Shug McGaughey threw everyone a bit of a curve when he stated that his grass star Mr Speaker was being considered for the Travers Stakes. Now why would McGaughey think that a horse who has won three of his last five starts on grass, including stakes scores in the Belmont Derby Invitational and Dania Beach and a fast-closing second in the Palm Beach Stakes would be up to such a task, especially considering his only start on dirt resulted in a disappointing seventh-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes?
Because, to put it bluntly, McGaughey ain’t no dummy and has never made it a practice to take wild chances.
Mr Speaker did win his only start on Polytrack, taking the grade II Coolmore Lexington Stakes by four lengths. But that would seem to bode more for him being a grass horse than a dirt horse. But it could simply mean he’s a very good horse when he gets the right set of circumstances.
So, here’s the kicker. Mr Speaker could very well be a live longshot in the Travers, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
First off, Mr Speaker has already won at 1 1/4 miles, and the only Travers horse who has won going that far is Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist.
Second, and the most important reason of all, Mr Speaker is not bred to be a grass horse, and, frankly, it’s a bit of an enigma that he excelled on turf and run poorly on dirt. But we’ll come to that one black eye shortly.
Mr Speaker’s sire, Pulpit, says dirt, as does his broodmare sire, Unbridled. If you were around in 1967 and ’68, you are well aware that the Murderer’s Row during those years were Damascus, Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, and In Reality. All four of these extraordinary dirt horses are in the pedigree of Mr Speaker’s dam Salute, whose two stakes placings were in the Demoiselle Stakes and Tempted Stakes, both on dirt. Salute’s dam is the undefeated Hall of Famer Personal Ensign, who was strictly a dirt horse, as was Personal Ensign’s sire Private Account and Private Account’s sire and dam, Damascus and Numbered Account.
Mr Speaker is inbred top and bottom to Buckpasser and to Mr. Prospector. To demonstrate just how much dirt there is in the colt’s pedigree, in his first five generations he has seven Preakness winners and seven Belmont winners, not to mention three Kentucky Derby winners and four Woodward Stakes winners.
It is not surprising that he has run well on grass, as Salute traces to Hoist the Flag, who despite being a dirt horse and predominantly a dirt sire, his son Alleged did win two Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes. And Hoist the Flag’s sire, Preakiness winner Tom Rolfe, was a major influence in Europe whose son, Run the Gantlet, captured the Washington D.C. International. He also traces to Aristophanes, a multiple stakes winner in England who became the leading sire in Argentina.
And, remember, Dr. Fager did win the United Nations Handicap on grass and Damascus was beaten a nose by future Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Fort Marcy in the Washington D.C. International.
But as a whole, Mr Speaker’s pedigree is top heavy with major dirt influences.
So, why did he run so poorly in the Holy Bull? The inclination here is to throw that race out. Mr Speaker’s best efforts on grass were when he came from 10th, a dozen lengths back, to win the Belmont Derby; from 12th, nearly 13 lengths back, to finish a flying second in the Palm Beach, beaten only a half-length; and from eighth, nearly eight lengths back, to win the Dania Beach.
In the Holy Bull, he broke on top, then pressed a fast pace (:46 3/5 and 1:10 1/5), pulling on near-even terms with the leader around the far turn before tiring. This race at this track simply did not fit his style of running.
Yes, he was close to the pace in the Lexington Stakes, but they crawled the three-quarters in 1:13. When he tried those same tactics in the Pennine Ridge Stakes on grass at Belmont, he again tired to finish fifth as the 4-5 favorite. Because of that effort, he was sent off at a ridiculous 23-1 in the Belmont Derby. Stretching out from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/4 miles and dropping way out of it this time, he came flying late to nail down the victory.
It goes against all logic and pedigree analysis to think Mr Speaker cannot run on dirt. If he can’t, it’s because of something other than his pedigree.
Now, whether he’s good enough to handle the likes of Bayern, Wicked Strong, and Tonalist is another matter, but if you take everything under consideration in addition to his recent :59 3/5 work on the Saratoga main track, there is every indication he can compete with these horses at a huge price.