Happy Saver faced the biggest test of his brief career Saturday, running against older rivals and in graded-stakes company for the first time. The 3-year-old aced that challenge, finishing best of five at Belmont Park in the Grade 1, $250,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup to earn a Breeders’ Cup berth.
The result spoiled the bid by 4-year-old multimillionaire Tacitus to get a Grade 1 win in his sixth try. At 3-5, he finished third.
A Wertheimer et Frere home-bred, Happy Saver improved to 4-for-4 and clinched a berth into the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 7 at Keeneland. He went off a 2-1 second betting choice in the race, which is run at the Classic’s 1 1/4-mile distance.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Happy Saver did not debut until June 20, winning a maiden special weight race on the Belmont Stakes undercard. He took a Saratoga allowance July 26 and then Laurel Park’s Federico Tesio Stakes on Sept. 7.
Rather than run the Super Saver colt Oct. 3 against fellow 3-year-olds in the Preakness Stakes, Pletcher waited a week for the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Tacitus went out to the lead under jockey Jose Ortiz and set slow fractions of 24.93 seconds for the quarter-mile and 49.48 for the half-mile. Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. kept Happy Saver along the rail behind Tacitus with fellow 3-year-old Mystic Guide running to his outside.
Mystic Guide moved up to challenge Tacitus coming around the second turn. Ortiz Jr. waited until the stretch before going to a left-handed crop on Happy Saver.
The two 3-year-olds, Mystic Guide on the outside and Happy Saver on the inside, swallowed up Tacitus at the eighth pole. Happy Saver had the bigger burst of the two, and he powered on to beat Mystic Guide by a three-quarters of a length.
"I had horse," Ortiz Jr. said. "I just didn't have anywhere to go. I had a little space inside but I didn't know if Jose had a lot of horse and I didn't want to check him because his horse has a big stride, so I just waited.
"When we turned for home, I knew he'd be there for me and if the hole was still open, I'd go for it. If not, I'd go around Johnny (Velazquez aboard Mystic Guide). But it was still open, so I went for it. When I needed him, he was there for me."
Happy Saver covered the 10 furlongs in 2:02.09, the slowest-run Jockey Club Gold Cup in five years, and he returned $6.70. After Mystic Guide and Tacitus came fourth-place Prioritize and last-place Name Changer.
If Happy Saver runs at Keeneland, he will try to deliver Pletcher a second consecutive Breeders’ Cup Classic victory, following Vino Rosso last year.
"First and foremost we'll see how he bounces out of this race," Pletcher said. "It was a tough race and he's still a lightly raced horse. That's part of the reason we decided to come here instead of going to the Preakness. We'll enjoy this for the moment and talk to the Wertheimers and come up with a plan. I wouldn't say we're definite for it, but I wouldn't rule it out either."
Happy Saver's Jockey Club Gold Cup victory marked a first triumph in the event for Pletcher, who has won just about every big event on the NYRA cicruit. Vino Rosso hit the wire first in last year's edition of the race, but was disqualified to second for interference.
"Not only had we not won (the Jockey Club Gold Cup), we'd suffered some really close defeats and then throw in a disqualification on top of that and it's been a frustrating one over the years," Pletcher said. "This one was fun. It's one of the races that has been hard on us. We've had some tough losses and it was very fulfilling to win it today."