SARATOGA SPRINGS — It was like an unruly classroom of kids, and the only one who got sent to the principal’s office was the quiet one who was a little late for the bell.
Improbable reared in the starting gate, Code of Honor added his bit of bad behavior and even By My Standards had an awkward start to his day.
Meanwhile, Whitney favorite Tom’s d’Etat, in the far outside stall, patiently waited for the race to start.
Then it started — and ended just as quickly, at least for him.
Capitalizing on a stumbling first step by Tom’s d’Etat, Improbable and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. took command around the second turn and cruised home to win the 93rd Grade I $750,000 Whitney by two lengths, giving trainer Bob Baffert his second Whitney in a row with two different horses. McKinzie won it last year.
The Whitney win came just moments after Baffert had saddled Thousand Words to an upset victory of Honor A. P. in the Shared Belief at Del Mar in California, an upset of one of the top Kentucky Derby candidates in the country.
Baffert was barely done with a post-race interview with TVG network when he watched the Whitney on a big screen TV.
“It’s been quite a big 30 minutes,” he said by phone after the Whitney.
The 12-race card generated a Whitney Day all-sources betting handle record ($35,796,435) for the second year in a row. The handle in 2019 was $31,835,863.
The Tom’s d’Etat camp could only wonder what might have been, as he and jockey Joel Rosario did what they could to regain some position, but were hopelessly out of it.
The 7-year-old was 6-5 on the morning line and bet down to even money while riding a four-race winning streak back to last September. But the streak — and his seemingly flawless preparation for the Whitney — went up in smoke in one step, as he lost his action and spotted the tough field four lengths almost immediately.
“You plan and plan and plan in this business, and things you can’t control go against you,” trainer Al Stall Jr. said. “It just happens. Nobody’s fault. Like I said, he’s a really good gate horse. Always has been.
“He [jockey Joel Rosario] said he didn’t break, and on this racetrack, behind those good horses, it’s impossible to make anything up. He tried, he made up some ground, and I thought he had a chance for second. But we’re OK. We’ve been there before.”
“That’s a huge win,” Baffert said. “But Tom’s d’Etat, that poor horse, you feel bad for guys like that. I’ve been in that position before. But you know what, that’s horse racing. You need everything to go your way to win those big ones.”
Improbable has now won two of those in a row, backing up his victory in the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita with the Whitney to shove himself into an already jumbled picture in the older dirt male division.
Before Baffert’s consecutive Whitneys with different horses, Shug McGaughey won back-to-back with Personal Ensign in 1988 and Easy Goer in 1989, and Scotty Schulhofer equaled the training double in 1994 and 1995 with Colonial Affairs and Unaccounted For, respectively.
Improbable has a history of quirky action in the gate, and Baffert asked the New York Racing Association crew to school his colt in the gate in the lead-up to the Whitney, and to also be cognizant that Improbable might still act up.
“I’m always holding my breath, because they were loading so slowly,” Baffert said. “They were going in there, and I was like, ‘Go, go …’ and I felt like I was watching a quarter horse race, you know?
“But he broke well, and he’s matured. He’s a man now. I think his last two races have been pretty off-the-charts. And I think distance-wise it’s not a problem for him. That gate crew did a great job with him, though. We schooled him, and they got to know him. It’s not like he’s a bad gate horse, he just goes up and down.”
Code of Honor, the 2019 Travers winner for McGaughey, appeared to be in position to make a run at Improbable from the outside at the top of the stretch, but he didn’t finish with any authority and was passed by Tom’s d’Etat for third without threatening By My Standards for second.
“Overall, I thought the horse ran a very, very good race,” trainer Bret Calhoun said of By My Standards. “Even though it was a short field, it was a quality field. I think he proved he belongs in the upper echelon of the group.
“To have a five-horse field, there was a lot of action in the gate. I don’t know if that unnerved my horse or not. Improbable has done that a little bit, but it doesn’t seem to effect his running that much. One of these days, my horse is going to stand up and win one of these Grade I’s, I think he is right there on the cusp.”
“He’s never broke like that in his life,” Stall said of Tom’s d’Etat. “He just kind of fell out of there, and that was it. They went out there slow and he tried.
“There was a lot of racket going on, guys [assistant starters] yelling. And he loaded fine, but that’s horse racing. There was a lot of racket going on. Whether he got distracted or not, I don’t know. He ran third, circling [the field] and everything. But he didn’t have any kind of chance whatsoever.”