SARATOGA SPRINGS – In an epic stretch duel between the Ortiz brothers, Tax repelled the post time favorite Tacitus in deep stretch by three-quarters of a length to win the 56th Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
As the sun set behind the old grandstand and the shadows cooled a sticky day at the Spa, the winner avenged his defeat in April’s Wood Memorial to his rival Tacitus to win.
The $600,000 Grade 2 race is the major prep race leading up to the $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 24. The victory adds another 3-year-old to the divisional mix after finishes of 15th in the Derby and 4th in the Belmont Stakes on the Triple Crown trail.
Tax was placed 14th in the Derby after Maximum Security’s disqualification, a horse who could show up in late August for the midsummer Derby that could be a prelude to the divisional championship.
It was trainer Danny Gargan’s and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.’s first win in the Jim Dandy in their respective careers. Paid attendance at the old Spa on a sunny summer day was 34,517.
A bad stumble at the start by Tacitus, the second-place finisher in the Belmont, left him five lengths behind his five rivals, which ultimately cost him the race.
“I think the stumble cost me a lot, for sure,” said jockey Jose Ortiz.
Tax finished the 1 1/8-mile trek in 1:49.28 and his backers were paid $11 for the win, $4.30 for the place and $2.90 to show. Tacitus paid $2.80 for second and $2.30 to show. Global Campaign paid $3.20 to show. The $2 exacta paid $26.80 and an ice cold Post Time trifecta paid $96 for $2.
Tax went off at odds of 9-2 and stayed off the flank of Preakness winner War of Will for honest early fractions of 24.89 and 48.80 before taking over past the quarter pole.
The son of Arch was gutsy when challenged by Tacitus, who made up the ground he lost at the start and challenged the winner in the stretch before being thwarted in the final 200 yards.
Gargan thinks his horse’s best days are ahead of him.
“He’s a gelding, so he will get better with age,” said Gargan. “With a horse like this who matures and gets stronger and better, he can be any kind of horse at the end of the year. I’m really, really happy with him.”
In training him up to the Jim Dandy, the conditioner noticed a big improvement in the dark bay. He posted a rocket-like work on July 20 on the main track, the best of 71 horses at the four-furlong distance that day indicating he was loaded for the big prep.
“He’s four or five lengths better than he was going into any of his previous races,” said Gargan.
He’ll have to add another furlong to his repertoire as the Travers is at the classic mile-and-a-quarter distance, but Gargan was quick to dismiss that it would be an issue leading up to the signature race of the Spa meet.
“Well, a mile-and-an-eighth is probably better, but I don’t think he was getting caught at the end of this race,” said Gargan. “It looked like he [Tacitus] was going to get him, but he never did get by him, so it’s just a matter of how it plays out.”
Ortiz Jr. gave his horse credit and commented how much he’s improved since the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes.
“We knew we had a shot,” said Ortiz Jr. “We got beat by Tacitus in the Belmont. He was doing much better this time. He was 100 percent, so it’s exciting to cross the wire in front in this kind of race.”
Global Campaign, the third-place finisher, was projected to be the front runner, but he didn’t break sharply, although not as bad as Tacitus, changing the complexion of the race. When that happened Ortiz Jr. adjusted his plan and avoided the rail at all costs.
“When I got outside in the clear, I held it,” Ortiz Jr. said. “That was my plan. I didn’t want to be inside. I thought I was going to have the other horse as a target, but he didn’t break, so I decided to go. We never expected War of Will to be in front.”
Brother Jose couldn’t overcome Tacitus’ bad start and with his game plan out the window, he was forced to go to Plan B.
“I was thinking to be very aggressive today on him going into the first turn,” Ortiz said. “I wanted to break good and make everybody use a little bit at the first sixteenth of a mile. I used him a little bit just to bring him up to the field and when we passed the five-eighths pole, I saw an opening on the inside with War of Will at the front.”
Unfortunately, he had no energy left in the stretch to combat the winner and he had to settle for second best for the second straight race.
The division is still wide open, with Maximum Security’s Haskell win catapulting him to the top, but the Travers will have a big say in the title later next month.
On this early summer evening at the Spa, it was Tax day and the gelding paid his owners a big refund.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.