Updated August 22, 2019 - 6:05 pm
“Dead heats” are a rarity in horse racing, but even rarer is the dead heat that isn’t.
We may have had a sighting of this rare beast at Saratoga last weekend, when some interesting circumstances combined to render the photographic equipment used to decide such tight finishes virtually useless.
We’ll probably never know for sure because of a continuing problem in horse racing: a lack of transparency into stewards’ decisions, an issue that reared its head just a few months ago in the Kentucky Derby.
Here’s how Saturday’s race went down, according to players who were at the track and my repeat viewings of the race:
A heavy rainstorm swept in suddenly during the running of the $200,000 Lake Placid Stakes late Saturday. Things got really tight at the finish of the 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-old fillies on the inner turf course. Regal Glory, Blowout and 8-5 favorite Varenka were within a few inches of one another at the wire.
Unfortunately, between the heavy rain, the gathering darkness and the fact that the inner turf course at Saratoga isn’t well lit, the normally crisp photo finish camera produced a shot comparable to some of my worst vacation snaps.
The prevailing opinion on the track was that Varenka had won by a head, according to one correspondent, but after a long wait race caller Larry Collmus announced that the race was a dead heat between Varenka and Regal Glory.
The finish line shot was never shown on the Saratoga TV feed, according to the correspondent, though it was posted later on the NYRA.com website per usual. That touched off a big social media controversy over the weekend, as it appeared to show that Varenka got the better of Regal Glory.
After multiple viewings of video of the race, which is far better quality than the photo, I can’t say for sure that the stewards’ call was wrong. I also phoned the New York Racing Association publicity staff to try to find someone to explain what the issue was, but I heard only crickets.
The point is that some acknowledgement or explanation of the issue could have defused the controversy long before conspiracy theories and allegations of NYRA incompetence began ricocheting around the internet.
Also, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to invest in some new lights or camera equipment at the storied track.
#RJhorseracing featured races
As long as we’re focused on Saratoga, the #RJhorseracing handicappers figured we might as well hang around for a little horse race they call the “Midsummer Derby,” also known as the $1.25 million Travers Stakes, the most important race for 3-year-olds that isn’t part of the Triple Crown series. We’re also tackling the 12th race on Saturday’s card, an optional allowance/$40,000 claiming race for New York-bred horses 3 years and older.
In the Travers, run at the classic distance of 1¼ miles, the handicapping crew is lining up behind 5-2 morning line favorite Tacitus, runner-up in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga in his last start and in the Belmont Stakes before that. They like Mucho Gusto (6-1) and Code of Honor (4-1) to fill out the top three.
“Trainer/jockey; likes track and distance,” #RJhorseracing handicapper Robert Ranfone wrote of the group’s pick.
Tacitus is a solid racehorse, but I don’t think he’s a cinch here because his late-running style often lands him in trouble. I’ll go with Mucho Gusto on top instead, with Tax (6-1) and Tacitus in the minor placings.
In the 12th, to be run at 5½ furlongs on the turf, the crew is backing Fled, the 9-2 third choice on the morning line, over Ghost Giant (5-1) and Dowse’s Beach, the 5-2 morning line favorite who is currently on the also-eligible list.
I’m going with Discretionary Marq (4-1), who drops back to a level where he’s won before, with Ghost Giant and Fled, in that order.
Ellis Starr’s Travers Stakes analysis
I’ll give Tax the slightest preference over Mucho Gusto, given that he won the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga last month. Earning a career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure in that race, Tax showed excellent tactical speed while stalking the pacesetter in second during the early stages. Taking the lead with about a quarter mile to run, Tax then dug in to hold off Tacitus by three-quarters of a length in very good fashion. Earlier this year, Tax proved himself at the level with a win in the Withers Stakes before finishing second behind Tacitus in the Wood Memorial. After a no-excuse 15th in the Kentucky Derby, Tax stalked the pacesetter in second in the Belmont Stakes from the start before tiring to fourth. Since the Jim Dandy, Tax has shown he is in even better physical condition, with a sensational half-mile workout at Saratoga eight days ago which was the best of 64 that day at the distance. The mile and one-quarter distance is of no concern either as Tax is a son of Arch, whose sons and daughters have won or placed in three of six races at the classic distance to date, according to STATS Race Lens, including 2019 Suburban Stakes winner Preservationist. As such, and with the second leading jockey at the Saratoga meet, Irad Ortiz, Jr. in the saddle, I think we will see Tax running the best race of his career to win the Travers.
Mucho Gusto shipped cross-country from trainer Bob Baffert’s base at Del Mar following a strong 5 furlong workout on Aug. 19 in 59.2, which was the best of 46 on the day and impressed Baffert enough to make the trip. Having won the Travers back-to-back in 2016 with Arrogate and 2017 with West Coast, Baffert certainly knows when a horse in his care is good enough for this race. Mucho Gusto has never finished worse than third in eight races. His most recent effort, when second in the Haskell Invitational on July 20, was his best yet as he earned a 107 figure and was eight lengths clear of the third horse while beaten 1 1/2 lenghts by Maximum Security. That being his fourth straight race in which he improved his figure, Mucho Gusto also appears likely to run even better in the Travers than he did in the Haskell, setting up what could be a memorable battle with Tax in the stretch.
About some of the others:
Tacitus has run very consistently all year, with 105, 106, 107, 103 and 105 figures. In two of those races, the Jim Dandy and the Wood Memorial, Tacitus had significant trouble at the start. He overcame the trouble to win the Wood Memorial but only managed second in the Jim Dandy and some people feel he might have won without stumbling at the start in that race. Blinkers go on for the Travers and although Bill Mott is undoubtedly one of the best trainers around, I have concerns about an equipment change for a big race such as this one, particularly as a STATS Race Lens query tells us Mott’s record when adding blinkers for the first time is 4-for-78 in the past two years. As such, I will consider Tacitus a contender to finish second or third but not as a win contender in this race.
Similarly, Code of Honor appears to be a cut below Tax and Mucho Gusto in that he earned a 101 figure winning the Dwyer Stakes in early July. Prior to that, Code of Honor finished third in the Derby then was moved up to second via the disqualification of Maximum Security, earning a 108 figure. He’s certainly proven competitive at the top level in the division but even a repeat of his effort in the Dwyer doesn’t appear good enough to beat either Tax or Mucho Gusto if they repeat their most recent efforts, and certainly not if they improve upon them.
Owendale earned a 114 figure winning the Ohio Derby in June, which is the best figure earned by any horse in the Travers field. However, the time off between that race and the Travers is a concern in that physical condition is a key to running well at the 1 1/4-mile distance. However, with his late running style, Owendale is likely to be last or nearly so in the early stages of the Travers and could pass many tired horses in the last quarter mile to get in the money.
Highest Honors is one more who may have a say in the minor awards. He has finished first or second in all three races including winning the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga last month. The 102, 96 and 101 figures he has earned are decent enough but there’s no pattern suggesting improvement and no suggestion he can jump up to the level needed to win the race.
The rest of the Travers Stakes field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures: Chess Chief (102), Endorsed (100), Everfast (105), Laughing Fox (101), Lookin At Bikinis (102) and Scars are Cool (95).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.