The opening stages of the “Mid-Summer Derby” may be as chaotic as the Kentucky Derby as a packed gate of top three-year olds will line up for the Grade-1 Travers Stakes on Saturday.
A field of 14 will make it the largest field in the Travers since 1977 when 14 also went to post 39 years ago.
In this Special Edition Travers JUMP START, we’ll focus solely on the Travers Stakes and provide notes on each of the entries and key replays to watch as we prepare for one of the best betting races of the Saratoga meet. When evaluating each horse (with jockey name next to horse in parentheses), we’ll pose the key question if the horse has ability to succeed at the 1¼ mile distance.
If you’re keeping track of the Travers Day JUMP STARTs, this is Part 2 of a three-part series. Part 1 covering the female Graded Stakes on Travers Day can be found here and Part 3 analyzing the male Stakes is here.
Before we jump into the fun Travers analysis, this is a “special public service announcement” that we’ll be providing LIVE BLOG coverage of Travers Day from the paddock, winners’ circle and all over Saratoga this Saturday, so keep checking RacingDudes.com and follow us on Twitter @racing_dudes and @SaratogaSlim for more information.
Now onto the Travers JUMP START:
Sat., Aug. 27, Grade-1 Travers Stakes, $1.25 Million Purse, 3 year olds, 1¼ miles (Dirt)
GRADED STAKES WINNERS
We’ll start off by evaluating the Graded Stakes winners in the group, then meander our way through the Graded Stakes-placed horses and then focus on the “New Faces” in the field.
EXAGGERATOR (Kent Desormeaux): The Preakness and Haskell winner is a natural horse to start with, as he’s the most decorated horse in the field and the debatable leader in the three-year old horse of the year voting. The major knock on Exaggerator is that he is only a great mud horse. It’s tough to provide evidence against that notion since his last three Grade-1 wins have come over sloppy tracks. His last win on a fast track was notably over this Saratoga surface in the Grade-2 Saratoga Special in his two-year old season over a year ago, so there is some evidence that he likes the Saratoga surface. His lackluster works over the Saratoga main track before the Haskell, though, was one of the main reasons that trainer Kent Desormeaux chose to run in the Grade-1 Haskell over the Grade-2 Jim Dandy. His most recent workout at Saratoga on August 20 was much better as he finished the work off smoothly. With no rain in the forecast this week in Saratoga, Exaggerator will have the opportunity to put his critics to rest on the slop-loving debate.
Distance question: Exaggerator showed in the Kentucky Derby that he could close late at this 1¼ mile distance, so the distance should not be a concern. The 1½ mile Belmont Stakes should not be held against Exaggerator since his flop there was more a result of a tired horse at the end of the grueling Triple Crown run. Sired by Curlin, who also sired the 2015 Travers winner Keen Ice, Exaggerator has good distance pedigree.
CREATOR (Irad Ortiz, Jr.): The Belmont Stakes winner has tons of distance pedigree. His poor performance in the Jim Dandy over the Saratoga surface is the major concern now. He was pace compromised that day as Laoban set slowish fractions that didn’t set up for Creator’s patented late run. Trainer Steve Asmussen has said that Creator has shown more energy in his morning workouts after the Jim Dandy, so there is reason to believe that Creator can improve in the Travers if he gets a faster pace to close into.
Distance question: Sired by Tapit and out of a dam named Morena whose offspring have averaged 8½ furlongs per win, Creator has plenty of distance pedigree, as was demonstrated by his 1½ mile Belmont Stakes win. His Kentucky Derby was a roller-derby ride into traffic and can be dismissed when evaluating his distance pedigree.
GUN RUNNER (Florent Geroux): The other Steve Asmussen trainee doesn’t have a lot in common with Exaggerator and Creator. Gun Runner does not like a wet track and there are some questions on his distance capabilities. Gun Runner did not perform over the wet Monmouth strip in the Haskell, just like when he had issues last year in the Grade-2 Kentucky Jockey Club over a wet Churchill track. On fast tracks, he is a pace presence and a tough horse to pass, as was evident in his Risen Star, Louisiana Derby and Matt Winn triumphs.
Distance question: Gun Runner’s run in the Kentucky Derby to hold onto third after attending a hot pace was truly admirable. If the Derby was a few yards longer, though, he would have finished fifth as he was wanting the wire more than an Olympic runner at the end of a marathon! Out of the Giant’s Causeway mare Quiet Giant, Gun Runner should have plenty of distance pedigree, but it is tough to get that Derby visual out of my head when assessing his distance capability here.
DESTIN (Javier Castellano): Even trainer Todd Pletcher has admitted that he has not liked the way that Destin has finished his last two races getting nipped at the wire by Creator in the Belmont Stakes and not being able to chase down Laoban in the Jim Dandy. The Pletcher team has experimented with a shadow roll during Destin’s recent workouts to try to focus him to finish stronger. Destin reacted well when blinkers were added way back before the Lecomte and his wins in Tampa Bay, so the question is if he will run with the shadow roll and if he will move forward. It’s just a concerning sign that they are trying new things to try to figure him out.
