SARATOGA SPRINGS — R. A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Hugh Lynch and Corms Racing Stable’s former claimer Tax and Juddmonte Farms regally bred Tacitus, the one-two finishers of the Grade 2 Jim Dandy presented by NYRA Bets, renew their rivalry on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course in the 150th running of Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers.
The familiar foes – the 5-2 favorite Tacitus and the 6-1 Tax – will be meeting for the fifth time this year, headlining an august group of 12 sophomores entered Tuesday for the 1 ™-mile race, including multiple graded-stakes winners Code of Honor, Mucho Gusto and Owendale and a pair of formidable contenders from Saratoga leading trainer Chad Brown in Highest Honors and Looking At Bikinis.
The “Mid-Summer Derby” will be televised live on FOX from 5-6 p.m. Eastern. Undercard coverage will also be televised on a special Travers Day edition of Saratoga Live, airing nationally on FS2 from 11:30-5 p.m. ET. Regional coverage of Saturday’s Saratoga Live can be found on MSG+, FOX Sports Prime Ticket and Altitude.
The Travers is the centerpiece of a card featuring seven stakes and six Grade 1s, including the, $850,000 Sword Dancer; $700,000 Personal Ensign presented by Lia Infiniti; $500,000 Ketel One Ballerina; $600,000 Forego presented by Encore Boston Harbor; and $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial presented by Runhappy. Rounding out the blockbuster card is the Grade 2, $400,000 Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa
Tacitus, trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, struck the first blow between the rugged rivals in capturing the Grade 2 Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets on April 6 at Aqueduct Racetrack when 1 ™-lengths the better of Tax.
The grey son of Tapit, out of 2014 Eclipse Award winner Close Hatches, followed up with a strong rally to be placed third in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby with Tax placed 14th after a troubled trip.
Garrett O’Rourke, General Manager of Juddmonte Farms, said a win in the Travers would be a huge boost to Tacitus’ stallion credentials.
“He couldn’t be bred any better,” said O’Rourke. “I think everyone appreciates that when they look at a pedigree and see that you’re the first foal out of a champion mare, inbred to Unbridled and by the best dirt stallion around. He physically resembles Unbridled, but is also same color as Tapit and has a lot of Tapit traits in him.”
Both Tacitus and Tax, conditioned by Danny Gargan, skipped the middle leg of the Triple Crown and continued their battle in the final jewel, the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets, where Tax dueled pacesetter Joevia as Tacitus rallied from seventh to finish second behind Sir Winston, with Tax settling for fourth.
Last out, in a dramatic edition of the Jim Dandy, Tacitus stumbled badly at the start of the nine-furlong route as Tax tracked Grade 1 Preakness winner War of Will through swift splits. Although Tacitus gamely made up ground down the backstretch, and surged strongly the final 70 yards, Tax got first jump turning for home and held on strong for a three-quarter length score.
With one win apiece, the Travers will serve as a lucrative tie-breaker as both rivals arrive in search of a first Grade 1 victory.
Tacitus, winner of the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby in March, will add blinkers for the first time as he departs from post 6 under Jose Ortiz.
O’Rourke said Tacitus should continue to improve as he matures.
“I think, at the end of the day, good horses will overcome things and a big horse like him, he ran tremendously well in the Derby and the Belmont and again in the Jim Dandy,” said O’Rourke. “He’s gradually getting there, but he’s not a horse that was fully mature in May. He’s gradually getting to that point. When he does get there, he’ll be able to work around his bad luck events and get himself in the race early and use that big, long stride effectively.”
Tax, claimed for $50,000 out of a winning effort at Keeneland on October 21, finished third in the Grade 2 Remsen in his first start for new connections ahead of a narrow head score in the Grade 3 Withers, both at the Big A.
Gargan said he relishes the underdog role with Tax, a dark bay son of Arch.
“Well, I haven’t taught him how to read yet, so he doesn’t know he’s an underdog,” said Gargan, with a laugh. “Nobody wrote about us going into the Jim Dandy and we did just fine and nobody’s really written about us now, but I think he’s in his best form today.
“Tacitus has beaten us once [Wood Memorial], but I think that was a misjudgment by me not to train him up for that race from Florida,” added Gargan. “We stayed with him in New York and missed some time. In the Derby, he didn’t really go over the track well and that race took a lot out of him. I don’t think I had him 100 percent fit for the Belmont, but if I did, I think we would have won that race as well. Since then, he’s been doing great and training forwardly. We’re excited and ready to run.”
Irad Ortiz, Jr. has the call aboard Tax from the outside post.
W.S. Farish’s Code of Honor, a chestnut son of Noble Mission, won the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in February. Following a good third in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, Code of Honor rallied strongly along the rail in the Kentucky Derby in which he was placed second. Code of Honor will have the benefit of two Hall of Fame connections, with trainer Shug McGaughey seeking his fourth Travers win and jockey John Velazquez.
“I think he’s come a long way in the last two or three months and I don’t think the distance will be a problem,” said McGaughey. “He’s a laid-back, one-run type of horse and that’s what we’ll try to do with him. Hopefully, at the quarter pole, we’re in a decent position where he can go on and make his run and see what happens.”
Velazquez, aboard Flower Alley for a victory in the 2005 Travers, will guide Code of Honor, 4-1, from post 2.
Michael Lund Petersen’s Mucho Gusto, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, arrives at the Travers from a runner-up effort in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational.
