“No vacancy” signs are up all over Saratoga Springs, and there’s one on the starting gate for Saturday’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, where a capacity crowd filled all 14 stalls at entry time for the meet’s premier 3-year-old race.
There were 14 starters in the “Mid-Summer Derby” once before, when Jatski was put up via the disqualification of Run Dusty Run in 1977.
First won by William R. Travers’ Kentucky in 1864, the Travers is annually a must-see spectacle because of its prestige and purse. But unlike last year when Triple Crown winner American Pharoah came to town with all the pomp and circumstance of a visiting dignitary, the 147th running is compelling in another way because a division title hangs in the balance.
“Totally different scene,” agreed American Pharoah’s Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who seemed like a shoo-in to win it until Keen Ice got up late at the Graveyard of Champions. “The race is coming up with the 3-year-old championship on the line. It’s a huge deal.
Pace Scenario – Fast
Speed: #2 American Freedom, #8 Destin, #13 Laoban
Stalkers: #1 Arrogate, #4 Governor Malibu, #9 Gift Box, #10 Connect, #14 Gun Runner
Closers: #3 My Man Sam, #5 Forever d’Oro, #6 Anaximandros, #7 Exaggerator, #11 Majesto, #12 Creator
It looks like this race will be the opposite of the slow paced Jim Dandy as there are several speedy horses signed on. Even a few of the “stalkers” have shown that they can go to the lead as well…there are eight horses in total that have been in first at some point early on in a race this year. Tactical stalkers and closers should have a big time advantage here if things play out like they look to on paper. That could bode very well for prior classic winners Exaggerator and Creator.
Top Pick: #10 Connect
As my handicapping came to an end for this race I realized every horse in the field had question marks, but perhaps Connect has the least amount of them. The only downside to Connect is the fact he’s never ran in a graded stakes race, but he did run in a restricted stakes last time out and won, and more importantly he won it going two turns on the same track he’s running on today. His beyer speed number compared favorably with that of the Jim Dandy winner Laoban so in theory at least you could say he could have won the Jim Dandy. I do not like his morning line at all, and feel you need to be getting over 5-1 to make a win wager on him. Hopefully his line of 4-1 is a bit off the mark. The plan should be to stalk the speed from his outside post, and then hopefully get the jump on his competition early on and grind his way home. I think he can get the distance of a mile and quarter just fine, and should sit the trip as long as he isn’t too wide going into the first turn. Chad Brown has a great shot to win his first ever Travers Stakes on Saturday.
Horses to Use in Multi Race Wagers: #1 Arrogate, #2 American Freedom, #7 Exaggerator, and #12 Creator
I’ll go five deep in this race with my multi race wagers as there are still so many unknowns with this field. I’ll start with the biggest of those unknowns which is Arrogate who has had an odd set of prep races leading into this race. He is extremely talented, but is he ready for this type of test? How about American Freedom and Exaggerator…both of which ran fantastic races last time out but over sloppy tracks. American Freedom still has some major proving to do, while Exaggerator is the top horse in the division. However, can Exaggerator get a prime time win on a fast dirt surface? Will he enjoy the Saratoga oval better than he did earlier in the year when he was training poorly over this track? Major question marks loom for the favorite. Then there is Creator who looked to be the “hot horse” coming into the Jim Dandy before finishing a dismal dead last. Will the projected fast pace be just what he needs, or is he regressing? So many questions, but all of these certainly have the talent to win this race.
Exotic Plays: #4 Governor Malibu, #8 Destin, and #14 Gun Runner
Governor Malibu is quickly becoming that horse that always comes with a consistent run, but can never actually finish on top. I toyed with making him my pick for quite awhile, but in the end I couldn’t pull the trigger. Expecting another solid effort though. Destin kind of is the same as Governor Malibu. He’s ran competitive against the top horses in the crop, but hasn’t won since the Tampa Bay Derby all the way back in March. Gun Runner got hurt badly by the far outside draw, but should run better than he did last time out in the Haskell over a sloppy track.
Party Crashers: #9 Gift Box
He was mildly upset in the Curlin Stakes as he finished second to his stablemate and my top pick in this race Connect. However, I’m excited to see what he does in this one as last time out could have just been a tune up for him. Perhaps he’ll like the stretch out, and I think he’s one of those horses in here that can sit off the pace and make a nice run at the leaders once they are softened up. Brown obviously has confidence in him so we’ll see if he can rebound from his loss last time out at a big price today.
