SARATOGA SPRINGS — When Tom’s d’Etat first ran at Saratoga Race Course, Code of Honor was only a few months out of the womb.
So was Improbable.
So was By My Standards.
When the 7-year-old Tom’s d’Etat faces them on Saturday, the Old Man and the Spa will be trying to get a big one in the boat, the 93rd Grade I $750,000 Whitney.
He and the three 4-year-olds will be challenged by another old veteran of the Thoroughbred world, the 6-year-old Mr. Buff, who will represent New York-breds against open company this weekend, before Tiz the Law carries that banner in the Travers next weekend.
It adds up to a short, but deeply interesting Whitney field, led by a horse who didn’t come into his own as a graded stakes force until last year at a ripe old age. Tom’s d’Etat has rattled off four straight wins, including the Grade I Clark at Churchill Downs in November, and is the 6-5 morning-line favorite for a race in which you could make a case for the longest shot on the line.
“There’s no doubt about it. He’s certainly a popular horse and he’s loved by one and all,” Tom’s d’Etat’s trainer Al Stall Jr. said. “It’s also because he’s been around. He’s run at a lot of tracks over the years, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Keeneland, Churchill and Saratoga, so the people get to know him and he also delivers, and that helps.”
Tom’s d’Etat certainly has delivered at Saratoga.
In four career starts here, he broke his maiden in 2016, won an allowance by nine lengths in 2017, then was first in the Alydar and fourth by less than two lengths to Preservationist in the Grade I Woodward last year.
“Some horses just take to it,” Stall said. “I can tell in the couple weeks he’s been here, his hair is great and his eye is just what you want and it seems like he knows just where he is. He’s been here at 3, 4 and 6. He took off just one year and this will be his fourth year here and he seems to know his way around.
“He had some minor setbacks early in his career, and that forced us to give him some time, but I am a fan of older horses. I’m just as happy to run in the Whitney as I would be to run in the Louisiana Derby. I’ve never run in the Kentucky Derby but I have no problem with waiting around for nice older horse stakes races. It’s fun to run in races like the Whitney, the Foster and the Fayette.”
The best older dirt horse Stall has had in his stable was Blame, and Tom’s d’Etat is hitting many of the same races Blame did in 2009 and 2010.
Blame won the Fayette and Clark as a 3-year-old in 2009, then won the Stephen Foster and Whitney at 4 before closing out his career by handing Zenyatta the first and only loss of her Hall of Fame career, in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Tom’s d’Etat won the Grade II Stephen Foster on June 27 in his last start, as By My Standards finished second by 4 1/4 lengths in his first defeat in four starts this year.
“I watched him run in Arkansas, and I also watched him run in the Stephen Foster, and I was very impressed,” Code of Honor’s trainer Shug McGaughey said. “What’s been behind him, I don’t know, but By My Standards, I don’t think he ran his race in Louisville. But he’s [Tom’s d’Etat] done it the right way, and he’s going to be tough Saturday. But this isn’t Oaklawn or Churchill Downs, either.”
Code of Honor brings Travers credentials into the Whitney, winning that race by three lengths last year before adding the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park via the disqualification of Vino Rosso.
The Bob Baffert-trained Improbable is coming off a win in the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita.
Mr. Buff has been beating up on New York-bred stakes competition and is 9-0-1 from 13 starts at Saratoga, but is still looking for the big one.
In 38 career starts, he’s run in four graded stakes and never finished better than fifth.
That was his last race, losing by 12 lengths to Tacitus, but trainer John Kimmel believes he belongs in the Whitney, and could have a good shot at it if he’s allowed to get away with some comfortable early fractions on the front end, his preferred running style.
Mr. Buff also had a bone bruise that wasn’t discovered until after the Suburban, and that is resolved now, as evidenced by the fact that he has been switching leads more willingly in workouts with regular rider Junior Alvarado.
“Maybe this track, with the different surface and the crushed stone base, it’s very similar to the track at Aqueduct, where he’s got a tremendous record,” Kimmel said, referring to offseason renovations to the Saratoga main track. “He might be a little more comfortable on that. It’s one of those little things that might make a difference.
“He’s an older horse, he’s run against some pretty solid competition in the past, and stranger things can happen. It’s only a five-horse field, and I’ve got no other place to run. Put all those little factors, and I think it’s worth a shot.
“You look at his [Tom’s d’Etat] form, and far and away he’s the horse to beat. We watched his breeze on XBTV, and he looks like he’s in form, doing well and by far I think he’s going to be the choice in here.”
There continues to be no stopping the duo of Christophe Clement and jockey Joel Rosario.
That combo was responsible for two more wins on Friday, back-to-back, no less, and in the featured stakes race.
Rosario got She’s My Type up late to win the $100,000 Coronation Cup by a head for 96-year-old owner-breeder Alec Head.
“When you train in New York, you are very lucky; we have a great jockey colony up here,” Clement said. “I like Joel a lot, and he’s doing great at the moment. He’s not the only one, but I use him a lot.”
“I have to thank Christophe for the opportunity,” Rosario said. “I’m riding horses that have chances to win races thanks to him and his team. When you win you get confidence, but I think I’ve been fortunate to be riding horses with a good chance to win.”
Clement is leading the trainer standings with 13 wins, and Rosario is second among riders with 19.
They have combined to win 10 races, including four stakes.