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Aaron previews the 2023 Travers Stakes (G1) from Saratoga, then gives his top picks & long shots. Top 3-year-olds Forte, Arcangelo, & Mage are set for a showdown against several other tough contenders.
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The field is set for the 154th running of the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers on August 26 at Saratoga Race Course, which will see the winners of each of the three legs of the Triple Crown and last year’s Champion 2-Year-Old Colt all vie for superiority amongst a wide open 3-year-old male division.
The Travers is carded as Race 12 on a blockbuster 13-race program, which also includes the Grade 1, $600,000 Forego, the Grade 1, $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial, the Grade 1, $500,000 Ballerina, which offers a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, and the Grade 1, $750,000 Resorts World Casino Sword Dancer Invitational – a “Win And You’re In” qualifier for the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf. First post is 11:40 a.m. Eastern. Gates open at 7 a.m.
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Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable’s Forte, the 2022 Champion 2-Year-Old Colt, headlines this year’s Travers and sports a ledger of 9-7-1-0 while bragging field-best earnings of $2,954,830.
The son of Violence enters from a narrow triumph in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy presented by DK Horse on July 29 over a sloppy and sealed Spa main track. Racing an even third along the inside down the backstretch, Forte raced in between Angel of Empire and Saudi Crown in upper stretch and defeated the latter by a nose while earning a career-high 105 Beyer Speed Figure.
The Jim Dandy victory was a redeeming one for Forte, who finished a late-closing second in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on June 10, five weeks after being scratched as the morning-line favorite for the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby.
Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher used the traditional local Travers prep as a springboard for both of his previous Travers winners Flower Alley  and Stay Thirsty .
“It was great to get him back in the winner’s circle here,” Pletcher said. “Obviously, it was a frustrating time around the Derby and going into the Belmont off a 10-week layoff, so we’re hoping to get back on track and put him in the best position to win the Travers. I thought we got a good race from him there [in the Jim Dandy], so hopefully we’ve accomplished that.”
Prior to scratching from the Kentucky Derby, Forte was a game winner of the Grade 1 Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream Park over next-out Kentucky Derby winner and returning rival Mage after winning his seasonal debut in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth on March 4 at the South Florida oval.
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Pletcher spoke highly of Forte’s Florida Derby effort, comparing it to his Jim Dandy win.
“You can see [his determination] in almost all of his wins, but particularly in the Florida Derby, he seemed to salvage victory from what looked like a sure defeat coming by me at the eighth pole,” recalled Pletcher. “To accelerate like he did and make up that much ground on the eventual Derby winner [shows it]. I was proud of him in the Belmont, he was taking all the worst of it and got a wide trip coming around the turn off a 10-week layoff and still gaining on the winner at the end. Again, in the Jim Dandy, he had a lot to do with a sixteenth of a mile to go and he’s got that personality that he wants to get there first.”
Forte earned Eclipse Award honors after completing a juvenile season which saw three Grade 1 victories, including the seven-furlong Hopeful at Saratoga before stretching out to two turns in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, both at Keeneland.
While disappointed in not being able to see his star pupil compete in the ‘Run for the Roses,’ Pletcher said a Travers win would be a sweet one.
“You’re never going to make up for not getting to run in the Kentucky Derby, but it would be some sort of a consolation prize to win the Travers against the three Classic winners,” Pletcher said.
Current meet leading jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. has been aboard Forte for all his starts, and retains the mount from post 1 aboard the 7-5 morning line favorite.
Pletcher also will saddle Whisper Hill Farm and Gainesway Stable’s Tapit Trice, who seeks his first win since capturing the Grade 1 Blue Grass on April 8 at Keeneland. The gray son of Tapit, who sired 2021 Travers winner Essential Quality, finished a distant seventh in the Kentucky Derby before a third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes, where he finished a nose behind Forte.
Entering from a fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Haskell on July 22 at Monmouth Park, Tapit Trice will sport blinkers for the first time in Saturday’s test.
“We feel like sometimes, like some of the Tapits, he gets a little distracted by other things. I don’t know if it’s going to make him any quicker early, but I don’t think it can hurt,” Pletcher said of the equipment change. “He’s kind of put himself in a compromising position a couple of times, the Haskell for one, the Derby for another; I just feel like we need to make some sort of adjustment to hopefully improve on that a little bit. He’s got the talent to win a big race, and already has in the Blue Grass, but the talent is there. We just need to keep him locked in.”
