On a glorious day sparkling with history and frosted with pink roses and straw boater hats, history chose not to repeat itself in at least one respect.
Following what trainer Todd Pletcher considers to be one of the most excruciating losses of his career, Cross Traffic provided a brief sense of deja vu in the 86th running of the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course, only to change the outcome by holding off Successful Dan by three-quarters of a length for the victory.
Cross Traffic’s Whitney closely resembled his last two starts, particularly the Met Mile at Belmont Park on May 27, when he led all the way, only to be caught in the last step by Sahara Sky in just about the tightest photo finish imaginable.
This time, jockey John Velazquez again got Cross Traffic to the front, and the lightly raced son of Unbridled’s Song was able to hold off the competition in his first start around two turns and longer than a mile.
“It was a strongly run race throughout, and we were just hoping he could hold on the last part after the two losses we had at Belmont,” Pletcher said. “Those were heart-breaking losses, to run as well as he did in those two races and miss by a whisker. Turning for home, I thought we had a big shot, but I was still wanting to get there.“
The day marked 150 years of racing in Saratoga Springs, where the first thoroughbred meet was held across Union Avenue on Aug. 3, 1863, followed by the construction of the current track, grandstand and clubhouse a year later.
A crowd of of 33,148 turned out, some in period clothing, and an enormous 300-pound track replica birthday cake was the subject of hundreds of winner’s circle photos while on display after the fourth race.
After the 10th race, the roan Cross Traffic was ready for his
closeup and moved into that space to be photographed with the Whitney blanket of pink roses draped over his back and Velazquez, in the gold silks of GoldMark Farm, beaming from the saddle.
It was the fourth Whitney win for Velazquez, after riding Left Bank in 2002, Lawyer Ron in 2007 and Commentator in 2008, and the third for Pletcher (Left Bank, Lawyer Ron).
They got this one by sending their 4-year-old colt, unraced at 2 and 3 because of minor physical issues, to the front from the No. 4 post in the eight-horse field, just as he had done in his previous two starts.
“That was our plan, break well, get a nice run into the first turn and see where we land,” Velazquez said. “We landed on the lead in a nice pace, so it was perfect. The first quarter was the most important one; we didn’t have to chase him to be there.”
Fort Larned, the Whitney and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner last year, went off the 6-5 favorite, with Cross Traffic the 7-2 second choice.
The race was eventful before the horses even got on the track.
Successful Dan led the post parade through the path from the paddock, but got his hind legs a little tangled up and fell on his right side, sending Julien Leparoux to the deck.
Leparoux remounted and asked for some precautionary vet observation on the track, but Successful Dan was merely a little dusted up, which was supported by how well he ran.
“When he took the halter off, he sucked back and crossed his back legs and fell over sideways,” trainer Charlie LoPresti said. “He didn’t flip over, he just lost his footing.”
“He was fine after that,” Leparoux said.
Cross Traffic broke well and angled in to the outside of Mucho Macho Man as they got through the short run to the first turn.
He covered the first quarter-mile in a comfortable 24.17, then picked it up without overexerting himself for a half in 47.28 and six furlongs in 1:10.24.
Mucho Macho Man and Fort Larned to his inside lurked behind Cross Traffic with a five-length lead on the rest of the field down the backstretch until just before the quarter pole, when Mucho Macho Man made his move.
Cross Traffic got into the stretch and was able to keep Mucho Macho Man from putting a dent in the lead as they got to the eighth pole. By then, Fort Larned, who wound up fifth, had faded out of contention.
Successful Dan, just as Sahara Sky had done in the Met Mile, rolled down the middle of the track well outside of Cross Traffic, but this time Cross Traffic, instead of sticking to the rail, shifted out a few paths.
He had plenty left to hold on for the win, despite Successful Dan’s momentum.
“I could see he was kind of looking around a little bit and wandering,” Pletcher said. “I just didn’t want anybody to surprise him, because that’s what happened to him in the Met Mile a little bit. Sahara Sky was so far out in the middle of the track that he never got a chance to see him. So, yeah, it was in my mind. I didn’t want another beat like that.”
“When he’s all by himself, he waits, so I had to move to the middle of the track a little bit and come back to the inside,” Velazquez said. “The last 20 yards, I saw the other horse in the middle of the track. I don’t think my horse saw him.”
“I’m happy,” LoPresti said. “I mean, he [Successful Dan] ran his race the way I thought he would. It’s unfortunate that happened, but I don’t think that took anything away from him. He was really running at the end. I told my nephew around the three-eighths pole, he was picking up horses left and right.”
Trainer Ian Wilkes said that Fort Larned, with regular rider Brian Hernandez in the saddle, needed a more alert start, but otherwise didn’t have any explanation for his fifth-place finish.
“He got away bad,” Wilkes said. “He got a good trip on the outside. It was one of those days.”
“We really had no excuse from the eighth pole home,” Hernandez said.
On a day when the past was exulted, a horse without much history but brimming with future promise finally pulled out a precious victory.
“To beat the Breeders’ Cup winner and runner-up from last year and some really good horses speaks volumes about his quality,” Pletcher said. “It was great to see him win. He certainly deserved a Grade I after the Met Mile. I know we’ve had a couple of tough beats over the years, but that one kind of stands out as one of the toughest.”