Saratoga Springs

All systems go for Knicks Go in convincing Whitney victory at Saratoga Race Course

Knicks Go and jockey Joel Rosario roll home to win the Whitney by 4 1/2 lengths at Saratoga on Saturday.
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Knicks Go and jockey Joel Rosario roll home to win the Whitney by 4 1/2 lengths at Saratoga on Saturday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Brad Cox rolled up to the Whitney draw in a golf cart at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday and asked when it was scheduled to start.

Upon hearing “quarter to 11,” he said, “Well, then I may as well go back to the barn and get some work done.”

Knicks Go also did some extra early work in the $1 million Whitney itself on Saturday.

Unlike his trainer, he didn’t come back.

Pushing the pace around the first turn, Knicks Go and jockey Joel Rosario then got a little bit of a breather on the backstretch before pulling away from a small, but accomplished field to win by 4 1/2 lengths over Maxfield while leading at every call of the race.

The victory, in front of the biggest paid admission crowd of the meet (38,525), stamped Knicks Go as the best older horse running dirt route races in the country, and also bolstered the belief from Cox that Knicks Go has options for the Breeders’ Cup in November. Knicks Go won the BC Dirt Mile last year, but the Whitney victory puts the mile-and-a-quarter BC Classic firmly in play, too.

“I think right now he is [best older dirt horse],” Cox said. “I thought he ran against the best group of horses that’s been assembled to this point around two turns, and he performed extremely well. This group of horses today overall, all five are nice horses and Breeders’ Cup contenders. I’m sure they’ll make their presence felt on Breeders’ Cup Day.”

Breaking from the No. 1 post, By My Standards stumbled at the start, while Knicks Go got out cleanly from the No. 4, giving Rosario ample opportunity to dictate the race heading into the first turn.

The filly Swiss Skydiver, shifted to the Whitney instead of the July 25 Shuvee because of a quarantine in trainer Kenny McPeek’s barn, was the only one in the five-horse Whitney field to try to get some forward position with Knicks Go in the early stages.

He quickly got ahead by 4-5 lengths on the backstretch after posting early fractions of 23.42 seconds for the quarter-mile and 46.76 for the half.

Based on how Knicks Go, who went off at betting odds of even money, finished the race, that wasn’t nearly fast enough to suck the energy out of him.

Cox said there was a little bit of anxiety on the second turn, but that didn’t last long.

“At the three-eighths pole, I was a touch concerned, because they were coming to him fairly easy,” Cox said. “At the top of the lane, I thought, ‘Well, he’s still there,’ and I liked how Joel came off the rail and looked like he still had horse.”

“The way he was moving, he just skipped to the last quarter-pole,” Rosario said. “He loved what he was doing. He was very relaxed and going forward. I was really happy with the way he was going turning for home.”

Maxfield, who lost for just the second time in his nine-race career, won the race for second place under Jose Ortiz by a length and three-quarters over Grade I Met Mile winner Silver State.

“I think the best horse won on the day,” Maxfield’s trainer Brendan Walsh said. “Jose said he got to a point where he thought he was going to get him, but [Knicks Go] didn’t stop and didn’t come back to him. But he ran well. Second is no disgrace.

“The winner was much the best today,” Ortiz said. “My plan was to not rush my horse out of his pace. Wherever he put me, wherever he was doing it comfortable, that’s where I wanted to be, because I don’t have the speed Knicks Go has.

“It’s impossible for me to go, and Swiss and myself with him, I’m never going to get even close to him, so I had to do my thing, ride to win. He’s a big horse, let him get his feet under him and make a run. I think he did well and made a good run.”

Swiss Skydiver finished fourth, and McPeek was not disappointed, since the Whitney served as a race back from a 3 1/2-month layoff and should set up his champion filly for her next stop, when she gets back to running in her own division in the Grade I Personal Ensign on Aug. 28.

“I think we just used the Whitney as a prep for the Personal Ensign,” McPeek said. “She hadn’t run in three and a half months. He [jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.] said she took him right up there, and then she just got tired the last part of it. She needed to get back in the game. She’s been off too long.

“We knew we needed to get her going, and, look, it was a paid workout. Expectation to win today was not high.”

Asked for his assessment of Knicks Go, McPeek said, “Freak. I mean, my goodness, as fast as he went early and kept going, tip of the hat. Really good horse.”

Now the Knicks Go camp will have to map out a path to the Breeders’ Cup, with two race options available.

“What a performance,” Cox said. “For him to go 46 and change and really spread out on the backside and get away from them, then almost kick on from the eighth pole and really have to fight off some really, really good challenges from an incredibly deep group of horses, I’m really proud of the effort.

“We’re going to let the dust settle. He’s a very sound horse, he’s happy, we’re very pleased with how he’s training. We wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t. We’ll come up with a plan and end up at Del Mar in the Dirt Mile or the Classic.

“With it being at a place like Del Mar, maybe it gives us a little more confidence to try the Classic as opposed to Churchill, where they have a little bit more of a longer stretch. But speed is his weapon, and it was on full display today.”

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