Throw Outs: #3 My Man Sam, #5 Forever d’Oro, #6 Anaximandros, #11 Majesto, and #13 Laoban
For horses like Forever d’Oro, Anaximandros, and Majesto it’s hard for me to make any case that they’ll make an impact. Throwing out My Man Sam is tough considering the pace will set up well for closers, but his comeback race was very uninspiring as he lost to Tale of Verve. As for Laoban…you have to give him a lot of credit for his Jim Dandy victory because he ran huge, but I don’t think he’ll get the same easy trip in this race considering the pace should be much faster.
Headed by the 1-2 finishers in the Belmont Stakes – Big Chief Racing’s Preakness and Haskell Invitational winner Exaggerator, and WinStar Farm & Bobby Flay’s Creator and Twin Creeks Racing Stables & Eclipse Thoroughbred Partner’s Destin – the diverse lineup includes three other Kentucky Derby starters, several graded stakes winners, and a handful of up-and-comers getting good at the right time. Notably among the late bloomers are Baffert’s two California invaders, Gary and Mary West’s American Freedom, and Juddmonte Farms’ Arrogate.
Everyone has something to prove more or less, starting with pro-tem division leader and 3-1 morning-line choice Exaggerator, who first came to prominence winning last year’s Grade 2 Saratoga Special for trainer Keith Desormeaux. Beginning with the Santa Anita Derby, all three of the Curlin colt’s Grade 1 victories this year have been accomplished on sloppy tracks, and his runner-up effort in the Kentucky Derby was on a “fast” track that contained moisture from a late-afternoon squall.
“His success is not dependent on a sloppy track, but his success is dependent on a pace to run at,” insisted Desormeax, who leaves the actual logistics in the saddle to his brother, Hall of Fame rider Kent Desormeaux, who was aboard 2009 Travers winner and 3-year-old champ Summer Bird.
Rain or shine, should Exaggerator become the eighth Preakness winner to prevail, he would cement his case to join 19 previous Travers winners named champion 3-year-old colt or gelding since the advent of year-end awards in 1936.
Among those standing in his way are Creator and Destin, separated by inches in the Belmont Stakes after 1 ½ miles, and Jump Sucker Stable’s Governor Malibu, who was fourth after a troubled trip in the Test of the Champion. Governor Malibu turned the tables in the Grade 2 $600,000 Jim Dandy, but none of them could catch 27-1 shot Laoban, who wired the field for his first career victory and now tries to join 10 others who have completed a Jim Dandy-Travers double.
Guillot was hoping for an outside draw for Laoban, who drew post 13. “Yeah [the post] matters,” said the ever-quotable Guillot, whose Moreno was second, beaten a nose at 31-1 by eventual 3-year-old champ Will Take Charge in the 2013 Travers. “I’m not sending him. It’s not Moreno, it’s Laoban. This horse doesn’t have to have the lead.”
If the stretch-running Creator returns to the form that also won him the Arkansas Derby, he would match Exaggerator as a three-time Grade 1 winner this season.
“The good news is that the Jim Dandy wasn’t Creator’s major target, but we were expecting it to be better,” admitted newly minted Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who is also looking for a rebound from Winchell Thoroughbred’s three-time graded stakes winner Gun Runner, after that colt reaffirmed his distaste for off-going in the Haskell.
Trainer Todd Pletcher goes after a third Travers score with Destin, who turned heads winning the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis and the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby early in the year. He will once again be ridden by Javier Castellano, whose record fifth Travers with Keen Ice last year was his fourth win from the last six renewals.
“He’s been training well,” said Pletcher. “He’s not a horse that touts himself a whole lot in the morning, but we feel like he’s coming up to the race in good shape, and having a race over the track in the Jim Dandy is helpful.”
After sharp workouts at Del Mar Sunday and Monday, Baffert green-lighted a cross-country plane ride for his “A team” of American Freedom and Arrogate, who were yearling purchases out of the same sale for $500,000 and $560,000 respectively. Arrogate drew the rail and gets a switch to Hall of Famer Mike Smith. American Freedom is alongside in post 2 and retains Rafael Bejarano, who has ridden both recently.
American Freedom (blinkers off) has run at different tracks in each of his five starts, capped by a win in the Grade 3 Iowa Derby and a gritty second in the Haskell despite trouble. He is third choice at 6-1.
