SARATOGA SPRINGS – The naysayers said he was a turf horse who couldn't run on dirt.
Catholic Boy answered them Saturday in a stunning performance at Saratoga Race Course, pulling away from the field in the 149th renewal of the $1.25 million Travers Stakes.
After faltering on the Derby trail in Florida in the spring, Catholic Boy bounced back on the turf, winning twice, including the Grade 1 Belmont Derby. The connections decided to give the dirt another try in Saratoga’s biggest race.
Earlier in the week, trainer Jonathan Thomas told The News that he thought the time was ripe to return to the main track.
“Going into the Belmont Derby, if he were to win, that would allow us the opportunity to try the Travers and step aside the box,” said Thomas who won his first Travers in his initial try. “Getting that elusive Grade 1 out of the way, not only taking a risk but we didn’t have to take the safe route, which would have been the Secretariat at Arlington.”
“He’s a deserving Grade 1 winner, given he has the talent, the looks and the pedigree, all of the things you need to be a stallion.”
The critics cried that he bled in Florida when he ran on the dirt and that he should stay on turf, what seemed to be his preferred surface. Thomas and co-owner Robert LaPenta thought otherwise.
“You listen to the analysts, and you know the Florida Derby was a major hiccup,” said LaPenta. “We thought we were on the way to the Kentucky Derby. It’s every owner’s dream.”
He was on track heading into the prep races winning the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct in December, but he bled after the Florida Derby, and the connections took him off the Derby trail.
“There’s something about Gulfstream where horses bleed there; that either never bled before or never bleed again. But very few analysts picked him because they didn’t think he ran well on dirt. We knew he would run well on dirt, just not this well,” said LaPenta.
“We've always believed that he's a top talent despite the surface,” said Thomas. “He's a much stronger, mature horse, and this really shows that patience helps.”
On Saturday afternoon as the shadows from the old Saratoga grandstand crawled across the main track, Catholic Boy was the last 3-year-old standing. He defeated the winners of the Haskell, Jim Dandy and Queen’s Plate, in addition to the runner-ups in each of the three Triple Crown races.
The son of More Than Ready and Post Time top selection took over at the top of the stretch from the early front runner Mendelssohn to complete the mile-and-a-quarter trek in 2:01.94. The winner paid $16.20 for the win, $8.20 for place and $5.80 to show before an announced crowd of 49,418. Mendelssohn, who went off at nearly 14-1, paid a healthy $12 for second and $8.70 for third. Bravazo, who never puts in a poor effort, finished third and paid $6.60 to show.
Catholic Boy collected $670,000 for the win, adding to his career earnings of $1,842,000. LaPenta, Madaket Stables, Siena Farm and Twin Creeks Racing Stables own the winning colt. LaPenta got into the horse business 20 years ago in partnership with former Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino.
Thomas told The News he wanted to be close to the lead and get to the first turn in good position from the outside post so his horse didn’t have to exert too much to get into the race. His jockey, Javier Castellano followed the instructions perfectly and came away with his record-extending sixth Travers win.
Castellano, 40, praised the trainer in the winner’s circle after the race. “Jonathan, he did such a great job with the horse,” said Castellano. “He was on top of him every single step, I give all the credit to him.”
Getting the record holding rider of the most prestigious race of Saratoga meeting to ride a horse who had struggled on dirt was a coup. Thomas credited jockey agent John Panagot, who had previously served as LaPenta’s racing manager for the past seven years, with getting Javy to ride Catholic Boy.
“One of the unsung heroes of this whole thing is right there. John Panagot has been an integral part of this,” said Thomas. “It had a great feel to it, the whole arrangement. We’ve come a long way together, we’ve had each others backs from the beginning. We’ve always tried to put the best interests of Mr. LaPenta and the horse ahead of anything of our own. It’s so fantastic to see it play out that way,” said Thomas.
The Irish shipper Mendelssohn redeemed himself from a dismal last-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, when he was bounced around at the start and never had a chance. In the Travers, world-class rider Ryan Moore got him out in front early, setting early fractions of 23.30 and 47.81, avoiding the kickback that he took on that rainy day in Louisville in May.
The plan all along for Mendelssohn after the Derby was to get him ready for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Saturday afternoon played out into those plans for the Aidan O’Brien trained son of Scat Daddy.
Assistant trainer T.J. Comerford was happy with his colt’s performance at the Spa.
“This was a big improvement. Aidan planned on bringing him here, and he stuck to his guns,” said Comerford. “Aidan could have easily run him on the turf at home, but he stuck with it over here. It just shows he’s coming back to his best.”
Wayne Lukas, trying to win his fourth career Travers, was proud of his colt Bravazo, who ran in all three Triple Crown races and the Haskell before his third-place finish in the Travers. “He’s been through the whole series. He’s keeping it honest. Nobody’s stealing anything, and he’s beaten some pretty good horses,” said Lukas.
It was a disappointing day for Chad Brown, who saddled the top two choices in Good Magic and Gronkowski. The two finished eighth and ninth, respectively, only defeating the filly Wonder Gadot.
Wonder Gadot was trying to become the first filly since 1915 to win the Midsummer Derby. She came up empty on after cutting the corner into the upper stretch, finishing last.
On Saturday, it was history of a different sort. Catholic Boy became the first horse in the 149-year history of the race to win from post No. 11.
Now that’s divine.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.