Distance question: The son of Giant’s Causeway has the distance pedigree as was shown in his evenly run Kentucky Derby off a two-month lay-off and his second in the Belmont Stakes. Still the way that he hasn’t been able to finish his races and not show explosion late is a concern at this 1¼ mile Travers journey.
LAOBAN (Jose Ortiz): Trainer Eric Guillot has started a voodoo wall outside his barn to try to jinx his competition. After winning the Jim Dandy in front-running fashion, Guillot may need the voodoo wall and a lot more to try to get a Travers win. Guillot recently ran Laoban behind company in a practice run to try to get Laoban to rate off of horses. Guillot tried similar tactics before the Preakness and removed Laoban’s blinkers and it resulted in a poor sixth place performance. Laoban’s best chance is to stick to the lead and try to take them once again on a merry-go-round with one of the best front-end riders in the game in Jose Ortiz.
Distance question: The questions about Uncle Mo’s progeny to get the 1¼ mile distance may have been put to rest when Nyquist won the Kentucky Derby, but Laoban is far from the horse that Nyquist was when he won the Derby. His damsire Speightsown has produced some top-line sprinters and milers, so stamina on Laoban’s bottom-side is questionable.
AMERICAN FREEDOM (Rafael Bejarano): Trainer Bob Baffert will ship in American Freedom from California for the Travers after shipping into Monmouth for the Haskell only four weeks ago. Even though American Freedom showed a lot of grit to get second in the Haskell behind a late-charging Exaggerator, the travel back and forth between coasts is the major question here. Baffert said on the Steve Byk show that American Freedom kept his weight on after the Haskell after his ship back west. He has steadily climbed up the ranks after winning the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard and Grade-3 Iowa Derby. Baffert had called American Freedom his “Haskell horse” after his impressive maiden win, so he has always thought highly of him. American Freedom has the speed to keep Laoban company early in the Travers.
Distance question: American Freedom has good distance pedigree, but will be stretching out to the longest distance in his career adding another furlong off his Haskell move. Based off the wear and tear of the travel, the extra distance may be too much.
GIFT BOX (Junior Alvarado): Trainer Chad Brown is rolling the dice in the Travers with three entries including Gift Box. After a strong third to end 2015 in the Grade-2 Remsen, Gift Box was thought of as a top possible Kentucky Derby horse for Brown. After missing the Derby trail early in the year, Gift Box returned on May 26 at Belmont to crush a decent allowance field. His run in the Curlin Stakes on July 29 at Saratoga did not disgrace him, but he was unable to track down stablemate Connect in the final jumps. He was trying to chase down Connect on the inside on what might have been a “dead rail” early in the meet, so that could be a possible excuse.
Distance question: Twirling Candy is a relatively new sire and early results have shown that his winners have been more on the sprinting side. Gift Box may be one of the horses with the most upside in this crop, but his best work may be done in the future at shorter distances.
MY MAN SAM (Manny Franco): Brown’s second entry is one that he got to the gate in the Kentucky Derby with My Man Sam. All hope of a strong Derby run were thwarted when Exaggerator blew by My Man Sam on the turn and made him check just a bit, but even Brown admitted that My Man Sam wasn’t going to make up the ground needed at that point in the Derby. His return at Saratoga on opening weekend in an allowance against elders was decent, but he still couldn’t track down a middle of the road older horse in Tale of Verve, who hadn’t hit the board in seven races following his second in the sloppy 2015 Preakness.
Distance pedigree: As a deep closer, My Man Sam may be able to harness his energy for one big run late. His pedigree has good stamina influences on the bottom side out of the Arch mare Lauren Byrd. The progeny of his sire Trappe Shot (by Tapit) has not had as much success at longer distances in his first crop, though. Chad Brown has said the longer distances should work in his favor.
GOVERNOR MALIBU (Joel Rosario): Will the third time be the charm for Governor Malibu? In the Belmont Stakes, he was trapped on the inside behind a floundering Gettysburg and couldn’t unleash his final rally finishing fourth. In the Jim Dandy, Governor Malibu was making a move late, but got caught on the rail and couldn’t get by Laoban. At some point you have to make the decision if you are going to give him another chance and if it’s a case of a good horse getting bad trips. Trainer Christophe Clement has all the trust in Joel Rosario to make the right move at the right time and it’s now or never in this all important spot.
Distance question: Sired by Malibu Moon, Governor Malibu has decent distance pedigree and his run in the Belmont shows that he can stay the course. The main question is if he didn’t have traffic trouble late, would he have shown an extra gear in these longer distance races.
MAJESTO (Ricardo Santana, Jr.): When a trainer says they are entering a race because “you never know what will happen,” it raises an immediate red flag. That was the case earlier this week when trainer Gustavo Delgado said he would enter Majesto in the Travers. Majesto’s claim to fame was closing to get second behind Nyquist in the Grade-1 Florida Derby on a wet track that he had shown affinity for all winter. His Kentucky Derby 18th place finish displayed that he was not at this class level and his return sixth-place finish in the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga on July 29 supported that notion.
