first start around two turns. The improving bay was sent to Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland out of the maiden score and ran fifth at odds of 85-1.
Most recently, Chess Chief has tackled the talented Mr. Money, a multiple graded-stakes winner on a four-race win streak, finishing fourth in the Grade 3 Indiana Derby and second, last out, in the West Virginia Derby.
“He ran a good second last time in the West Virginia Derby behind a really nice horse, so he's getting better,” said Stewart. “He's a late-developing colt by Into Mischief, who is a great sire. The Travers is one of the great American races and we're hoping he'll like the distance.”
Stewart said he will breeze Chess Chief on Monday at Churchill Downs before confirming the colt for the Travers and that Tyler Gaffalione would pick up the mount.
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