SARATOGA SPRINGS — It’s a very small tweak, actually.
It’s just two curved slivers of plastic, an inch wide.
The Tacitus camp is hoping they make a significant difference, though. Significant enough, at least, to win a $1.25 million race.
In his last three races, the gray son of Tapit has been a total of five lengths behind the winners, including a diminishing margin that was three-quarters of a length at the wire when he finished second to Tax in the Grade II Jim Dandy at Saratoga Race Course on July 27. The other two races were a couple of stops called the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.
Since the Jim Dandy, trainer Bill Mott has made what may seem like a minor adjustment in the equipment Tacitus uses when he runs, a small-cupped set of blinkers to restrict a narrow portion of his rear vision. The idea is that if Tacitus can get one extra little nudge toward directing his attention on what’s in front of him and not so much what’s around him, he’ll have a better chance to win Saturday’s 150th Travers Stakes.
“Does he absolutely have to have them? Maybe not, but if they help him an inch, it’ll be worth it,” Mott said after Tacitus breezed sharply in 1:00.48 for five furlongs on the Oklahoma Training Track Saturday morning.
With Game Winner and Maximum Security not coming to the Travers, there’s a chance Tacitus could be the morning-line favorite when the post-position draw is held on Tuesday, despite the fact that he hasn’t won since the Wood Memorial on April 6.
Expectations are high for this horse, especially after he almost fell to his knees out of the starting gate in the Jim Dandy, after which jockey Jose Ortiz said he believed that he still had a shot to win it when they got to the eighth pole.
Ortiz, who is leading the rider standings heading into the last two weeks of the meet, was aboard for the workout on Saturday, and said he noticed that the short blinkers made a difference. It was an adjustment he discussed with Mott after the Jim Dandy.
“But he ran third in the Derby, second in the Belmont, so we didn’t want to change much, because in those kind of races, he’s running good,” Ortiz said. “So we gave him a shot in the Dandy, and when he was standing in the gate, he was looking around, looking at the crowd. That’s probably why he stumbled. It caught him by surprise when they opened the door. And he wasn’t focused at all in the post parade for the Jim Dandy. He was very, very distracted.”
“I think the blinkers seem as though they may have helped him focus a little bit,” Mott said. “Even in the workout, it looked like his head carriage was a little more straight, a little more level. The good thing is they didn’t seem to make him anxious or rank. It seemed to help him focus a little bit through the stretch.”
Although these blinkers are on the low end of how much of the field of vision will be restricted, there is still inherent risk when making a change, especially doing it for the first time heading into a big race.
The move backfired on trainer Todd Pletcher when he added blinkers to Palace Malice’s equipment heading into the 2013 Kentucky Derby.
Known for starting slowly, Palace Malice blasted out of the Churchill Downs starting gate and went way too fast to have a chance to win. Sans blinkers five weeks later in the Belmont Stakes, Palace Malice won.
Mott consulted with the owners at Juddmonte Farms and got the green light, so Tacitus has been working in the blinkers and seems to have warmed up to the change, especially based on how he breezed Saturday.
“I guess if he was coming off a big win, then they’d probably question you a little bit, why you’re going to do that,” Mott said. “Then the stewards would question you, as well. You’ve got to have a good reason. In New York, if you’re going to make an equipment change or a blinker change off of a win, they would want a reason why.
“When he arrived at the eighth pole in the Jim Dandy, Jose thought he still had a little more horse, and he thought he started to maybe play with him a little bit. Now, part of that could’ve been fatigue as well. Horses start to fatigue and maybe they’re less apt to be as forward.”
With the 3-year-old male division in a state of disarray because of horses being on the shelf for whatever reason and no one, outside of Maximum Security, assembling a consistent resume, winning the Travers would be a big step for Tacitus, who hasn’t missed by much in his last three races.
“It was a small field [in the Jim Dandy], 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 one of the best 3-year-olds, but he’s very, very unlucky. Hopefully, we turn the tables in the Travers and that’ll be a game-changer.
“I think he’s a better horse than that, and he deserved better, for his future. I feel bad for the owners and Bill. If he would’ve won the Belmont, he could be a great stallion. He ran second, and I don’t think that’s going to change anything, but for the future, he needs one of the big ones to make a good stallion.”