“He’s a horse that has been coming along, he showed in the Haskell he can run with the big boys,” said Baffert, whose only Travers winner from six tries remains Point Given, the 2001 Horse of the Year. “He got involved in a fast pace early and really hung in there despite losing some momentum in the stretch. He doesn’t need the blinkers anymore.”
Arrogate has been odds-on in his four previous starts, but is pegged at 10-1 as he makes his stakes debut after three straight wins.
“He’s done everything well,” said Baffert. “He’s been in small fields, so this will be a big step up, and the break will be really important. But he has some speed and acts like a true mile-and-a-quarter horse.”
Chad Brown has opened a comfortable lead in quest of his first Saratoga training title. The native of nearby Mechanicville sends out three Travers hopefuls in Paul Pompa Jr.’s Connect, William S. Farish’s Gift Box, and Sheep Pond Partners’ My Man Sam.
Connect, who wired the Curlin Stakes with Gift Box chasing him home second, will try to emulate V.E. Day, who pulled off a Curlin-Travers double at 19-1 two years ago. Connect is the 4-1 second choice on the line and breaks from post 10, while Gift Box is 12-1 from post 9.
My Man Sam, a fast-closing second in the Blue Grass, was freshened after a rough trip in the Kentucky Derby. He returned here opening weekend to run a close second against the older Tale of Verve, last year’s Preakness runner-up who is eyeing next week’s Grade 1 Woodward Stakes. He drew post 3.
“We’re happy with all the posts,” said Brown. “It’s a wide open race…just happy to have three chances in there. They’re training well, they should all be in different positions early and it should be fun to watch. This is the biggest race in the world for me, and it’s a life-long dream of mine to win it.”
Gustavo Delgado got his first U.S. Grade 1 win with 55-1 Paola Queen in the recent Test Stakes, and the Venezuelan-born conditioner looks to capture lightning in a bottle once more with Grupo Seven C Stable’s Florida Derby runner-up Majesto, who adds blinkers and picks up Ricardo Santana Jr. after a wide trip in the Curlin.
“Big field, 14 horses, anything can happen,” he reasoned.
Charles E. Fipke’s Forever d’Oro, a son of 2002 Travers winner Medaglia d’Oro, looks to follow up on a third-place finish in the Curlin that was his best effort to date for Dallas Stewart.
Rounding out the field is Anaximandros, owned and trainer by Mikhail Yanakov, who was fourth in the West Virginia Derby in his first stakes attempt.
The Travers is the zenith of a star-studded card that features five other Grade 1s – the $1 million Longines Sword Dancer, the $750,000 Personal Ensign, the $500,000 Ballerina, the $500,000 Ketel One King’s Bishop, and the $700,000 Priority One Jets Forego. As well, the undefeated Lady Eli is scheduled to make her long-awaited return in the Grade 2, $400,000 Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa.
The Travers is race 11 on a 13-race program. It anchors a $250,000 guaranteed pick six, and a $1 million guaranteed pick four. Post time is 5:44 p.m. EST with live television coverage on NBC from 4:30-6:00 Eastern.
Bob Baffert, trainer of Arrogate (No. 1, 10-1) and American Freedom (No. 2, 6-1): “What are the chances of drawing Nos. 1 and 2 in a 14-horse field? I’m not doing backflips. But there’s nothing you can do. We’ll be there.”
Chad Brown, trainer of My Man Sam (No. 3, 20-1), Gift Box (No. 9, 12-1) and Connect (No. 10, 4-1): “I’m happy with all the posts. I wanted the inside for My Man Sam, and the other two horses are in the clear.
“I think it is important to get a race over the track. All three horses seem to be training really well. I feel this is a wide-open race. There is a bunch of horses in here who could win if they run their best race. I just happen to have three chances in there. Whether any of them are good enough to win remains to be seen. They are training well. They all should be in different positions early and it should be fun watching it.
“This is our home base here in Saratoga. For me being from the area here, this is the biggest race in the world for me. It’s a lifelong dream of mine to win it. Maybe this year is the year. If not, we will try every year. We are happy to be involved in it.”
Christophe Lorieul, assistant to Christophe Clement, trainer of Governor Malibu (No. 4, 12-1): “Obviously, the closest to the rail is the shortest to the wire. I don’t think our draw is any problem. In his last couple of races, he’s been showing a bit more speed than what we expected but he should have a good trip. It’s a large field so whoever has the best trip will probably win. I would say it’s a pretty good post. We’re happy with it.”
