By Chris McGrath
Our sport thrives on anticipation; our business, on outcomes. But actually it can take a while to unpick one from the other–especially when even a race as storied as the GI Runhappy Travers S. is not just an end in itself, but also a potential means to viability for the whole program of whoever is lucky enough to own the winner.
In principle, the bare couple of minutes dividing anticipation from outcome at Saratoga on Saturday will be history tangibly in the making. From the flux of hopes and interests vested in the maturing Thoroughbreds that enter the gate, a single name will suddenly be petrified into the pantheon.
In reality, however, it's very seldom that we can know quite what it is we might be looking at. In terms of volunteering a stallion of due stature, for instance, it has to be acknowledged that the Travers overall shares a rather patchy profile with the GI Kentucky Derby either side of the last horse to win both, Street Sense in 2007. Take out Bernardini, who won the Travers the year before, and it's only recently that a couple of young stallions have begun to shore things up again for either race.
Poignantly, it does appear as though the spectacular flowering of Arrogate in 2016 was a legitimate signpost–only for the road to plunge clean off a cliff. Those bidding for his final crop of yearlings at Keeneland in a few days' time will be contesting a legacy that has very quickly evolved, from an unsurprisingly slow start, via the charismatic endeavors of Secret Oath and now Artorius.
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For the time being, at any rate, Artorius does feel like quite a good example of the way we tend to look into the future through the prism of the past. He brings a fairly irresistible narrative into the Travers, being even more lightly raced than was his sire when picking up the pieces against exhausted Triple Crown protagonists. And, being out of an elite Ghostzapper racemare, he does look tantalizingly eligible to salvage Arrogate's legacy, if only he can cope with this steep elevation in grade. Yet it's almost as though those high emotional stakes have somehow been loaded into odds that imply some ordained destiny.
Yet who would presume to predict the future, when even the past can take so long to separate itself into coherence? Nobody, of course, could have foreseen the tragic denouement of Arrogate's tale. But most of us were pretty sure of where we stood with Gun Runner, when he staggered into third in the Travers, fully 15 lengths behind Arrogate: a horse that had shown his hand, precocious enough to run third in the Derby but apparently tapering off by this point. Gun Runner persevered, however, and after observing Arrogate reach the bottom of the barrel–presumably an oil barrel–in Dubai, he ran up to that sequence of five Grade Is by an aggregate 27 1/2 lengths.
And now here he is, poised to seal one of the most remarkable stud debuts of recent times with two runners–and don't forget that he would have a third, but for the local prohibition of Taiba's trainer–in a race that offers a pretty instructive snapshot of the shifting landscape among Kentucky stallions. Another young gun, Upstart, fields a son who has had this race in mind ever since that fleeting flirtation with an uncontested coronation on the home turn in the Derby; while Not This Time, consolidating his own outstanding start, matches Gun Runner with two: Epicenter, whose candidature for divisional honors makes a Grade I feel pretty imperative, and Ain't Life Grand.
Of the established elite, indeed, only Medaglia d'Oro can muster a candidate to emulate his 2002 success in outsider Gilded Age. To be fair, he also has a stake in proceedings through the dam of Ain't Life Grand, Cat Moves. This is the only mare owned by Peggy and Ray Shattuck, whose homebred GII Iowa Derby winner would hardly be as stupefying a result here as Rich Strike, himself of course by a Travers winner in Keen Ice, back at Churchill in May. While expectations for Rich Strike seem pretty much back to what they were on Derby day, Ain't Life Grand announced himself at Saratoga with a molten 45.88 workout last week, fastest of 79 clocked that morning.
Certainly the game could do with another fairytale. There's no need to dwell on the potential for awkwardness, in showcasing our best to the outside world, when three of eight runners are saddled by a trainer currently subject to such uncomfortable attention. Having been raised locally, this race is one he would prize perhaps beyond any other. But there you go: all of us have to accept that human capacity for anticipation is distinctly finite; and that fulfilment belongs to the complex, unpredictable realm of outcomes.
Setting all that aside, my own anticipations remain stubborn as ever. As Chad Brown would agree, he is only one of many whose dreams are centered on these three horses. And our community could seek no more flattering representation, to those beyond, than Brereton C. Jones and his family at Airdrie Stud, breeders of Zandon. And if this colt can mark the 50th anniversary of the farm's foundation by finally getting it all together here, even greater laurels would be on the line just down the road at Keeneland in the fall.
Yes, I know: all I'm doing is choosing a different script from the one that appears to favor Artorius so inexorably. I'm shoehorning Zandon's ostensible need for a particular tactical scenario, and a different kind of race from the cat-and-mouse of his latest start, into a storyline of far greater neatness and symmetry than tends to be indulged by this unsentimental, unpredictable world. But we're all sports fans first. We all enjoy our anticipation while it lasts. And we can leave dealing with all those business outcomes until such time as we know what they actually are.
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