Tapit Trice was purchased for $1.3 million at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale and is out of the multiple graded stakes-placed mare Danzatrice, whose Pletcher-trained sire Dunkirk finished second in the 2009 Belmont Stakes.
Jose Ortiz will seek his first Travers conquest when picking up the mount aboard Tapit Trice from post 3 [12-1 ML].
A total of 10 Grade 1 Kentucky Derby winners later added a Travers win to their ledger, and this year’s winner Mage will attempt to be the first since 2007 winner Street Sense. The Good Magic chestnut ran a respectable second in the Haskell, settling in between horses in sixth going down the backside before launching a bid at the top of the stretch and finishing 1 3/4 lengths behind Geaux Rocket Ride.
This effort came two months after rounding out the trifecta in the Grade 1 Preakness, where he finished 2 1/4-lengths behind returning rival National Treasure.
Trainer Gustavo Delgado shipped Mage to Saratoga in early August to allow him to acclimate to his surroundings.
“The difference is we have more time,” Delgado said. “The Preakness we shipped immediately after the Derby. It was the same thing in the Haskell, we shipped in the week of the race. Right now, we can take things a little easier being here for a few weeks. He’s happy in Saratoga, everybody is happy in Saratoga.”
Mage will provide Delgado with his second Travers starter after saddling 2020 runner-up Caracaro.
“He ran a good race, and he was a good horse. I think this time, we have a little more of a chance,” Delgado said.
Owned by OGMA Investments, Ramiro Restrepo, Sterling Racing and CMNWLTH, Mage is out of the graded stakes placed Big Brown mare Puca. He was bought for $290,000 at the 2022 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale.
Luis Saez, who piloted 2021 Travers winner and eventual Eclipse Champion 3-Year-Old Colt Essential Quality, will pick up the mount aboard Mage from post 4 [4-1 ML].
Grade 1 Preakness winner National Treasure will attempt to become the ninth horse to capture both the middle jewel of the Triple Crown and the Travers. The son of Quality Road went gate to wire in the Preakness, keeping Blazing Sevens at bay to his outside to win by a head. He put the same frontrunning tactics on display in the Belmont Stakes, ultimately fading to sixth.
A triumph would provide trainer Bob Baffert with a fourth Travers triumph, putting him on even terms with fellow Hall of Famer Elliott Burch. Baffert said his Preakness winner would need to up his game to earn a Travers win.
“He’s going to have to run that race and a little better. It’s good horses and the Travers is always tough,” said Baffert, whose previous Travers winners are Point Given , Arrogate  and West Coast  – all were crowned Eclipse Champions following their respective seasons.
National Treasure will make an equipment change and run with blinkers off. His last start without blinkers was in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in April, where he finished fourth.
“He’s been working well without them. We’ve had them off him before, but I think he’s maturing now,” Baffert said.
National Treasure is owned by SF Racing, Starlight Stables, Madaket Stables, Robert E. Masterson, Stonestreet Stables, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital and Catherine Donovan. He was a $500,000 purchase from the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling Sale and out of the Medaglia d’Oro mare Treasure – a half-sibling to four stakes-winners.
Hall of Famer John Velazquez will go for his third Travers victory when piloting National Treasure from post 5 [8-1 ML].
Trainer Jena Antonucci made history when becoming the first female trainer to saddle a winner of a Triple Crown race when Arcangelo captured the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets. A victory from the gray colt would make her the second female trainer to win the Travers, 85 years after Mary Hirsch saddled 1938 winner Thanksgiving.
Owned by Jon Ebbert’s Blue Rose Farm, Arcangelo had no prior two-turn experience before conquering the ‘Test of a Champion,’ which came four weeks after he won his graded stakes debut in the Grade 3 Peter Pan going a one-turn 1 1/8 miles at Belmont Park.
He handled the additional three-eighths of a mile with aplomb, saving ground behind the pace before losing position down the backstretch and re-rallying in between horses nearing the far turn. Arcangelo moved to the inside of National Treasure and built a 3 1/2 length advantage at the stretch call and fended off the late-rallying Forte.
