SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - After two heartbreaking losses, Cross Traffic finally earned his first stakes victory with a front-running triumph over some of the country's top older horses in the 86th edition of the Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney Invitational Handicap on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
Confronted by his pursuers on the turn, Cross Traffic spun into the stretch with a two-length advantage, and, despite an erratic run through the lane, had enough left to repel a late challenge from Successful Dan and win by three-quarters of a length. Mucho Macho Man held on for third, with Ron the Greek along for fourth and Fort Larned checking in fifth.
Completing the order of finish were Alpha, Csaba and Fast Falcon.
"Being outside of Mucho Macho Man and Fort Larned - the other two speeds - we felt like we were in a good position," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "It worked out really well. We got a great run into the first turn. The first quarter was key. Johnny was able to get to the position he wanted without overdoing it and kind of picked it up from there."
Cross Traffic, who returned $9.10 for a $2 win bet as the 7-2 second choice, completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.89.
"The first quarter was the most important one; we didn't have to chase him to be there," said Velazquez. "After that, we started picking it up every eighth of a mile, but it was a comfortable pace. It wasn't a very fast pace, so he was doing it easy and comfortable. I felt comfortable the way he was going."
The victory was the 4-year-old Cross Traffic's third in five career starts, having finished second by a head in the Grade 3 Westchester in his stakes debut and second by a nose in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap, both at Belmont Park.
"It was a strongly run race throughout, and we were just hoping he could hold on the last part after the two losses we had at Belmont," said Pletcher, who got his third Whitney as a trainer. "Those were heartbreaking losses, to run as well as he did in those two races and miss by a whisker. Turning for home, I thought we had a big shot, but I was still wanting to get there."
The Whitney victory also earned Cross Traffic an automatic berth and an all-fees-paid entry into the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita this fall as part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" series.
"This was a real quality-filled race," added Pletcher, who trains the Unbridled's Song colt for Goldmark Farm. "To beat the Breeders' Cup winner [Fort Larned] and runner-up [Mucho Macho Man] from last year and some really good horses speaks volumes about his quality. It was great to see him [win]. He certainly deserved a Grade 1 after the Met Mile. I know we've had a couple of tough beats over the years, but that one kind of stands out as one of the toughest."
Fort Larned, a 6 ¼-length winner of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap in June, was bidding to become the first horse since Discovery (1934, 1935, 1936) to win consecutive editions of the Whitney. Off to a flat-footed start, he had a wide trip throughout and could not sustain his run after coming within a length of the winner on the turn.
"He just walked out of the gates," said trainer Ian Wilkes of Fort Larned. "It wasn't the start we were looking for. He got away bad. He got a good trip on the outside. All hats off to the winner. He's run over this track before; there's no excuse there. It was one of those days. We'll fight another day."
Successful Dan, who tripped and fell coming out of the paddock before the race, was 1 ½ lengths clear of Mucho Macho Man. Charles LoPresti, who trains the older half-brother to - and stablemate of - reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan, said he did not think the mishap affected the 7-year-old gelding.
"I'm happy," said LoPresti. "He ran his race the way I thought he'd run. It's unfortunate that happened [the fall before the race], but I don't think that took anything away from him. He was really running at the end. I told my nephew around the three-eighths pole he was picking up horses left and right. I knew he was going to run his race, and he did."