SARATOGA SPRINGS — Now subbing for Matt Dillon in the role of Dallas Winston … Bob Baffert.
Dillon’s character in the movie version of “The Outsiders” made a surprise entrance for the final fight scene, bellowing “A rumble ain’t a rumble without me!” as he ran out of the darkness.
The Hall of Fame trainer Baffert has been a major presence at the Travers Stakes in recent years, and was poised to have the likely favorite this year with Game Winner. Then the 2018 Eclipse Award-winning colt came down with a minor virus in the lead-up to Saturday’s $1.25 million race at Saratoga Race Course and was declared out of the race.
Baffert came running out of the darkness, anyway.
In a last-minute decision based in part on a bullet workout at Del Mar on Monday, he will run Mucho Gusto against 11 rivals in the mile-and-a-quarter Travers, despite having said three weeks ago that, if anything, Mucho Gusto might be a candidate for the seven-furlong Allen Jerkens. Now he’s in the Travers, and everyone is on notice, because it’s Baffert.
“I like that horse,” said trainer Dale Romans, who will saddle long shot Everfast. “We’ve followed that horse ever since the 2-year-old sale. I think that he’s talented and ran big in the Haskell. And anytime Bob shows up anywhere, you better worry.”
In eight career starts, Mucho Gusto is a four-time Grade III winner and was just a length and a quarter behind Maximum Security in the mile-and-an-eighth Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park last time out, on July 20.
That was only Mucho Gusto’s second race longer than a mile and a sixteenth, though. His other attempt at a mile and an eighth was a third to Cutting Humor in the Sunland Park Derby.
Potential distance limitations aside, Mucho Gusto covered five furlongs in 59.20 seconds at Del Mar on Monday, and he was on a plane for Albany International and a van for Saratoga on Tuesday.
“He came out of the Haskell really well, and he breezed this morning, and went really well, really strong,” Baffert told the New York Racing Association on Monday. “When they work like that, I like to run them the next week.
“With that work, he punched his own ticket to the Travers. We think he’s ready to do something big.”
Through 149 runnings of the Travers, a trainer has won in back-to-back years six times, the most recent Shug McGaughey with Easy Goer in 1989 and Rhythm in 1990, until Baffert did it with Arrogate in 2016 and West Coast in 2017.
Baffert, who also won the Travers in 2001 with Point Given, went 1-2 with Arrogate and American Freedom in 2016, but failed to win it with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015, when he was second to Keen Ice.
Baffert didn’t have a horse in the race last year, but looked to have a big shot this year, until Game Winner got sick.
He went to the bench with Mucho Gusto after having said on the day after McKinzie’s Whitney win that Mucho Gusto would only be considered for the Travers if it looked like the track was going to come up muddy.
But there was Mucho Gusto getting off the van on Tuesday. He drew the No. 7 post, is 6-1 on the morning line and will be ridden by Joe Talamo, who has been on the chestnut colt’s back for all eight career starts. Talamo has ridden just once at Saratoga, a ninth on Coppa in the 2016 Prioress.
On Thursday morning, Mucho Gusto galloped under Simon Harris on a track that was still wet from Wednesday’s heavy rain, but “tight … level and tight,” the exercise rider said.
“Yeah, he went around there nice,” said Harris, who also worked McKinzie when he was in town. “He was great, focused. Bob’s horses are pretty much all the same. They’re all big, good-looking, strong horses. They all move nice. So he was good.”
“It’s always great to be a part of the Travers. It’s an event,” Baffert said. “The city embraces it, and everyone is into it.”