It’s quite unusual for a horse to be making his first start at nine furlongs — and his two-turn debut — in the Whitney Handicap. That’s a lot to ask.
Cross Traffic answered the challenge with authority on Saturday as he captured the Whitney by holding off the late charge of Successful Dan by three-quarters of a length.
Mucho Macho Man, who sat a perfect trip, was third while Fort Larned, the defending Whitney champ and the favorite, weakened to fifth.
Away from the races since a very tough beat in the May 27 Met Mile, Cross Traffic and John Velazquez were able to control the race early, getting the opening quarter-mile in a slow 24.17. That was key, as Fort Larned, who got away slowly, was now forced to chase throughout.
Cross Traffic then put in back-to-back quarters of 23.11 and 22.96 — extremely fast — and that took its toll on Fort Larned, who weakened at the quarter-pole.
Cross Traffic turned back a three-wide bid from Mucho Macho Man turning for home, opened the lead, and despite bearing out from a left-handed stick, had enough left to win. Quite a piece of training by Todd Pletcher, who is well on his way to another Saratoga title, and quite a performance by Cross Traffic, who was making only his fifth career start.
In defeat, Successful Dan — the half-brother to Wise Dan who fell in the paddock — ran very big. He actually had to be steadied briefly for a jump while in the midst of his rally in deep stretch, but recovered quickly to finish very well. Running time for the Whitney was 1:47.89.
Assateague sat off a speed duel between Open Water and Baffle Me, took over turning for home and held off the steady late rally from Ruthenia to upset the grassy De La Rose Stakes by a half-length at
23-1. A speed filly herself, Assateague bobbled at the break, which may have helped her. It allowed Luis Saez, who won three races on the card, to get her to settle behind the leaders and subsequently enjoy a perfect trip.
Track played quick
The main track played quick from the outset. In the opener, a non-winners of two allowance going 6 1⁄2 furlongs, favored Googleado set a slightly wind-aided pressured pace of 21.21 and 43.65 before fading to third behind winner Slan Abhaile and Gombey Dancer. Maidens in the six-furlong second set early fractions of 22.03 and 44.88 with Truth Is, part of a three-ply Darley entry, holding off a troubled Tiz for Tat to score in his debut. Tiz for Tat, the 11-10 favorite, was jostled from between rivals early, dropped inside to race on the fence, then, after lacking room and having difficulty changing leads, altered course to the four path in mid-stretch before finishing a non-threatening second.
The first turf test of the afternoon — the fourth race — saw second choice Quantity overcome being steadied entering the far turn to win handily for Chad Brown and Javier Castellano. Nice job by Castellano saving ground around the
final turn — a real key — then easing out in mid-stretch without breaking stride. And a nice piece of training by Brown, who had Quantity primed off an eight-month layoff.
Favored Formulaforsuccess had traffic trouble while racing inside throughout when fifth while Sam’s Buck, a two-time winner here last year, made a menacing run to the leaders in mid-stretch before flattening out badly for sixth.
Nice-looking effort from the 2-year-old, Dunkin Bend, in the seventh. A second-time starter from Steve Asmussen, Dunkin Bend — a son of Dunkirk — fought off early pressure from Bird Now through quick fractions of 21.68 and 45.00, opened the lead and won handily under Joel Rosario as the favorite. I’m not sure there was much behind him, but he can run.
Card too long
Saturday’s 12 race card — which took nearly six hours to complete — included a pair of cheap, maiden-claiming contests. It’s hard to believe that NYRA, on such a special day as Whitney Saturday, on the 150th anniversary of racing in Saratoga, would card two forgettable maiden claiming races. It was completely unnecessary. NYRA could have run a higher quality 10-race card, more than enough action for one afternoon.
When I interviewed NYRA’s new president and CEO, Christopher Kay, two weeks ago, one of the subjects we touched upon was improving the quality of racing in New York. He’ll find that there is no magic formula for improving quality — you need to reduce the number of races run. And the reduction comes from eliminating the lowest-level types of races. Just like the two which were run here on Saturday.
Finally, reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan had his final workout in advance of next Saturday’s Fourstardave Handicap. Working on the main track at 5:30 a.m., Wise Dan went four furlongs in 49.59, then galloped out an additional furlong in 1:02. His trainer, Charlie Lopresti, wanted an easy work, thus the move on dirt rather than turf.
Wise Dan carried 128 pounds in winning the Firecracker by two lengths in last. Weights for the Fourstardave will be announced today. I think NYRA racing secretary and handicapper P.J. Campo will give Wise Dan another pound or two. Campo is expecting a field of seven for the Fourstardave.