HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, August 27, 2023—Travers 2023 was a great day for the women of Thoroughbred racing, Jena Antonucci having her uber talented gray colt put an exclamation mark on her season–a Belmont first followed by a Midsummer Derby’s Dream.
Once more, Antonucci displayed masterful horsemanship bucking history, again, by eschewing the well-worn Haskell and Jim Dandy paths to a Travers winner’s circle. A 77-day layup—just what she thought her colt needed.
At 6:20 pm Saturday, Jena Antonucci became the trainer this year’s top three-year-old male, one who looms as one of the favorites for the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in the fall.
For those keeping score, November 4 is 64 days from today. Based on the Travers result, the timing could not be better.
Javier Castellano made it all possible for Arcangelo and Antonucci, engineering perfect trips for his talented, still developing, improving colt. It was said he was lucky to get a rail run on Long Island. Maybe, maybe not.
But over a track made wet by a strong, albeit short, mid-card downpour, Castellano and Arcangelo made their own good trip, Castellano, dare we say, winning the 154th Travers on the first turn., his seventh victory in the summer classic.
Knowing that Irad Ortiz likely wanted to get outside with an uncharacteristically rank Forte, Castellano darted inside that rival at midturn, saving all the ground heading into the backstretch. That done, he allowed a three-ply duel to develop in front of him, still saving ground but in the clear.
Winning time came at mid-far turn. Castellano tipping out into the 4-path and, after straightening away, kicked clear, taking all drama out of the stretch run to follow.
His job done, Arcangelo eased himself up, allowing Disarm to get closer at the end but to no avail, leaving the impression there’s more where that came from. Athletic and strong, Arcangelo’s future is very much in front of him.
Arguably, from a performance perspective, the equine star of the day was Echo Zulu, whose maturity at four has turned her into a more complete racehorse. Florent Geroux was content to let his champion do her thing on her terns–damn the champion to her outside who was taking the Ballerina to her.
Goodnight Olive was sharp, outbreaking the field from her outside slip, putting pressure on Echo Zulu throughout. But when Flo asked, Echo Zulu obliged, making her a perfect 4-for-4 at the Spa and 3-for-4 at the trip, the same distance she must negotiate in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint.
As stated, when Flo finally pushed the button at headstretch, Echo Zulu separated herself from the 2022 filly sprint champion with disdain. Watching this, I consciously held my breath until after the leader reached the finish post.
The race was over, the result foregone inside the furlong pole, but was there more carnage in store for owners, trainers and jockeys, the 48,000 fans on-track, and the millions watching on television? Mercifully, thankfully, there was not.
So as for day’s other headline-making event, I’m out of reasons, explanations, rationalizations and platitudes; out of excuses for what happened again, what feels like a tragedy du jour after the second mercy killing of the day had been performed, a Midsummer Nightmare.
The breakdown and subsequent death of New York Thunder was eerily similar to the fate met by Maple Leaf Mel who, like New York Thunder, was in the midst of making her Grade 1 debut a winning one and, unfortunately, the similarity didn’t end there.
Maple Leaf Mel, like New York Thunder, was a speed horse, undefeated entering the most important race of her young life. To win, Mel needed to outrun all the speed lined up against her, just like New York Thunder was doing yesterday, retaining enough stamina to hold all ralliers safe.
Not only did Mel outrace the speed but did so while also widening her advantage, as New York Thunder did yesterday, when suddenly she took a bad step and suffered a life-ending fracture. it was all too much for her; too much pressure, too much strain, for her or New York Thunder to survive.
Horsemen talk all the time about reaching the bottom of their runners but the fast ones, the great ones, test their limits every time they run without being asked; the best of the best, the gift of gifts.
The only redeeming occurrence was Tyler Gaffalione, who on the night before the first Grade 1 of Travers Day won the million-dollar Charlestown Classic before upsetting Elite Power, America’s top ranked racehorse, in the Forego, escaping serious injury and was cleared to ride today.
The sudden downpour in between two championship-defining sprint events may have been the perfect storm for death in the afternoon. New York Thunder buckling while racing on what appeared to be the fastest lanes on a sealed racetrack.
Sealing a racetrack is the act of packing the surface down with large wooden boards, known as floats, which trail behind the tractors routinely used to maintain dirt surfaces.
The procedure is meant to squeegee the track dry as an aid to the drying-out process and is historically preferred by jockeys whose wish it is to race over uniform ground. It is a nod to safety, but the “firm” ground often leads to a bias favoring speed horses, often resulting in faster, early pressure.
Sealing racetracks is common practice throughout the industry but the time may have come for this process to be tweaked. It may be easier to skip over wet sand-and-loam but it is also more jarring than racing over a harrowed, “open” racetrack.
Track operators, in their zeal to dry out a wet surface as quickly as possible, especially if there is a main event such as the Travers to follow, may need to rethink the procedure and invest in safer alternatives to sealed dirt.
To that end, all tracks should have an All-Weather surface as a potential failsafe. Gulfstream Park, in a nod to seasonal daily rainfall, installed Tapeta Track several years ago. A similar AW surface presently is being installed at the “new” Belmont Park, scheduled to reopen in 2024.
Prior to the Ballerina, Steve Laymon, spokesman for First Row Partners, the group that campaigns defending filly sprint champion Goodnight Olive, was quoted pre-race saying he was pleased the track had been harrowed.
“We’re so glad they’re harrowing the track, you know it was sealed for the last race and we’re disappointed in what we saw. We wanted to protect [Goodnight Olive], she’s been so good to us and we want to take care of her,” Laymon volunteered.
On-set during the Fox broadcast, trainer Tom Amoss was asked about Laymon’s comment by host Laffit Pincay:
“It might be nothing more than coincidence,” said Amoss, “but I think [Laymon] wants to see the track opened up to the harrowed look, and maybe it’s not quite as quick underneath, but I don’t know if it’s going to make any difference one way or another.”
A subsequent investigation is likely to come, but it’s highly unlikely to assess whether any causation will be ascribed as to the reason why New York Thunder’s catastrophic ankle injury became the 14th equine fatality–12 in racing or training–of this Saratoga summer.