SARATOGA SPRINGS — It took 14 years, but John Velazquez finally returned to the Travers winner’s circle Saturday afternoon after Code of Honor dusted the field to capture his second career riding win in Saratoga's biggest race.
The Hall of Fame jockey left to a touching round of applause from the Saratoga faithful as he exited the winner’s circle smiling ear-to-ear. He completed a big day at the venerable race course carding three wins on the blockbuster day of racing in the Adirondacks.
In a meeting that has seen its share of bad weather, the racing gods dialed up a picture perfect afternoon at old Saratoga Race Course where a big crowd witnessed the sterling performance by the son of Noble Mission.
Post Time selection Code of Honor made a major statement within the 3-year-old male division in pulling away from the field in the 150th renewal of the $1.25 million Travers Stakes before announced attendance of 48,213.
The Shug McGaughey conditioned colt completed the mile-and-a-quarter trip in 2:01.05. The winner paid $10.80 for the win, $5.20 for place and $3.80 to show.
Tacitus, a perpetual second-place finisher this year that went off as the 5-2 favorite, paid $3.70 for second and $2.80 for third. He completed a Post Time ice cold $2 exacta of $37. West coast shipper Mucho Gusto finished third and paid $3.80 to show and rounded out a $2 trifecta that paid $143.48.
The chestnut colt collected $670,000 for the win, adding to his career earnings of $1,885,820 for the owner William S. Farish.
Velazquez rode the winner masterfully, getting off the dead rail early in the race and let the early leaders duel to fairly quick early fractions. After starting to move on the far turn he kept the colt outside of the field, picking off horses as he accelerated into the stretch. He corralled the top two in deep stretch and pulled away to win by three lengths.
“Today, I made sure, when I got him out to the clear, he responded right away, so I was very happy for him. Obviously, we’ve been looking for this kind of performance for a long time,” said
After reeling in the front runners Johnny V glided to the finish aboard Code of Honor, winning by a resounding three lengths. It didn’t seem like many pundits were giving his horse credit for getting the classic distance on Derby day, but Velazquez was confident he would handle the mile-and-a-quarter.
“I never had any doubts about distance as a problem, just him putting his mind to running,” said Velazquez.
Like Velazquez, the Travers winner’s circle had eluded McGaughey since 1998 when he won his third with Coronado’s Quest. Code of Honor was his fifth starter in the race since that last victory, but he picked up his fourth as the sun set on the Saratoga grandstand.
“It doesn’t get old, but it can’t take that long again,” McGaughey joked after the race.
He tied Elliott Burch for the second most Travers training wins in history, trailing only Winbert “Bert” Mulholland, who captured five in his conditioning career.
McGaughey knew that his colt was capable of big things after the Derby performance and the win in the Grade 3 Dwyer coming into the race.
“Today, he put it all together,” said McGaughey. “He trained really well. The Dwyer was a really good race, so we were hoping we were going to see what we saw.”
For trainer Hall of Famer Bill Mott, he is still looking for his first Travers win and thought he had his best opportunity to capture that elusive win. Tacitus now adds another second place finish to his Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy runner-up finishes.
The son of Tapit was much closer to the pace on Saturday, possibly due to the addition of blinkers by Mott. As he passed the front running Macho Gusto past the sixteenth pole, Mott knew there was one horse that could pose a danger to his colt’s chances.
“I had one eye on the winner and one eye on mine,” said Mott. “It looked like there was a good chance we were going to outduel Mucho Gusto but the winner, I mean he rolled by pretty fast,” he said.
The hard luck Tacitus, who had a wide trip in the Belmont and broke badly in the Jim Dandy, would be right in the divisional conversation with better luck. Mott thought that putting the blinkers on might have changed his luck.
“I think we made the right choice putting the blinkers on him. My horse was brave. He was good coming through on the inside,” said Mott. “The horse that won, he was third in the Derby. He ran well. He did actually beat Tacitus in the Derby. You look back and you have to say he figured.”
Joe Talamo, jockey of third-place finisher Mucho Gusto, was caught off guard when he realized it was Tacitus running along with him in the early going. “I was surprised to see Tacitus that close, but we were going pretty easy,” said Talamo.
For a moment, the California-based jockey thought he might steal one of the jewels of east coast racing with the Bob Baffert-trained chestnut. “Turning for home, he really gave me a thrill when he opened up a little bit, I really thought I was going to keep going,” said Talamo. “Hats off to the winner, he really ran a heck of a race today.”
As for the division, Code of Honor has put his name in the hat, winning his first Grade 1 to go along with the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and the Grade 3 Dwyer. The Pennsylvania Derby is next on the calendar at Parx on Sept. 21 where probable division leader Maximum Security is expected to make his next start.
With the big effort by Johnny V and Code of Honor, the colt is definitely in the conversation and has made things interesting in the most visible division in racing.
“The way he won today, you have to put him up there with them. We’ll see what happens,” said McGaughey.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.