SARATOGA SPRINGS — Luis Saez always knew he was going to get there.
It was a scramble, but he rode a full card at Saratoga Race Course on Friday, flew on a private jet to West Virginia, won the $800,000 Charles Town Classic on Art Collector late Friday night, then flew back to Saratoga in plenty of time to ride almost the entire 13-race Travers Day card on Saturday.
Saratoga, West Virginia, Saratoga, in a span of five hours or so … then Essential Quality took him home.
The Godolphin colt tracked a slow early pace by Midnight Bourbon and won the 152nd Travers by a neck under a supremely confident ride from the 29-year-old jockey from Panama, and in front of a paid admission crowd of 44,507 that included at least one prominent guest, newly sworn-in New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Essential Quality’s last four victories have come by a neck, a half-length, a length and a quarter and a neck, all with Saez aboard, and in the class of races that crown a champion if you win them. The Breeders’ Cup Classic still looms in November, but Essential Quality further bolstered his standing as the top 3-year-old male in the country with the Travers victory.
And it was a scramble, but Saez always knew he was going to get there — to the wire first — narrow margin notwithstanding.
“Nobody came to attack, so that’s why I let the pace go pretty easy, and when he came to the stretch, he knows what he has to do,” Saez said. “So we had the race. He tried pretty hard, and he won. He always tries.”
“Worked out well, it was a great ride,” winning trainer Brad Cox cracked, laughing at his own answer to a question about Saez’s patience.
“No, I know what you’re saying. I told Louie a couple times right before, ‘You know, it’s a mile and a quarter.’ It worked out, but he does a fantastic job on this horse. He has a ton of confidence in this horse. He thinks the world of this horse and rides him with a lot of confidence, and it seems to always work out.”
With Midnight Bourbon getting away with soft early splits and Essential Quality benefitting from a ride that brought out his brilliance, there was no threat from behind them, as Miles D outdueled Keepmeinmind to take third place five long lengths behind Midnight Bourbon.
Ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr., Midnight Bourbon covered the first quarter-mile in 24.18, then went even slower over the next two quarters to finish the half-mile in 48.96 (24.78) and three-quarters in 1:14.49 (25.53).
Essential Quality shadowed him as much as 3 1/2 lengths behind down the backstretch, then gradually accelerated from three furlongs out to chip away at the margin.
Running outside of Midnight Bourbon, Essential Quality got a nose in front with three-sixteenths of a mile left and outbattled the game Midnight Bourbon for the victory.
“We broke from there pretty well,” Saez said. “That was the plan, try to be right there. I know the horse on the lead was very slow, he was pretty comfortable, but I had so much horse.”
“He ran a tremendous race,” Cox said. “For a horse to close into a soft pace like that and run down a very, very good horse, it took a lot. He’s been touting himself for the last two, three weeks, and he certainly seemed like he had his game face on. He knows how to battle, and he likes to have his head in front.
“It’s funny, because when he schools a couple days out, he kind of gets on his toes a little bit; when he comes over on race day … all business. Very focused, and he knows exactly what’s going to happen.”
“I’m very proud of his effort,” trainer Steve Asmussen said of his colt Midnight Bourbon. “He’s a first-class horse that is getting better.”
“I couldn’t ask for a better trip,” Santana said. “The winner is way too good. I was walking on the lead and he was going pretty well, too. We slowed it down a little more and went [six furlongs] in 1:14, and I was very happy with him, but the winner was way too good.”
Saez had to skip the formal press conference after the Travers, which went off as the 12th race on the card, because he was riding Dancing Firefly in the 13th.
His horse finished in 12th and last place to Home for Christmas, and Saez was also last back to the jockeys’ room because he was signing autographs as he walked back through the crowd.
He said he wasn’t tired from the Friday-Saturday saga, especially since his agent, Kiaran McLaughlin, told him to skip working horses Saturday morning.
“I was watching the Charles Town Classic last night and thinking, ‘Well, I hope he gets a good night’s rest. Hope he doesn’t have to work a bunch of horses this morning,'” Cox said with a laugh. “He had enough energy to ride the last race, that’s why he’s not sitting here right now.”
“I’m OK. I got home around 12:30, I rest pretty well,” Saez said. “I’m happy to be here and couldn’t wait to ride all the card. It was an amazing day.
“He’s an amazing horse. He can run anywhere, any track, against any horse, and he always tries. He wants to win.”
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