SARATOGA SPRINGS – Saratoga Race Course’s Oklahoma Training Track was still relatively uncrowded on Tuesday morning, 17 days before the start of the 2022 meet.
Nevertheless, the track was densely populated with horses from trainer Chad Brown’s barn, as usual.
Not among them was his top trio of 3-year-old males, Preakness winner Early Voting, Jack Christopher and Zandon, who are still at Belmont Park. But one of Brown’s goals for the meet is to see the Saratoga starting gate densely populated with Chad Brown horses on Aug. 27 for the 153rd Travers Stakes.
The job now is to keep them healthy and fit for the next step, whether it’s the July 23 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park or the July 30 Jim Dandy at Saratoga. No matter how the next month shakes out, Brown should have by far his strongest hand ever for the Travers, a race the Mechanicville native would love to win.
Brown is targeting the Haskell for the undefeated Jack Christopher and the Jim Dandy for Zandon, and Early Voting could go either way.
“To have more than one horse possible for a race like the Travers and work backwards from it, it’s exciting,” he said. “Yeah, these are tough decisions.
“You’re just trying to guide the horses and keep them healthy and focused and fit. Try to find the best way to get to that race. The Haskell and Jim Dandy are great races in their own right, but the real goal for me is to get all three, possibly, to the Travers.”
The Jim Dandy and Haskell are both at a mile and an eighth, but the Haskell is a Grade I and offers a purse of $1 million. The Grade II Jim Dandy purse is $600,000.
Brown has been able to keep his three Travers prospects separated so far – they’ve never run against each other – but those days are over.
He said he’s “really cut down the middle right now” on Early Voting’s Travers path.
“I want to see who else is running, how the races are shaping up,” Brown said. “If you run in the Haskell, it gives me an extra week for the Travers, so that’s a benefit. Either way, if they’re healthy, I’m going to have to run two horses against each other, anyway. You come to Saratoga, you have the benefit of a race over the track. You are week closer to the Travers, though.”
“I want to observe the horses training a little more. I’m headed back downstate this weekend to watch them work again, and then I’ll try to come up with a decision.”
The three horses have a combined record of 9-2-2 from 13 starts that include victories in the Preakness and Grade III Withers (Early Voting), Grade I Blue Grass (Zandon) and Grade I Pat Day Mile and Grade I Woody Stephens (Jack Christopher).
You could make the case for any of three to be the best of the bunch, even though Jack Christopher did not run in any of the Triple Crown races. All three appeared in the top five of the final NTRA national poll for top 3-year-olds.
Zandon finished third in the Kentucky Derby after a stirring stretch duel with Epicenter that left them both victims of a late move by 80-1 Rich Strike.
Although Jack Christopher has had a delayed rise toward the top of the class, he made an immediate impression on Brown well before he began his career by breaking his maiden by 8 ¾ lengths at Saratoga last summer.
After winning the Grade I Champagne at Belmont in just his second start, Jack Christopher was the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile favorite, but scratched the day before the race with a left shin injury that required surgery.
He didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby, but did run on Derby Day for his comeback race, and returned to form with a win by almost four lengths in the Pat Day Mile, then ran on Belmont Stakes Day, in the Woody Stephens, and won that by 10 lengths.
Asked if there had been an eye-opening moment that told Brown he had a special horse in Jack Christopher, he said, “Honestly, the first time I ever worked him.
“Which is rare. Horses won’t always show you that. They can be confusing. They can have complicated paths to their first starts that aren’t always clear to any caliber of trainer, no matter how much experience you have. Some horses, though, show right away, that they have brilliance and seem to be just better than the horses around them. He was one.”
After Jack Christopher won the Woody Stephens, Brown said he reminded him of Ghostzapper, the 2004 Horse of the Year who was inducted to the National Racing Hall of Fame in 2012.
Brown was an assistant to Bobby Frankel when Frankel was training Ghostzapper.
“I had the good fortune of working around that horse. I’m not saying he’s going to accomplish what he did, but he does remind me of him. He has since last year. They’re very similar horses. They sort of move the same, they act the same, they have the same brilliance early in their career. They’re fast.”
The Haskell will be Jack Christopher’s first race around two turns, and his first going longer than a mile, so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles both factors.
That won’t be an issue for Early Voting or Zandon.
“Obviously, with Jack Christopher, the distance is more of a question mark,” Brown said. “The other two look like they can handle it. They’ve proven themselves in the route 3-year-old races with the top of the class. Jack Christopher is arguably the fastest of any of the 3-year-olds that have run anywhere. But how far can he go and still be effective is the question.
“Ghostzapper, I think there were some question marks about how far he wanted to go until they got him out there. Frankel, I can tell you, was always very confident that the horse would run a route of ground. I can’t say that for the rest of us around the horse. But he knew.”
Although Zandon came up short in the mile-and-a-quarter Derby – the same distance as the Travers – Brown said he doesn’t believe the distance of the race was why Zandon lost.
“He ran a big race and wasn’t that far off a win,” he said. “Now we’re trying to get this horse to go a mile and a quarter in August as opposed to May. A lot of these horses get a lot stronger and more mature, and he certainly has trained like he can handle it. I’m going to give him another crack at a mile and a quarter.
“That could be said, that he came up a little late in the lane and maybe he doesn’t want to go quite that far. But I don’t see that. I think with time he’ll get there, and I think he’s got the time now, with the Jim Dandy as a prep.”
Brown has said that if you ask him in May, the race he hasn’t won that he covets most is the Kentucky Derby, and if you ask him in August, the answer is the Travers, at his hometown track.
He’s 0-for-12 in the Travers since 2011, and hadn’t even hit the board with a horse in that race until last year, when Miles D was third.
It’s one of those years when the 3-year-old male division is still waiting for someone to gain control of as the Saratoga meet looms, so the Travers likely will give the winner the inside track toward a championship.
Brown has three that are in that mix.
“It’s as wide open as it can be,” he said. “It’s a good group. I think the top handful of horses are starting to separate themselves a little bit from the rest of the crop. But within that handful, definitely still up for grabs.”