Dallas Stewart, trainer of Forever d’Oro (No. 5, 30-1): “[The post is] good for me. I don’t have the one. I don’t have the inside and I don’t have the outside. It’s good. The horse had a race over the track. The positive about the race for our horse is we know we need to step up, plain and simple. But he had a race over the track, a good race. He’s worked a lot with Tom’s Ready and Tale of Verve, who are really good horses. I’ve been hammering him every week with good horses.
“He’s a fighter. They fight all the time. He’s competitive, which is good.
“With this horse, he should be a long shot, but I think he’s got a chance. We were coming off a bad race, the Belmont, which we shouldn’t have done. We’re lucky it didn’t back us up. He lost a lot of weight out of the race, so we took him back to Kentucky. We rehabbed him, got him to where he needs to be. He got the weight back on. He can really eat. There won’t be a better looking horse in the paddock and there’s not a horse with a better pedigree. I like the way he’s doing, whether or not he’s dead tight or not …. he might be one race away from as good as he’s going to be, but it’s where we’re at and it’s the Travers and a $1 million race and we’re running.”
Julie Clark, assistant trainer to Keith Desormeaux of Exaggerator (No. 7, 3-1): “We’re happy with [the post]. For us, we come from behind, a little off the pace, so it’s not as important. Obviously, being stuck on the rail or way outside isn’t ideal so this is perfect. Keith didn’t have a real preference. Keith wants to keep the horse in his normal running style. If we have the pace, we want to settle back there, relax, and come off and make his bid. There’s not a lot about what the other horses do that, especially in terms of post position, that will really change Keith’s instructions to Kent.
“I think [the amount of speed in the race] is a benefit of a larger field. Sometimes in a five or six horse field, it can get a little skewed. I like the bigger fields for the fact that it can be more honest; the horses on the lead and the horses coming off the pace have an equal shot.”
Todd Pletcher, trainer of Destin (No. 8, 10-1): “I’m happy with the post. It’s good.”
“You need to stay out of trouble and there’s quite a bit of traffic, but you don’t have to worry about taking your horse out of his element. We can let him settle and ride.”
“In this particular race, you don’t have to worry about anyone getting loose on the lead, so Javier [Castellano] can ride the race he wants and doesn’t have to worry about someone stealing it on the front end.”
“I don’t think it’s easy to identify a horse to beat. Based on the overall form, you’d have to say Exaggerator is the most accomplished horse in the field. But while he’s built quite a resume, he still has something to prove on the fast track. But I have a lot of respect for him.”
“Generally, I don’t think the post position is hugely important in the Travers. But this year with 14 horses, you didn’t want to be 14, so I’m happy with the [eighth post].”
“He’s been training well. The reason we ran in the Jim Dandy because we felt it would set us up for the Travers in the best way. We got a good race out of him and hopefully that race and that experience will help him.”
On finishing third in the Grade 1 Jim Dandy against winner and fellow Travers starter Laoban: “If we could have a do over, we’d put a little more pressure on Laoban but at the time, it seemed like a sensible move to wait and turn up the pressure. We felt like the horses on paper to beat were behind. But we learned from it and will go from there.”
Is Destin is overlooked?: “A little bit. Just being beaten by a whisker in the Belmont is a pretty good effort. He’s pretty consistent and shows up every time with a really good effort. We feel like he has a big one in him and we’re hoping it’s Saturday.
Steve Asmussen, trainer of Creator (No. 12, 15-1) and Gun Runner (No. 14, 10-1): “We’ll be fine. Those [posts] are okay for both of my horses. Obviously, I like both horses and it’s disappointing to have to run them against each other.
“Their styles complement one another and that’s quite obvious. How the track is playing and how the race sets up will have a lot to do with the outcome.
“I don’t think [the Jim Dandy] did anything for him. I just think he’s trained very sharp since. I think there should be a more favorable set up for him this time in this competitive of a field than there was in the Jim Dandy.”
Eric Guillot, trainer of Laoban (No. 13, 15-1): “It’s simple. I’m not going to go 46 and change because if he does he won’t finish, a big horse like him, a 17-hand monster. I was never able to get him to relax. I would ship him across the country and get there on Wednesday and he wasn’t a good doer and I couldn’t school him. Here, I can school him. If they go 47 and change I want the lead; if they go 46 and change I don’t. I’m as confident as I was last race [the Jim Dandy]; pretty confident.”