Distance question: Before the Derby, Majesto looked like he was building a solid foundation of three races at 1 & 1/8 mile (the most in the Derby field). When he floundered from mid-pack in the Derby, all thoughts that he could succeed at the distance went out the window. His sire Tiznow definitely gives him a good pedigree, but passing the “eye test” is the main issue for Majesto.
THE “NEW FACES”
CONNECT (John Velazquez): Chad Brown’s third entry may be his best shot to win his first Travers, as Connect should be a main pace presence. After breaking his maiden and impressively beating elders in an allowance on the Belmont Stakes day undercard, Connect is the “now” horse after his strong front-end win in the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga on July 29. V.E. Day used a win in the Curlin to spring a huge upset in the Travers in 2014, so that path to the Travers has been successful in the past. With only 4 races in his career, Connect may have not built up his foundation to take on this high level of horse, but his win over elders and the talented Gift box in his last two shows that he has progressed quickly.
Distance question: Connect is sired by Curlin, so he has good stamina influences on the sire side of his pedigree (see Exaggerator’s description above). The extra furlong stretch-out from the Curlin Stakes is concerning, as this is the longest he has run in his career. His damsire, the great Holy Bull won the 1994 Travers, but his progeny have had better success going shorter, so there is a little bit of concern on the bottom side of Connect’s pedigree. Still from the “eye test,” Connect looked very strong finishing up in the Curlin and was striding out nicely as Gift Box was shortening late.
ARROGATE (Mike Smith): If Connect is the “now” horse, then Arrogate may be the “right now” horse. Baffert is brining two from the west coast and called Arrogate his “Breeders’ Cup Classic” horse after he won a few starts back. That was before Dortmund made his comeback, but it still says a lot about how highly he thinks of Arrogate. Baffert has treated Arrogate with “kid’s gloves” and has taken him through his conditions on the west coast as he has dismissed allowance fields getting very nice speed figures in the process. Baffert described Arrogate as a big horse with long stride on the Steve Byk show a few weeks back. Arrogate has speed early to press and showed the ability to rate last out in what was an exhibition winning under wraps after a slow start. It should be noted that Hall-of-Fame jockey Mike Smith gets his first mount on Arrogate, as regular rider Bejarano will stay on American Freedom.
Distance question: Arrogate’s sire, Unbridled’s Song sired 2013 Travers winner Will Take Charge, so there is reason to believe he’ll have enough distance pedigree to keep moving off his allowance wins at only 1 & 1/16 miles. Still the fact that he hasn’t even run at 1 &1/8 miles in his short four race career is concerning.
FOREVER D’ORO (Luis Saez): The Dallas Stewart trainee isn’t really a new face in the group since he ran in the Belmont Stakes. His last place finish did little to boost the confidence of his backers, but he returned nicely at 26-to-1 odds in the Curlin Stakes to run a non-threatening third.
Distance question: If there was a horse to bet based solely on pedigree, it would be Forever D’Oro. His mother is Lemons Forever, who ran third at this distance in the 2006 Grade-1 Alabama at Saratoga. She also dropped Graded Stakes winning mares Unbridled Forever and Forever Unbridled. Additionally, his sire Medaglia d’Oro won the 2002 Travers, so there is plenty to love if you are betting on the pedigree to come through on Saturday.
ANAXIMANDROS (Leonel Reyes): If you’ve read the JUMP STARTs and have made it all the way through this analysis, you know that I’ve been very honest with my readers. So saying that, honestly, I had not heard of this horse before I saw his name on the Travers nominations! I guess when I looked at the Grade-2 West Virginia Derby that I passed over his name or was more focused on the Whitney card that day. Or when I watched the WV Derby and replay, I just focused on Cupid and didn’t see Anaximandros finish fourth at 52-to-1 odds. Well, he’s in this field for trainer/owner Mikhail Yanakov and breezed nicely over the Oklahoma training track on Monday, so maybe they’ll find lighting in a bottle.
Distance question: Sired by Hard Spun, Anaximandros has a good distance sire, but is stretching out to the longest distance of his career in this spot.
You have to “break some eggs” here with such a big field and try not to spread too much wagering the Travers.
It may sound crazy to say, “Just play against all of the horses coming out of the Jim Dandy,” but that may be a decent approach here. If you take that tact, then the main competitors are Exaggerator, Arrogate and Connect. With an honest pace expected, Exaggerator should be able to use his versatility to be a player in the closing stages of the race. Connect and Arrogate should be close early and have enough pedigree and stamina to hold on in the waning stages. With the rail post position draw, Arrogate will need to get involved early, but with Mike Smith up, he should be able to work out a good trip.
I’ll focus on these three horses in my wagers and put a nice win bet on Arrogate hoping that he has the magic to turn around Baffert’s loss in the 2015 Travers with American Pharoah.
Overall this three-year old male crop has been an inconsistent group and this is a spot where a “new face” in the Grade-1 ranks like Arrogate or Connect can score at decent value, if they don’t get over-hyped in the wagering pools.
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