SARATOGA SPRINGS — First Captain has been playing catch-up.
Actually, he’s been winning catch-up, if that’s a game in which you give your classmates a huge head start, then you try to cut the gap.
Unraced at 2 in 2020 and until April this year, after having been purchased for $1.5 million at the 2019 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling Sale, the son of Curlin is undefeated from three career starts, most recently the Grade III Dwyer at Belmont Park on July 5.
Now, the Aug. 28 Travers is on his calendar, provided he proves himself worthy of the shot when he runs in the Curlin at Saratoga Race Course. He worked in company with Cambi Lion on the Oklahoma Training Track first thing Saturday morning, and showed nothing to dissuade trainer Shug McGaughey from forging ahead to the Curlin — and thinking about the Travers.
“I thought he worked good,” McGaughey said. “It was a little slower than I wanted, but they did it the right way. Then I wanted them to gallop out a good three-quarters, and they went from the five-eighths to the three-quarters in 12-and-change. I think that’ll set him up pretty good.”
Ridden by exercise rider David Jago, First Captain didn’t go particularly fast, covering four furlongs in 52.85 on the Oklahoma while running to the outside of stablemate Cambi Lion (Jose Ortiz).
Running in company was “something new,” McGaughey said, “Just get his mind on what he’s doing.”
He tied for the sale topper at the 2019 Saratoga auction and was one of four yearlings to command a seven-digit price tag.
“I had him ready to run in July of last year, and he hurt himself,” McGaughey said. “No operation or anything, we just had to give him time. And he’s a little bit behind because he lost his whole 2-year-old year. He’s catching up in a hurry.”
While many of the horses still competing in his division have been through the grueling Triple Crown trail, First Captain’s racing career amounts to a maiden win at Belmont Park on April 24, and allowance win at Belmont on May 29 and the Dwyer on July 5, when he came from off the pace as the 2-5 betting favorite and won by 1 3/4 lengths.
“I thought he ran really well,” McGaughey said. “The first time he ran, he was kind of mixed up a little bit, then was able to get out and finish. The second time we ran him, he made the lead, and Jose [Ortiz] said he was glad that horse [Hometown, who finished second] came up to him and engaged to make him go on.
“And I thought he ran a pretty professional race in the Dwyer.”
With many of the top Travers prospects, including Essential Quality, pointing toward the Jim Dandy next Saturday, the ungraded Curlin, with a significantly smaller purse, can serve as a testing ground for 3-year-olds whose connections aren’t quite sure if they’re Travers-caliber.
McGaughey and the owners, West Point Thoroughbreds, Siena Farm, Bobby Flay and Woodford Racing, know how good he is. He just needs to prove it one more time to make the next big step.
“We’re getting into deep water now,” McGaughey said. “This Friday — and then if he makes the Travers — it’ll be deep water. But if he’s got the ability, we’ll give him a chance.”
Some of the horses pointing toward next Saturday’s Jim Dandy turned in some sharp workouts on the main track.
Belmont Stakes winner Essential Quality went five furlongs in 1:00.90, the fourth-fastest of 30 works at that distance, and Keepmeinmind, fourth in the Preakness, ripped the fastest four-furlong time of the day out of 113 timed works, in 46.01. Risk Taking, eighth in the Preakness, went in 48.65.
Gotham winner Weyburn covered five furlongs in 59.40, fastest at that distance.
Ohio Derby winner Masqueparade worked on Friday, breezing four furlongs in 47.59, third-fastest of 87 that day.
Trainer Kenny McPeek, whose barn is under quarantine because a horse stabled there came up positive for Equine Herpesvirus-1, sent out some of his top horses for breezes on the Oklahoma during a special 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. session reserved for them so that they wouldn’t mingle with the general horse population.
Ohio Derby runner-up King Fury posted the fastest of 18 five-furlong works in 59.86, and Swiss Skydiver, the 2020 Preakness and Alabama winner, went in 1:01.41.
With the quarantine lasting past some of the races McPeek was targeting, he’s look at alternatives and said Swiss Skydiver may tackle males again in the Whitney on Aug. 7. She had been pointing toward the Shuvee on Sunday.
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