Travers Analysis: Pletcher and the Accidental Rabbits

Travers Analysis: Pletcher and the Accidental Rabbits
Photo: Jeffrey Snyder
High Cotton, one of two Todd Pletcher runners in the Travers.
While most eyes will be on Bernardini and Bluegrass Cat in Saturday's $1-million Travers Stakes (gr. I), it might be wise to keep a lookout for Bluegrass Cat's stablemate High Cotton out of the corner of one eye.

High Cotton is a talented, hard-knocking colt who has a chance to pick up a piece of it in the Travers. But recent history – the Saratoga meeting -- says he could have more of an impact on the race than one might realize, even if it is inadvertently.

Last year, Pletcher used two infamous rabbits -- Bishop Court Hill in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) to soften up Lava Man for Flower Alley, and Spanish Chestnut, trained by Patrick Biancone, but owned by the same people who owned Bandini, to run Bellamy Road into the ground in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and set it up for either Bandini or Flower Alley. Both plans backfired, as Pletcher's own horses also were victimized by the rabbits on both occasions.

At Saratoga this year, it's been a different story. Now, we all know that Pletcher would never sacrifice one of his top horses to kill off a single opponent in order to set it up for another of his horses with different ownership, but that's the way it's worked out on three occasions at the meet.

First, Pool Land ran the dangerous speed horse Take d'Tour off her feet in the Go For Wand Handicap (gr. I). Although the horse it should have benefited -- Oonagh Maccool -- finished up the track, it did set it up for a third Pletcher horse, Spun Sugar, who won the race in a photo, paying $13. Then it was Ramazutti sticking to the 3-5 favorite, Relaxed Gesture, like fly paper in the Sword Dancer Invitational (gr. IT). Relaxed Gesture had to be virtually strangled in order to free himself from Ramazutti's grasp and never fired, setting the race up for Ramazutti's stablemate Go Deputy, who won going away, paying $15.40. Most recently, it was Chagall who dueled 4-5 favorite Magical Ride into submission in the Adirondack Stakes (gr. II) through torrid fractions, allowing stablemate Octave to come on and pick up the pieces, paying $21.60.

Well, guess what? In the Travers, High Cotton drew post 4, with Bernardini in post 5, and Bluegrass Cat sitting right outside both of them in post 7.

It's hard enough to beat Pletcher one on one, but when he puts two in there, it's best to be on your guard. This is not to say High Cotton will be on a search and destroy mission against Bernardini. After all, Bluegrass Cat has a similar running style to Bernardini, and he could fall into the same trap Flower Alley did in the Gold Cup if John Velazquez is not careful. But it still would be wise for Javier Castellano, on Bernardini, to try to stay well clear of High Cotton, especially after the colt prepped for the race with one of his fastest works ever -- five furlongs in :59 3/5 in company.

High Cotton is a classy colt in his own right, and his presence in the Travers is legitimate, but so was the presence of Pool Land, Ramazutti, and Chagall in their respective races. It just happened that all three found themselves in a position to do a number on the stable's main threat in the race.

With the added presence of Kip Deville (whom trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. says likely will be scratched), a grass speedball trained by Dutrow, who has pulled a few of his own rabbits out of a hat recently, it makes strategy in the Travers even more intriguing.

So, Bernardini will have a Pletcher horse with good tactical speed directly on his inside, and a Dutrow horse with excellent early speed directly on his outside, with Velazquez in a perfect spot to observe everything that goes on. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and how much of an impact High Cotton is going to have on Bernardini, if any.

If Bernardini is the budding superstar many think he is, then all this could be moot. He looks like a horse who can be placed anywhere and still be effective. But Bluegrass Cat is a tough opponent who could take advantage of any bullseye Bernardini might have on his back. Let's remember, John Ward will have two in there as well.

So, let's first assume Kip Deville (if he runs) will bust out of there and be allowed to go on his merry way. Judging from recent events, Bernardini will have a Pletcher horse dogging him through most of the race -- most likely High Cotton early -- with Bluegrass Cat laying in wait. Minister's Bid and Hesanoldsalt will be in the hunt as well. If Bernardini can pass this test and fend off a potent Pletcher double-team, then the sky's the limit.

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