By T. D. Thornton
After getting brushed and shuffled in the early stages of Saturday's GI Travers S. while losing momentum and position, Javier Castellano decided to wing his trip aboard 2.7-1 second choice Arcangelo (Arrogate). He would later explain with a laugh–in the way that only winning jockeys can find humor when their riding tactics go off-kilter–that “it seemed to me that everybody had a plan, except myself.”
Sometimes no plan ends up being the best plan, as demonstrated by Arcangelo's artful dissection of a “loaded” Midsummer Derby that brought together not only the winners of this year's three Triple Crown races, but also the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion colt from last season.
Yet while Arcangelo's team–owner Blue Rose Farm, trainer Jena Antonucci, and the now seven-time winning Travers jockey Castellano–deservedly basked in the glory of the colt's well-improvised, 105 Beyer Speed Figure score that came 11 weeks after a 7-1 upset of the GI Belmont S., the connections of the high-profile Travers also-rans might have been rightfully questioning how their own pre-race strategies also seemed to disintegrate shortly after the starter sprung the latch for Saratoga's annual showcase race.
Take 'TDN Rising Star' Forte (Violence), for example. The reigning 2-year-old champ and winner of three of five graded stakes at age three was favored to win the Travers at 1.75-1 odds. But I wouldn't bet that too many people expected him to outbreak the field, especially considering he was fractious in the gate from post one and that he had never led at the first call in any of his previous nine races. Yet he popped out on top and spearheaded the pack for the first 100 yards before jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. decided he wanted Forte back in his comfort zone of targeting pacemakers and not being one himself.
At the same time, GI Kentucky Derby upsetter Mage (Good Magic) also broke with more early energy than usual, leaving Flavien Prat with an unexpectedly hard-to-handle, keyed-up colt as the field scrambled for position into the clubhouse turn.
With both Ortiz and Prat committed to conceding their positions in efforts to get their colts to settle, Castellano had to adjust his own rhythm and cadence in their wake, dropping back to fifth while securing a rail spot for Arcangelo.
The two colts who projected to be the main speeds on paper–the GI Preakness S. wire-to-wire victor National Treasure (Quality Road) and the all-the-way Curlin S. winner Scotland (Good Magic)–then came around Forte and Mage while Arcangelo, taking the shortest route at the fence, edged up into second.
Onto the backstretch, the Travers pack sorted itself into a more logical procession after opening quarter-mile splits of :23.46 and :24.54.
But then the 12-1 'TDN Rising Star' Tapit Trice (Tapit) surged up with an early bid for third behind Scotland and National Treasure, and these tactics, too, were out of the ordinary for a colt who has historically lagged and had to be scrubbed on in the early stages.
But on Saturday, Tapit Trice was newly adorned with blinkers for the first time in a race, and jockey Jose Ortiz had already started nudging him for run at the mile pole to see if the equipment change would produce a prolonged bid that would be able to sustain giving up five paths of real estate through the initial turn.
By the time the field crested the half-mile marker through a third-quarter split in a speeded-up :23.63, the body language of the contenders was telling: Scotland was all-out under pressure, with National Treasure being pushed along but not making headway while three-quarters of a length behind. Tapit Trice continued his wide journey three deep through the second turn, while Arcangelo fluidly clicked into a higher cruising gear, with Castellano tipping him out to the four path and appearing primed to pounce turning for home.
Forte at this point was rallying admirably considering his dire, self-inflicted circumstances, but the favorite's wide move from last under Irad Ortiz was accompanied by a whiff of too-little-too-late desperation. The punchless Mage dropped back to trail the field and was not hammered on for run by Prat when it was evident he was in no way in it to win it.
Banking off the bend through a fourth-quarter split in :24.65, Arcangelo drew abreast with what had essentially been a six-furlong middle move by Tapit Trice and the stubbornly staying-on Scotland.
Castellano gave one cursory look over his right shoulder to size up the threat from Forte, and he saw enough to know he wouldn't have to glance back in that direction again while hustling his colt with a vigorous hand ride in upper stretch.
Three-sixteenths out, Arcangelo put away both pacemakers, then braced for a fresh challenge from the late-striding Disarm (Gun Runner). A bit of judicious right-handed stick work outside the eighth pole elicited just enough torque from Arcangelo to keep Disarm at bay, with the final margin between them a length at the wire and Tapit Trice 2 1/2 lengths farther back in third.
In order, Forte, National Treasure, Scotland and Mage rounded out the finish.
Although Arcangelo's winning Beyer represents a three-point bump over his 102 for the Belmont S. and continues the colt's upward arc of always running a faster figure than his previous race over six lifetime starts, his final time of 2:02.23 for 10 furlongs was the slowest winning time for the Travers since V.E. Day stopped the timer in 2:02.98 back in 2014.
Arcangelo also made his winning move through a final quarter- mile clocked in :25.85, which is the slowest final split for the Travers since Keen Ice required :26.49 to upset American Pharoah in the 2015 edition.
Your Travers takeaway will depend upon how much emphasis you put on each of the above-mentioned factors.
On one hand, the winner looked visually impressive, and resonates as a colt who doesn't need to have everything go his own way to run his “A” race.
Arcangelo's speed figure came back more than respectable, but when the raw times get compared to the race's recent history, they're only so-so.
You also have to factor in that the next time Arcangelo meets Grade I competition, three of his main contenders are probably not going to suffer the disadvantageous types of trips that skewed the efforts of Forte, Mage, and (to a lesser degree) Tapit Trice.
On Sunday, the connections of the Travers top four reported all colts emerged from the race in decent shape. Mage's team posted on Twitter that he was doing well after “a bad day at the office.”
Antonucci was non-committal about a next start for Arcangelo. The GI Breeders' Cup Classic, though, would afford the same 11-week spacing as the colt's wins between the Belmont S. and the Travers.
That time frame would also match the same 11 weeks that Arcangelo's sire utilized when he won the Travers and the Classic in succession in 2016.
And let's not forget that Arrogate then parlayed those emphatic wins at age three into a sweep of the GI Pegasus World Cup and G1 Dubai World Cup early in his 4-year-old season.