After near-disaster in Haskell, Midnight Bourbon tries Travers

After near-disaster in Haskell, Midnight Bourbon tries Travers
Photo: Parker Waters/Eclipse Sportswire

It will be hold-your-breath time when Preakness runner-up Midnight Bourbon competes in the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.

How will the 3-year-old react to the near calamity that befell him in his last start, when he clipped heels with Hot Rod Charlie and unseated his jockey, Paco Lopez, in the July 17 Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park?

The incident was frightening for fans to watch as Midnight Bourbon somehow regained his balance while Lopez lay prone on the track. Fortunately, the bay Tiznow colt emerged from the race virtually unscathed while Lopez sustained only minor injuries. Hot Rod Charlie was disqualified and placed last.

As relieved as Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen is that Midnight Bourbon is fine physically, he has questions about how his horse might react if he finds himself in tight quarters as part of a field of seven for the “Mid-Summer Derby.”

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity,” Asmussen said. “Obviously, I’m very concerned, considering what happened with him last time.”

After Midnight Bourbon ran a game second in the Preakness, crossing the wire 3 1/2 lengths behind Rombauer, the connections thought the youngster was primed for his first Grade 1 victory in the Haskell. Those expectations turned to fear for horse and rider.

“It’s a very unexpected situation. The last thing you want is something catastrophic to happen. It was a near miss in that regard, so your heart skips a beat,” Asmussen said. “But you are immediately focused on how are you now and what is next. You’re not going into the race expecting anything to go wrong and then when your heart drops and the incident happens, his recovery and how he is afterward is your concern.”

All of the outward signs are good. Winchell Thoroughbreds’ bay colt, a $525,000 purchase at Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale, is his handsome self. He has worked steadily at Saratoga, beginning with a four-furlong breeze in 51 2/5 seconds on Aug. 1. He turned in a bullet five-furlong drill in 1:01 1/5 seconds on Aug. 15, fastest of eight works at the distance that morning. In his final Travers tune-up, he traveled four furlongs in 49 3/5 seconds on Aug. 22.  

But what happens beneath the rising sun does not resemble what can happen in the heat of competition in the afternoon. Will Midnight Bourbon want out if he finds himself in the thick of things?

“He’s been a very tough horse and I would be surprised. But until you’re in that position, considering what happened, you’re not positive how he’ll react,” Asmussen said, adding, “I don’t think you’re positive until you get back in a similar setting, which is the race tomorrow. But he’s been training wonderfully and he looks really good.”

In preparing Midnight Bourbon for the mile-and-a-quarter acid test in which Belmont Stakes winner Essential Quality looms as an overwhelming 4-5 morning-line favorite, Asmussen said he skipped “a couple of works out of caution.”

Midnight Bourbon will break from post six with Ricardo Santana, Jr. aboard. He is listed as the second choice in the morning line at 9-2. Curlin winner Dynamic One and Jim Dandy runner-up Keepmeinmind are next at 6-1. Then come Masqueparade (8-1), Miles D (12-1) and King Fury (15-1).

For all that Midnight Bourbon has been through, Asmussen never seriously considered skipping the Travers.

“They won’t let him run in the Travers next year, so I don’t get to re-do it,” Asmussen said, recognizing how precious such opportunities are.

2021 Travers Stakes (G1)

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