SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Another megabucks stakes, another Pletcher family gathering in the winner's circle.
On the 150th anniversary of the day Saratoga opened, it was all about tradition as the ancient Spa showcased the Grade I, $750,000 Whitney Handicap for the 86th time. To no one's surprise, Todd Pletcher, well on his way to his 10th training title here, won it with Cross Traffic.
The usually stoic Pletcher has been smiling like a lottery winner lately, and how could he not? Eight days ago, his Belmont Stakes winner, Palace Malice, took the $600,000 Jim Dandy 24 hours before Pletcher's Verrazano dominated the $1-million, Grade I Haskell at Monmouth Park. Saturday, before a crowd of 33,148, the 4-year-old Cross Traffic qualified for the Breeders' Cup Classic with his third win in five career starts, all since Jan. 4.
"We're having a phenomenal run,'' Pletcher said. "We've been very blessed. The Whitney is one of the top races in the country.''
The gray colt was on his toes in the paddock and stayed wired all the way around the track. He took the lead from Mucho Macho Man entering the first turn and never gave it up, turning back a brief bid from Fort Larned and holding off Successful Dan's too-late move by three-quarters of a length. Mucho Macho Man held for third, 1½ lengths farther back. Fort Larned, the 6-5 favorite, was nosed for fourth by Ron the Greek, 4¼ lengths behind Cross Traffic.
Fort Larned failed to become the first back-to-back Whitney winner since Discovery took three straight from 1934-36. "He just walked out of the gates,'' trainer Ian Wilkes said, "but hats off to the winner.''
It was a brutal day for Kevin Brockley, who won a drawing granting a free $15,000 bet on the Whitney. After going back and forth, he picked Fort Larned over Cross Traffic. Aieeeee!
Pletcher's longtime collaborator, John Velazquez, is on a roll of his own. He recently became Saratoga's all-time leading jockey and rode Verrazano in the Haskell. Cross Traffic followed the script Johnny V. had envisioned. "It worked out perfect, the way we wanted,'' Velazquez said. "It was a comfortable pace , and he was doing it easy.''
Cross Traffic is a head (Westchester Handicap) and a nose (Met Mile) from being undefeated. "It's very rare a horse makes his first career start as a 4-year-old and makes so much progress this quickly,'' Pletcher said. "I don't think I've ever had a horse run as hard and take two tough beats like he did.''
The winner paid $9.10 after going 11/8 miles on a fast track in 1:47.89. He earned $450,000, increasing his bankroll to $681,300 for GoldMark Farm LLC. Pletcher mentioned the Woodward here Aug. 31 and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park as possible preps for the Classic, which Fort Larned won last year, with Mucho Macho Man second.
"To beat the Breeders' Cup winner and runner-up speaks volumes about his quality,'' Pletcher said. "He certainly deserved a Grade I after the Met Mile.''
Pletcher's 75-year-old father, Florida-based trainer J.J. Pletcher, spends summers at Saratoga, and this one is shaping up as his best ever. "This horse won easy,'' J.J. said. "What a week, what a week. Keep 'em coming.''