SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — To superstar trainer Chad Brown, this 155-year-old racetrack is “my house, my home turf.” Yet for years, Saratoga’s signature race has belonged to somebody else: jockey Javier Castellano.
Many thought Saturday’s 149th Travers Stakes was destined to be a 1-2 finish for Brown’s Good Magic, the 7-5 favorite, and Gronkowski, the 3-1 second choice. They flopped, finishing eighth and ninth, respectively, behind Castellano, who looked like the winner all the way on 7-1 shot Catholic Boy.
The 40-year-old Venezuelan’s sixth Travers trophy extended his Midsummer Derby record. Brown, who grew up in nearby Mechanicville, is 0-for-8 in the race he “wants most.”
Castellano sat second behind Ireland-based Mendelssohn through comfortable fractions — 23.30 seconds for a quarter-mile, 47.81 seconds for a half-mile, 1:11.97 for 6 furlongs. Catholic Boy swung four wide in upper stretch and was clear of 13-1 shot and runner-up Mendelssohn by 2 1⁄2 lengths at the eighth pole and by four at the wire.
“I feel so blessed to win six Travers,” Castellano said. “This is an amazing horse. He did it by himself.”
It was a doubly glorious day for Oyster Bay native John Panagot, who not only is the racing manager for winning co-owner Robert LaPenta but also Castellano’s agent. Panagot will collect 25 percent of the jockey’s $67,000 winner’s share.
When Catholic Boy was surging at the three-eighths pole, trainer Jonathan Thomas said, “I knew he was golden.”
So did Panagot. “I grabbed Mr. LaPenta’s elbow when Javier looked back and saw no one was closing,” Panagot said. “He grabbed my hand, and at the finish, I gave him a big hug.”
It was a rare miserable day for Brown, the runaway leader in Saratoga’s standings. Winning a turf stakes the race after the Travers was little consolation for a 1-for-11 afternoon. “Good Magic didn’t break well, and from there he was in trouble,” Brown said. “Gronkowski couldn’t make up any ground.”
Even though Catholic Boy won the Remsen Stakes last fall and was 1-for-3 on dirt, he was considered a grass horse after coming off victories in two turf stakes at Belmont Park.
“I think he showed he’s unique by winning at 1 1⁄4 miles on turf and dirt,” Panagot said. “I think he’s the first [son of] More Than Ready to win a Grade I at 1 1⁄4 on dirt, at least here, anyway.”
Catholic Boy paid $16.20 and was timed in 2:01.94 for his sixth win in nine starts for Thomas, who picked him out of a 2016 Keeneland yearling sale after discussing his pedigree with Panagot. He earned $670,000 for LaPenta, Madaket Stables, Siena Farm and Twin Creeks Racing Stable.
Completing the order of finish were Bravazo, King Zachary, Vino Rosso, Trigger Warning, Tenfold, Gronkowski, Good Magic and Wonder Gadot, the first filly in the Travers since 1979.
Iona graduate LaPenta’s silks are maroon and gold, his alma mater’s colors, and he named the horse after himself. Catholic Boy’s mother is Song of Bernadette, the title of a 1943 movie about a 19th century French peasant girl who claimed she had visions of the Virgin Mary.
“When I graduated from Iona, under my yearbook picture it said ‘more than ready to succeed,’ ” LaPenta said. “I saw the perfect opportunity to connect the whole thing with Iona, the colors, the song of Bernadette. He’s obviously got God on his side.”
Castellano is Catholic, too.
“I had a lot of confidence,” he said. “I went to pray every single Sunday because he’s a Catholic boy.”
Baffert honored. Trainer Bob Baffert dominated the previous two Travers with Arrogate and West Coast, but he wasn’t in it this year. More glory came his way anyway when the dual Triple Crown winner was inducted Friday into the Saratoga Walk of Fame
The old place was kind to Baffert again Saturday, when he and rider Mike Smith won two Grade I stakes, the Personal Ensign (Abel Tasman, $3.50) and the Ballerina (Marley’s Freedom, $5.80).