The power of having a plan and sticking to it was on vivid display August 29 at Saratoga Race Course where the fruits of labor for three trainers were winner's circle visits and trophy presentations.
Tim Ice, Saeed bin Suroor, and Ian Wilkes won the Grade 1 races on the Travers Stakes card (with bin Suroor adding the Grade 3 Victory Ride and nearly the King's Bishop) with horses they had been pointing toward their respective races for months.
Although the manner in which trainers prepare their horses for a big race has changed dramatically over the years, the idea that a trainer can condition the equine athlete for a peak performance in a certain race has not.
Whereas the superstars of yesteryear used to prep for stakes or a return to racing in allowance company, the top stakes horses of today usually stick to graded stakes.
Take the Godolphin horses who raced on Saturday for instance. Sara Louise won the Victory Ride off an eight-month layoff, Vineyard Haven finished first (placed second) in the King's Bishop off a six-month layoff, and Music Note won the Ballerina off a 2 1/2-month layoff. Vineyard Haven and Music Note came into their races not only off layoffs but also off lackluster performances as the favorite.
A steady series of works for each (a workout every week for the past six weeks like clockwork) had them primed for peak performances on Saturday, and two firsts and a second is not a bad day at the office for bin Suroor.
When Birdstone won the 2004 Travers under an ominous sky, Blood Horse writer Steve Haskin walked with Nick Zito to the winner's circle and told the Racing Hall of Fame trainer, "That was the greatest training job I ever saw."
Zito trained Birdstone up to the Travers off his upset win over Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes 2 1/2 months earlier. While Tim Ice has a long way to go before joining Zito's pantheon, his conditioning of Birdstone's son, Summer Bird, to win this year's Travers was no less spectacular.
Ice pointed to the Travers immediately following the Belmont as his goal for Summer Bird. The summer is rich with lucrative spots for three-year-old males, but Ice chose the Haskell (the $50,000 bonus probably didn't hurt), and Summer Bird ran a credible second to Rachel Alexandra despite being a bit closer to the pace.
Summer Bird used a similar trip to win the Travers, and the whole thing had the feel of the trainer calling his shot 2 1/2 months ago.
If Ice called his shot for winning the Travers after pointing to that race following the Belmont, then Ian Wilkes called a grand slam by saying he would target the King's Bishop for Capt. Candyman Can following that Candy Ride colt's win in the Bay Shore Stakes in April at Aqueduct.
Wilkes never missed a beat with Capt. Candyman Can, who ran into a buzzsaw when second to Quality Road in the Amsterdam Stakes. It doesn't sound like Capt. Candyman Can missed a step of training or an oat in his feed tub since Wilkes mentioned the King's Bishop 4 1/2 months ago and adding the Grade 1 to his colt's resume adds millions to his value as a stallion prospect.
The lesson I take from this is that training regimans are important. When pointing for a specific race against graded stakes talent, every day counts. Sure, things like form, pace, and class are always important, but trainer patterns are an essential part of the handicapping puzzle, and kudos to bin Suoor, Ice, and Wilkes for putting it all together on Saturday.