In the weeks since Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont winner Summer Bird took up residence at the Clark Stakes Barn, trainer Phil Gleaves has been an interested observer, leaning against a railing while the small crowds of reporters talked to Chip Woolley and Tim Ice.
He knows what it’s like to have a big Travers horse and get all that attention, having won the race in 1986 with Wise Times.
He and his horse, Mambo Meister, will step out of the shadows today in the Bernard Baruch, Saratoga Race Course’s nine-furlong Grade II turf stakes for older horses.
Despite finishing first or second in five straight races this year, including a second to Justenuffhumor in the Grade II Fourstardave on Aug. 2, Mambo Meister is 8-1 on the morning line in a race that is shaping up as a question of whether anyone will be able to run down the lone speed, Cowboy Cal.
Mambo Meister was able to do that in the Fourstardave, when Cowboy Cal was third, but wasn’t able to catch Justenuffhumor, who heads a strong entry with Colony that is favored at 9-5.
“He had run against lesser competition in Florida, so it was a big step up for him his last start, but he certainly showed us he was up to the task, and we’re looking forward to Friday’s race,” Gleaves said. “He is training every bit as good, he’s thrived since he’s been here, and I’m looking for a big effort from him.”
Although Mambo Meister didn’t win the Fourstardave, his performance was good enough to convince Gleaves that he should be running against graded-stakes company. A son of King Cugat, Mambo Meister was seventh to My Pal Charlie by 161⁄2 lengths in the Grade II Super Derby last year before being moved to the grass.
In six starts at Calder and Gulfstream Park, he won three times and was never farther than 11⁄2 lengths of first in the other three.
Cowboy Cal took it out from the start in the Fourstardave, but was caught by Mambo Meister; Justenuffhumor came from even farther back to run past them both for the win.
“It was a big effort,” Gleaves said. “I can’t say that we were surprised at this effort, because he had trained really well coming into the race.
“If he had showed that he didn’t fit with these horses, then you’d have to go to a different option, but that was the whole idea, to come up and see if he belonged.”
Watching Summer Bird and Mine That Bird prepare for the Travers brought back memories for Gleaves, especially the uncertainty experienced by the connections to Mine That Bird, who had minor throat surgery that eventually led to him being pulled from consideration for the race the morning of the Travers draw on Wednesday.
“I’ve been fortunate in my career to be around a lot of good horses with Woody Stephens and on my own, so it really picks my head up just being around a lot of good horses, I just love looking at them,” he said.
“It was an interesting week [in 1986] because the jockey, Chris DeCarlo, who had ridden him the previous race, the Haskell, who’d won on him, had gone down in a spill about five days before the Travers, so I had to go looking for a jockey. I reached out to a couple of jocks in California, and both of them actually turned me down. If we were going to be 8-5, they’d have come east, you know? But they weighed their options, and I ended up getting a new face in town, Jerry Bailey, he was relatively new to the New York scene. He just rode him beautifully, and it was a great day.”
Since a dull ninth in his first career race last October, Justenuffhumor has improved with each start and has won five straight, although the Fourstardave was his stakes debut.
“Each time you step up, it’s tough,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “Last time, he stepped up, he handled it, but now, you have a target on his back and are one of the ones to beat. It gets tougher.”
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