How Hard Can It Be? - By Evan Hammonds

All of the stories and anecdotes about Saratoga Springs and Saratoga Race Course just might be true. The upstate New York haven for horses and humans offered a splendid week with perfect weather for the big show Aug. 24 capped by the 150th running of the Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1).

Walking the backstretch area for a few days, one sees the finest horses in training on the continent and it might be highlighted by catching trainer Eric Guillot’s gumbo fest, with a cauldron of gumbo stirred by his award-winning brother Chip and worthy of any table in Louisiana. A tent with supporters for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation was there to spread the word, along with the backstretch rumors and humor spread by the gregarious trainer.

Over on the Oklahoma Training Track, stars of today and tomorrow work over the deep going. On the bend are the barns of Hall of Fame trainers Shug McGaughey and Bill Mott. Their runners would run one-two, respectively, in the $1.25 million Travers.

In the afternoon Saratoga Race Course is transformed into an amusement park for breeders, owners, trainers, and horseplayers. The roller-coaster rides play out on the track.

Just how tough is it to win at Saratoga?

Of the nine flat races Aug. 22, four events in a five-race run result in photo finishes. The decision in race four was decided by a nose; race five had three on the line with the margins being a nose and a nose; a nose was the margin in race seven; and in the feature, Catch a Bid scored in the Riskaverse Stakes by a head over Dalika.

Travers day, which featured five grade 1s, would also prove to be tough as nails. It might be easier to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded than find one’s way to the winner’s circle.

In the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes (G1), it was three on the line that had racing fans straining their necks as hard as the horses pressing toward the wire to see who won. Mind Control was declared a nostril better than deep closer Hog Creek Hustle and another nose in front of 3-10 pacesetter Shancelot.

As thrilling as that was, the outcome of the Personal Ensign Stakes Presented by Lia Infiniti (G1) might have been even closer as Midnight Bisou and Elate, both multiple grade 1 winners, hit the line as one after a furious stretch run. Following a wait of several anxious minutes, the photo finish revealed Midnight Bisou had earned the win for Bloom Racing Stable, Madaket Stables, and Allen Racing. The victory was her third over Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider’s Elate this season.

“When they crossed the finish line, I thought she’d gotten beat, but then when I watched it and thought, ‘No, we won,’ and then we watched it again and thought, ‘No, she got beat,’ ” said Claiborne Farm’s Dell Hancock the following afternoon. “It’s too bad the wire wasn’t two jumps ahead, but that’s the way it goes.”

Elate won the Alabama Stakes (G1) at Saratoga in the summer of 2017 after being edged by Abel Tasman by a head in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1). Last year Abel Tasman beat Elate by a neck in the Personal Ensign. So that’s three seconds dropped by a head, a neck, and a nose at racing’s highest level. A common denominator is all three winners were piloted by Mike Smith.

“It’s hard,” Hancock professed the next day. “She’s won a grade 1 up here before and last year she just missed, too.

“We were all disappointed. But she’s a filly we all just adore. We all jumped on her back; maybe that was too much weight. The other filly ran really, really well; give her everything.

“It’s tough, but you learn to fight another day even though it’s tough to swallow…but we’ve got a maiden in today. We’re on our way to watch that.”

The maiden, Vehement, a colt by War Front, ran third in the day’s second race.

It’s tough to get a win at Saratoga.

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