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Travers field had no prayer against Catholic Boy

Travers field had no prayer against Catholic Boy

Turf star switches back to dirt and romps by four lengths over Mendelssohn
Travers field had no prayer against Catholic Boy
Jockey Javier Castellano looks skyward after Catholic Boy won the 149th Travers Stakes.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

The wine? Champagne.

The bread? $1.25 million.

“Take me to church,” the overjoyed and astonished owner Robert LaPenta said in conclusion, as he reflected on his horse’s victory, the horse whose name triggers Biblical and Eucharistic connotations.

Perhaps there was a midnight Mass somewhere in Saratoga Springs Saturday night, but Travers Day put LaPenta more in the mood for bubbly in the Trustees Room at the track -- where winning owners celebrate after every race -- than vino rosso at a house of worship.

Catholic Boy, the grass star with questionable dirt form, glided over the Saratoga Race Course main track and won the 149th Travers Stakes by four lengths for the principal owner, LaPenta, and young trainer Jonathan Thomas.

And one hand is no longer enough for Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano to flash fingers representing his Travers-record number of victories, as he won it for the sixth time since 2006.

With Castellano in the irons and sharp training and a creative campaigning job from the trainer and owners, it was left to the horse. No miracles required.

“I was waiting for somebody to kind of appear out of the clouds, and when they didn’t … normally, with these sorts of races, by the time you’re at the quarter pole, it just becomes a slog to the wire,” Thomas said. “I was impressed that he just kept going, and the rest of the horses are kind of just peeling back.”

“All the analysts and everybody, very few picked him because they didn’t think he’d run well on dirt,” LaPenta said. “We knew he’d run well on dirt; we didn’t know he’d run this well.”

Catholic Boy was one of the few in the Travers field who did run well.

Trainer Chad Brown had the top two choices in the race, 2017 2-year-old colt champion Good Magic and Gronkowski, but they had poor trips and finished ninth and eighth, respectively, in a field reduced to 10 horses by the early scratch of long shot Meistermind.

Wonder Gadot, named after “Wonder Woman” actor Gal Gadot, was supposed to be a fan favorite as the first filly to run in the Travers since 1979.

Instead, a four-deep crowd along the horsepath to the paddock passively watched the horses on their way to be saddled, and there was hardly any response when they came onto the track in front of a crowd representing announced paid admission of 49,418.

Wonder Gadot never got in gear and faded to last.

Catholic Boy and Mendelssohn, another unlikely Travers success story, did enough running for everybody else.

Mendelssohn, who shipped from Ireland for the Kentucky Derby in May, only to finish last of 20, made another trans-Atlantic trip for the Travers and busted out of the gate alertly to establish the early pace.

Catholic Boy also broke sharply and settled in just off Mendelssohn’s flank all the way to the second turn. As they got to the top of the stretch, it looked like a duel to the wire was shaping up, especially when Catholic Boy angled in from the outside and brushed into Mendelssohn.

But Castellano gave him three cracks with the stick at the eighth pole, and Catholic Boy drew away with authority as Mendelssohn held for second without a threat from third-place finisher Bravazo. King Zachary was fourth and Vino Rosso fifth.

“I had a lot of confidence,” Castellano said. “I went to pray every single Sunday, because he’s a Catholic Boy.

“I felt great around the turn, so comfortable with him because of the way he’s been training. I really like this horse. He does it by himself.”

“He just keeps surprising us every race,” Thomas said. “I mean, the last three races were nail-biters, and then he goes and wins by [four] against what’s left of the best of the 3-year-olds. That’s part of the game; there’s the attrition and the training and the racing, and he’s still here.”

The biggest factor in the attrition was the retirement of Triple Crown winner Justify, which left Haskell winner Good Magic in good position to pick up the pieces in the division. It didn’t happen Saturday, as the 7-5 betting favorite was bumped out of the gate by Tenfold to his right and lost the opportunity to get his preferred stalking spot near the lead.

“From there he was in trouble,” Brown said. “Given the way the track's playing, you've got to be very forwardly placed the last two days on both surfaces. I didn't feel good right away. We wanted him no worse than third early, that's his running style, and especially given the way the track bias has been. When he didn't get there, I didn't feel too good about it.”

“I don't think he enjoyed being back there,” jockey Jose Ortiz said. “He likes to have a clean face. That's his 'A' game. I went on with him, but I didn't have much.”

Catholic Boy was coming off turf wins in the Grade I Belmont Derby and Pennine Ridge at Belmont Park. He gave the 38-year-old Thomas, a former assistant to Christophe Clement, Dale Romans and Todd Pletcher, his first graded stakes win as a head trainer last summer at Saratoga, when he won the With Anticipation on the grass.

It was the first Travers win in nine tries for LaPenta, whose yearbook photo from Iona College, the Catholic school in New Rochelle, is captioned “More than ready to succeed.”

When he bought half of a 6-month-old weanling who failed to sell at auction in 2016, the name Catholic Boy, sired by More Than Ready, seemed like a natural. The colt’s dam is Song of Bernadette, named for the saint.

“He was not considered to be an ‘A’ horse at Bridlewood Farm, and Jonathan kept saying, ‘There’s something about him that I like,’” LaPenta said. “I said, ‘OK, now you’re going to have a chance to prove it.’ And he did.

“Unbelievable. Take me to church.”

You can see a gallery of all the Travers Day stakes races here.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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