Antonucci opted to train Arcangelo up to the Travers from his memorable Belmont Stakes win, a successful path used by 2004 winner Birdstone. A total of 31 horses have swept the Belmont-Travers double.
“This horse has had most of his career spaced out with a lot of time. We just found that it’s given him the breathing room he needed to mature, grow up, fill in and fill out,” Antonucci said. “It really wasn’t a heavy debate, to be honest the races he had run back-to-back were the Peter Pan and Belmont. So, continuing to let him come out of a big race like the Belmont and put himself where he needed to for this race was a kind of an easy conversation.”
Antonucci expressed excitement in squaring off against a deep field.
“The quality of field is going to be a lot of fun and great for racing fans,” Antonucci said. “We are so blessed to have such a versatile colt that we can really back into any kind of [pace] scenario. It is a blessing that we aren’t tied to having to have one setup to be able to find success. Super excited for a great day of racing for the industry, for the fans. Let’s go win a race.”
Arcangelo is by 2016 Travers winner Arrogate, whose record time of 1:59.36 still stands. A win would make Arrogate the 16th Travers winner to sire a Travers winner. Bred in Kentucky by Don Alberto Corporation, Arcangelo is out of the Tapit mare Modeling and a direct descendant of influential broodmares Better Than Honour and Best in Show.
Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, who is 3-for-3 aboard Arcangelo, will pursue a record-extending seventh Travers conquest from post 2 [5-2 ML].
After campaigning last year’s winner Epicenter, Winchell Thoroughbreds and Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen will compete this year with Disarm in attempt to be the first owner-trainer combo to win back-to-back Travers since Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey and the Phipps family did so with Easy Goer  and Rhythm .
Disarm, a chestnut son of Gun Runner, has never finished worse than fourth in eight lifetime starts, entering from a fourth beaten 2 1/4 lengths in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy. In his prior start, he posted a half-length win in the Grade 3 Matt Winn on June 11 at Ellis Park over next out graded stakes winner Verifying, and ran a career-high 102 Beyer.
A runner-up effort in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby in March at Fair Grounds Race Course and a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Lexington three weeks later at Keeneland provided Disarm with a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. He was nearly 10 lengths off the pace early on from 13th, but improved position through each point of call to finish fourth, 4 1/2-lengths behind Mage.
Disarm will sport blinkers for the Travers.
“I like him with the addition of the blinkers, hopefully we can make up about 2 1/2 lengths,” Asmussen said. “Obviously, we feel good about the distance for him. It appears there’s more pace on paper, but until they run you aren’t sure of that. I think the circumstances of the day and how the racetrack is playing will come to hand there.”
Disarm, a Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred, is out of the Tapit mare Easy Tap and a half-brother to multiple Venezuelan Group 1-winner Tap Daddy. He is a direct descendant of Reine de Course mare Papila.
Joel Rosario will ride from post 6 [8-1 ML].
Completing the quality Travers field is LNJ Foxwoods’ Kentucky homebred Scotland [post 7, Junior Alvarado, 12-1 ML] for Hall of Fame conditioner Bill Mott. The Good Magic chestnut will attempt to be the first gelding to win the Travers since 2000 winner Unshaded.
Through a 4-3-1-0 record, Scotland is the lightest-raced contender in the field, but won the restricted nine-furlong Curlin last out in dominant fashion with a pacesetting trip en route to a 3 1/4-length score in his stakes debut. The last horse to win the Travers following a Curlin score was V.E. Day .
“Obviously there’s some horses in there who have run that distance, so it’s probably easier to speculate on what they’ll do more so than a horse who hasn’t done it. We’ll give it our best,” Mott said.
Scotland is out of the graded-stakes winning and Grade 1-placed Speightstown mare Gemswick Park, who also produced the multiple stakes-placed Tapped.
The Travers is amongst the most prestigious races for sophomores, and predates all three Triple Crown races. Inaugurated in 1864, the historic 10-furlong event is the Spa’s marquee race and honors Saratoga’s first president William Travers, who won the first running with the A.J. Minor-trained Kentucky. Since then, the Travers has been captured by a total of 25 Hall of Fame thoroughbreds:
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