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Friday, 02 August 2013 09:09

There’s Something About the Whitney

By Brendan O'Meara | News

Depending on the weather, it is the one day of the Saratoga meet that threatens, and sometimes surpasses, Travers Day. You can look at handle, you can look at attendance, but the buzz around the Grade I $750,000 Whitney Invitational can hardly be measured. The Whitney kicks off August, the Travers sends it packing.

Last year’s Whitney champion, Fort Larned, is back to defend his title. He’s an amazing talent who won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic and this year’s Stephen Foster Handicap—both Grade I’s. 

Fort Larned is a forwardly-placed horse and goes to Post 3 the 7-5 morning-line favorite, and deservedly so. He won the Stephen Foster going away, leading the entire trip around the Churchill Downs oval. 

In the 2012 Whitney, Fort Larned broke from the far outside and tracked the leader in third place before kicking clear at the quarter pole. He can do it on the front end, and he can relax. In many ways, he represents the total package.

“It’s just important to get out of the gates and have a good, clean break,” said Ian Wilkes, trainer of Fort Larned. “That’s probably the key to it all.”

The post position isn’t too much of a concern for Wilkes who’s been inside and out in Grade I’s.

“It’s fine. I’ve learned not to worry about the post position,” he said. “The horse has always taken care of me. I drew a little inside in the [Breeders’ Cup] Classic in the four hole and I came out of the two in the Stephen Foster. I just leave it up to him.”

Brian Hernandez, a lesser-known jockey in this corner of the country, maintains the mount on Fort Larned as he has since 2012.

“That’s why I’ve got Brian,” said Wilkes. “He’s tactical; he can sit behind. Don’t forget Mucho Macho Man is a fast horse, as well. All three speed horses drew on the inside here. It’ll be up to Brian. He can sit; that’s not a problem.” 

The 5-2 second choice, Cross Traffic, trained by Todd Pletcher, narrowly lost the Grade I Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park. Cross Traffic set brutal speed fractions on the front end and nearly triumphed. He represents another speed threat to challenge Fort Larned.

“I’m pleased with the draw,” Pletcher said, who drew Post 4 for the Whitney. “I’m happy that we drew outside Fort Larned as I anticipate the two of us will be significant pace factors in the race.”

There’s yet another speed threat in this race: Mucho Macho Man. He drew Post 2 and is 6-1 on the morning line. Posts 2, 3 and 4 are the speed horses and who gets the lead is anybody’s guess. Mucho Macho Man comes into this race off a third-place effort in the Criminal Type Stakes at Belmont Park. He was involved in a torrid pace early on, but hung on gamely to finish third. It was his first start since January and he could be a major factor if he moves forward off that effort.

“He’s doing great,” said Kathy Ritvo, Mucho Macho Man’s trainer. “He’s training fantastic. He can’t be doing any better going into the race. The 2 [post position] is not my favorite number. We have a lot of confidence in Edgar [Prado], and I think the horse will do his running. He has some nice speed. He’s quick coming out of the gate. I think he has to get the best position that he can. We’ll see what happens.”

Given all the speed and should they run each other into the earth by the quarter pole, there’s one horse who will be primed to mop up the field. His name is Ron the Greek (Post 5, 6-1), third place finisher in the Whitney a year ago. 

“I don’t think it really makes any difference where we were drawn,” said Bill Mott, trainer to Ron the Greek, “and I think we’re probably one of the easiest horses in the race to predict where we’re going to be. I don’t think we’re going to force any of the three speed horses in the race. Everyone knows where we’re going to be coming from. He should have [a good pace]. Hopefully Cross Traffic, Fort Larned, and Mucho Macho Man all go at it.”

Alpha (Post 6, 10-1), Successful Dan (Post 1, 12-1) and Fast Falcon (Post 8, 15-1) round out the field.

Travers picture taking shape

Todd Pletcher had an all-star weekend. On Saturday July 27 he sent out Palace Malice, winner of the Belmont Stakes, in the Grade II Jim Dandy and he did not disappoint, winning easily. 

Pletcher then traveled to Monmouth Park Sunday July 28, saddled Verrazano, winner of this year’s Grade I Wood Memorial, and watched Verrazano win the Grade I $1 million Haskell Invitational by 10 lengths. 

In 2005 and 2011, Pletcher pulled off the Jim Dandy-Travers double with Flower Alley and Stay Thirsty. He’s alive to do it again with Palace Malice, though his Verrazano ran a scary race down on the Jersey Shore.

“We’re fortunate to have two such outstanding colts,” Pletcher said. “You hate to run horses against each other from the same barn, but in this case I think it’s the logical case for both horses and both owners. We’ll see how they both come back and both train, but right now it certainly looks like they’re likely to show up in the Travers.”

Oxbow, winner of this year’s Preakness Stakes, suffered a minor ankle injury during the Haskell and will likely miss the Travers. The Kentucky Derby winner, Orb, continues to train well at Fair Hill down in Maryland. 

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