Improbable made his Saratoga Race Course debut a memorable one, staying just off pacesetting Mr. Buff before taking command entering the final turn and powering home a two-length winner in the prestigious Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney on Saturday.
Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and SF Racing, Improbable bested the five-horse field to notch his second consecutive Grade 1 victory following his 3 ¼-length score in the Hollywood Gold Cup on June 6 at Santa Anita. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert shipped the 4-year-old City Zip colt to New York for the first time off that race, and the trek netted the conditioner his second straight Whitney win, following McKinzie last year. Baffert is the first trainer to repeat in the Whitney since Hall of Famer Flint Schulhofer won with Colonial Affair and Unaccounted For in 1994-95.
One of five stakes on a loaded 12-race card, the 93rd running of the 1 1/8-mile Whitney saw Improbable earn an automatic entry to the Grade 1, $7 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on November 7 at Keeneland.
After acting fractious in the gate, Improbable settled down and broke sharp from post 2 under jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. Even-money favorite Tom’s d’Etat stumbled leaving from the outermost post as Mr. Buff, the longest shot on the board, expectedly went to the front, posting an opening quarter-mile in 25.12 seconds and the half in 49.74 on the fast main track according to Equibase.
Improbable tracked in second position with By My Standards, Code of Honor, last year’s Grade 1 Runhappy Travers winner, and Tom’s d’Etat trailing. Ortiz, Jr. urged his charge up entering the far turn and took command over Mr. Buff just past the three-quarter mark near the rail when straightened for home. Under encouragement in the stretch, Improbable prevented By My Standards from making a late three-path rally, hitting the wire in a final time of 1:48.65.
“Big race. Obviously, we had to get over the gate [issues] a little bit and Irad and the gate crew did a wonderful job,” said Elliot Walden, WinStar Farm’s CEO. “He’s always got a little blowup in him and then he settles down. He broke great, Irad had him in a super position and felt great all the way around there. Bob had him ready to go, as usual, when he comes east. When he got in the position that we had hoped for, which was kind of tracking Mr. Buff, we felt really good. Then they throw up kind of easy fractions. But, he’s just a different horse this year. That’s his second Grade 1 in a row. He got beat by Tom’s d’Etat in his first start at Oaklawn, but he’s set up for a big year and we’re just excited to continue that.”
Off at 3-1, Improbable returned $8.50 on a $2 win wager. He won his third career Grade 1, including the 2018 Los Alamitos Futurity, and improved his career earnings to $1,529,520.
“He’s a high-energy horse and it’s not as surprising when you’ve seen it a few times,” Walden said. “It is something that’s cost him a couple races. The Pennsylvania Derby is a race he was compromised in because he broke in the air. He typically has one little episode in him and it’s just a question of getting that out of the way and then he settles down. Bob’s done a lot of work with him and the way he broke, I felt really good about him once he got out of the gate.”
The win marked Ortiz, Jr.’s second Whitney triumph in three years, adding to his effort aboard Diversify in 2018.
“Finally, he’s grown up a little bit. He turned into a nice horse,” said Ortiz, Jr., who won for the third time on Saturday. “Mr. Baffert did a great job with him. He broke really good today. Honestly, I just took a little hold. I know Mr. Buff, he’s the speed of the race and I sat second. Last time, [Drayden] Van Dyke rode him second in the clear and he ran so good, so I just tried to do the same thing.”
Allied Racing Stable’s By My Standards, ridden by Jose Ortiz and trained by Bret Calhoun, finished ahead of Tom’s d’Etat, ridden by Joel Rosario, by a half-length for runner-up honors.
“When he [Tom’s d’Etat] stumbled, it made the pace slower,” Ortiz said. “My trip was perfect. I broke OK. [Junior] Alvarado [aboard Mr. Buff] went to the lead with Mr. Buff. My horse was steady and I put him in the clear right away. I knew they were going slow but I didn’t want to make a premature move. When I said, ‘Go,’ my horse responded, but Improbable did, too.”
Rosario said he thought the pace was fine but Tom’s d’Etat’s start hindered his progress.
“He stumbled coming out,” Rosario said. “There was a lot going on. He was standing fine. He just missed the break. The horse to the inside of him was moving a little bit. He was straight, he just stumbled a little bit. It changed my plan because I had to really get riding from there. I couldn’t take my time.
“I thought the pace was fine,” he added. “Even after that, I was not too far from the lead. It looked like I was in a good spot. But stumbling out of the gate, I lost ground right away.”
Code of Honor, trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, was bidding to become the first horse to capture the Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Whitney in a career since the McGaughey-conditioned Easy Goer in 1989. The 4-year-old son of Noble Mission finished fourth, with the New York-bred Mr. Buff completing the order of finish.
“With a slow pace, he should have been on the bridle right behind those horses,” said Hall of Famer John Velazquez, aboard Code of Honor. “He broke well enough and I was right behind them and he just ran kind of flat from there.”
The Whitney pays homage to one of the Saratoga Race Course most influential families, who for generations have had a profound effect on horse racing in upstate New York. The prominent Whitney family’s involvement in thoroughbred racing began with Jockey Club co-founder William Collins Whitney, who began owning thoroughbreds in 1898. His son Harry Payne Whitney campaigned horses under the moniker of Greentree Stables, who hold the record for most victories in the family’s namesake race with six winners. Horses owned by members of the Whitney family have gone on to win every major horse race in North America, including all three American Classics.
Live racing resumes Sunday at Saratoga Race Course with a 10-race card that includes the $100,000 Birdstone for 4-year-olds and up in Race 9 at 5:46 p.m. First post is 1:10 p.m.
Photo Credit: Dom Napolitano /NYRA