Travers Stakes Review 2023: Arcangelo Again for Antonucci

Jena AntonucciJena Antonucci added to her credentials as an exceptional trainer when Arcangelo, the 3/1 second favorite for the 2023 Travers Stakes, powered home to win on a muddy track at Saratoga on August 26.

Ridden by Javier Castellano in the pale pink silks of Blue Rose Farm, he beat Steve Asmussen’s and Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Disarm (12/1) by a length. It was Castellano’s seventh win in the race and Antonucci’s first.

Todd Pletcher’s Tapit Trice (13/1) took third under Jose Ortiz. He was wearing blinkers for the first time and seemed to benefit from them. He filled the same position in the Belmont but was last seen finishing a disappointing and distant fifth in the Haskell Stakes. He was beaten by a much smaller margin this time, three and a half lengths.

Antonucci was adamant after the race that if anyone else had saddled her incredibly talented gray son of the ill-fated Arrogate he would have started favorite with the USA racebooks. She may well be correct. Arcangelo was purchased for the bargain price of $35,000 as a yearling at Keeneland by Blue Rose Farm’s Jon Ebbert. He had won his last three starts, most recently beating Forte a length and a half in the Belmont in June. Forte started as the favorite there too whilst Arcangelo was sent off at 8/1.

Arcangelo also won the grade three Peter Pan Stakes at the same track in May and was clearly on an upward curve. Bettors mistakenly seem to favor longer-established handlers over the rising stars of the training ranks who have a smaller number of horses to supervise and the hunger to establish themselves.

The 8/5 Travers favorite Forte was also saddled by Pletcher. He could only finish a distant fourth, beaten a whopping eight lengths. Last time out he was the hot favorite when he won the Jim Dandy Stakes by the narrowest of margins. It was a grade two contest at this track at the end of July. In April Forte beat Mage (5/1) by a length when victorious in the Florida Derby. Mage finished seventh and last in the Travers, beaten 15 lengths under Flavien Prat.

Forte looked an unlikely winner before he entered the gates. His demeanor was the opposite of what bettors would want to see at the start. He looked less than enthusiastic about the task ahead, appearing disinterested. In contrast Arcangelo was almost bouncing in walk and clearly wanted to get on with the job. Antonucci knows her horse and was confident he could produce his best work after a two-month absence from the track.

What happened in Arcangelo’s 2023 Travers Stakes?

Forte acted up when in the gates but broke well from the inside berth, slightly faster than Arcangelo who was next to him. It was Bill Mott’s Scotland who took the lead approaching the first turn under Junior Alvarado. He was followed by Forte and Arcangelo in that order but Castellano managed to grab the rail. Bob Baffert’s National Treasure (66/10) was next with Disarm on his inside as Mage raced keenly and Tapit Trice trailed the pack.

The first quarter was run in 23.46 seconds. Scotland maintained his advantage but National Treasure took second ahead of Tapit Trice who had been urged to get involved in the action by Jose Ortiz. Arcangelo was behind them in fourth ahead of Forte while Disarm dropped to the rear on the rail after the half mile was completed in 48.10.

Mage dropped back through the field approaching the final turn as the pace was maintained. Scotland was finally headed by Arcangelo who had been angled out on the turn for a clear run. Scotland weakened in the stretch whilst Disarm rallied on the rail and Tapit Trice took third. Forte had little to offer when Ortiz asked for a final effort and Mage had absolutely nothing to give. National Treasure finished fifth ahead of Scotland.

Mike Repole, owner of Forte suffered double disappointment at Saratoga. Not only did Forte fail to fire but his other star, Nest, was a beaten heavy favorite in the grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes for fillies and mares on Friday August 25. Also trained by Pletcher, she was beaten over four lengths into third under Ortiz.

What was wrong with Mage?

A few days after the Travers Mage’s connections were left scratching their heads after their Kentucky Derby winner’s disappointing effort. Confidence was high after his encouraging prep run in the Haskell on July 22. Mage was returning from a two-month absence from the track and was beaten nearly two lengths by Geaux Rocket Ride into second. He was ridden by his regular pilot, Javier Castellano who partnered him at Churchill Downs and also finished third on him in the Preakness.

Mage had been training well since the Haskell and no physical issues have been discovered since the Travers. Before the race there were complications with the jockey booking. Castellano reportedly took too long to decide which horse he was going to ride in the race. Keen to make a firm booking, the services of Luis Saez were secured. He rode Mage into second place in the Florida Derby in April but had not ridden him since.

Saez was injured three days before the Travers, fracturing his left wrist and dislocating his right shoulder. He was riding Norm Casse’s Burning Bright in a turf race at Saratoga when he broke through the rail on the second turn and collapsed after a suspected cardiac issue that was fatal.

Flavien Prat was a last-minute booking but, as one of the top jockeys known for his ability to read races correctly and keep his head when others are losing theirs, he seemed likely to give Mage every chance of performing. Restrepo described Prat as a great jockey but thought that he and Mage did not understand each other well on the day. He was surprised that he was not ridden closer to the pace and noted that Mage did not settle for him, pulling hard for the first half mile.

What next for Arcangelo?

Antonucci has her own way of doing things, watching every sign given by her horses and is not prepared to announce the next target for Arcangelo. She will not chase accolades but will run her star trainee whenever she thinks he is ready to produce his best. Bettors should take note when Arcangelo next appears as he has consistently provided great value for them.