The four-time Grade 3 winner, who captured the Bob Hope at Del Mar at 2 years old, as well as the Robert Lewis, Affirmed and Laz Barrera this year at Santa Anita Park, has never finished off the board in eight starts. The chestnut son of Mucho Macho Man will look to give Baffert his fourth Travers win and third in four runnings, with Arrogate taking the 2016 edition in a Travers record time for 1 ™ miles, and West Coast in 2017.
Baffert said he relishes a chance at another Travers score.
“It’s always great to be a part of the Travers. It’s an event,” said Baffert. “The city embraces it and everyone is into it. It’ll be an exciting race, with a lot of good horses.”
Joe Talamo has the call from post 7 at odds of 6-1.
A $200,000 purchase at the 2017 Keeneland September Sale, Rupp Racing’s Owendale appears to be peaking at the right time, capturing the Grade 3 Ohio Derby last out after running third in the Preakness.
Trained by Brad Cox, Owendale has recorded Beyer Speed Figures in excess of 90 in each of his last three starts, starting with a 98 for his 1 §-length win in the Grade 3 Lexington at Keeneland in April, setting him up for his start in the Triple Crown’s middle jewel. The son of Into Mischief, who has been training at Churchill Downs, will be making his Saratoga debut at odds of 6-1.
Florent Geroux retains the mount from post 1.
Chad Brown, a three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer, is in search of his first Travers win and will have two chances.
Highest Honors, also owned by Farish and listed at 10-1, has been stretched out in distance in each of his three previous starts, which includes back-to-back wins after running second in his debut at 6 ¢ furlongs in April at Keeneland. The Tapit colt broke his maiden going 1 1/16 miles on June 1 at Belmont and then won the 1 1/8-mile Curlin last month at the Spa.
Jockey Luis Saez will be attempting to earn his second Travers victory aboard Highest Honors after winning six years ago aboard Will Take Charge, the 2013 Champion 3-Year-Old Male. Highest Honors will depart from post 3.
Long Lake Stable, Madaket Stables, Thomas Coleman and Doheny Racing Stable’s Looking At Bikinis, also 10-1, finished third in his stakes debut in the Curlin. Purchased for $240,000 from the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale last April, Looking At Bikinis won his first two starts, besting eventual graded-stakes winner Cutting Humor in his debut in September at Belmont Park. Hall of Famer Javier Castellano will be looking to add to his record six Travers victories, including his triumphant ride last year aboard Catholic Boy. They will depart from post 9.
Godolphin’s Endorsed, at 15-1, is coming off his best stakes effort, running second to Highest Honors in the 1 1/8-mile Curlin. Out of the Grade 1 winning Tapit broodmare Dance Card, Endorsed broke his maiden at Saratoga at first asking. He is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, who won the 2012 Travers when Alpha dead-heated with Golden Ticket.
The son of 2002 Travers winner Medaglia d’Oro will look to become the first son of a Travers winner to take the “Mid-Summer Derby” since Alpha, a son of 2006 hero Bernardini. Joel Rosario has the call from post 11.
McLaughlin said Endorsed, who exited a six-furlong allowance win into his runner-up Curlin effort, should enjoy the added distance on Saturday.
“He went from six to nine furlongs; we think he wants the distance,” said McLaughlin. “He’s doing fabulous coming out of the Curlin. I don’t think there’s any bad post in a 1 1/4 mile race. We’ll leave it to Joel to decide whether we’ll be forwardly placed or take back.”
Dale Romans will saddle graded-stakes veteran Everfast for Calumet Farm, entering off a fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational in July at Monmouth Park. His runner-up effort to War of Will in the Preakness, at odds of 29-1, earned him a personal-best 96 Beyer Speed Figure.
A son of Take Charge Indy, he has been ambitiously placed throughout his career, running in the Grade 3 Iroquois in his second career start and following with the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity a month later. On the Derby trail, Everfast ran second in the Grade 2 Holy Bull. A seventh-place finisher in the Belmont Stakes, Everfast will be making his fourth consecutive Grade 1 appearance. Martin Chuan will pilot Everfast, a 30-1 choice, from post 5.
Alex and JoAnn Lieblong’s Laughing Fox, who finished fifth in the Grade 1 Preakness, returned to Saratoga for the first time since his debut in August 2018 to run fourth in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy in July. The son of Union Rags has trained at the Spa since and will be Hall of Fame conditioner Steve Asmussen’s fourth Travers starter since 2016.
Asmussen said the notable defections of Maximum Security and Game Winner from the Travers have changed the pace scenario for the 1 1/4-mile test.
“Obviously, the complexion of the race has changed considerably the past couple of weeks. It’s a very interesting group of three-year-olds meeting,” said Asmussen. “I think the conditions in which the race is run under will be interesting. Most of these three-year-olds’ last races, whether it was the weather here in the Jim Dandy or the heat in the Haskell, or not run since the Belmont, whatever the conditions were, they weren’t favorable. I think the race lacks a lot of pace; Saratoga speed seems to be so effective. That’ll be a huge concern.”
Purchased for $375,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sale, the Kentucky bred earned stakes blacktype for the first time when capturing the 1 1/8-mile Oaklawn Invitational on May 4. Ricardo Santana, Jr. will guide Laughing Fox, 30-1, from post 4.
Rounding out the field are maiden winners Chess Chief, trained by Dallas Stewart for the Estate of James Coleman, Jr. at odds of 30-1; and Scars Are Cool, trained by Stanley Hough for Sagamore Farm, also at 30-1.
Hall of Famer Mike Smith, a four-time Travers winner, rides Chess Chief from post 8, while Scars Are Cool will leave from post 10 under Tyler Gaffalione.