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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – As the 3-1 morning-line favorite for the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers presented by NYRA Bets, Exaggerator’s affinity for a wet racetrack has been one of the more prevalent narratives of the Saratoga meet this summer as the multiple graded stakes winner looks to shore up his supremacy in the 3-year-old division in the “Mid-Summer Derby,” expected to be contested over a fast track Saturday afternoon.
Indeed, the Curlin colt has posted his three Grade 1 victories – the Santa Anita Derby, Preakness, and Haskell – all on off-going and is 4-for-4 overall on sealed tracks, plus a runner-up finish in a muddy rendering of the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity last fall. Even his second in the Kentucky Derby came on a track that, although listed as “fast,” had gotten a little extra moisture just before the race, courtesy of a quick-moving summer storm that swept through the area.
Trainer Keith Desormeaux, however, remained firm in his opinion on Friday morning that track conditions have been merely circumstantial to his colt’s success and is relishing the opportunity to dispel the notion that his horse is merely a wet-track specialist once and for all this weekend.
“I’ve said it before, it’s not the off track [he needs], it’s the pace, a pace to run at. There should be pace with a [13-horse] field,” said Desormeaux, who arrived in Saratoga onThursday afternoon.
Asked if Exaggerator’s off-track reputation bothers him, Desormeaux offered a wry, “Yeah, it bothers me all the way to the bank.”
Exaggerator has bankrolled $3,571,120.
Attempting to become the ninth Preakness winner and the sixth Haskell winner to go on to victory in the Travers, Exaggerator has remained in top form at his Saratoga training base primarily under the care of assistant trainer Julie Clark.
“I can only read what I see in front of me and I see a maturing horse,” said a confident Desormeaux. “He’s carried his weight well, his coat color is great, he still has that exuberance to train, he’s got a gleam in his eye, good appetite – all those things that we as horsemen look for in judging the readiness of our horse.”
With the field down to 13 following the recent defection of Florida Derby runner-up Majesto, this year’s Travers remains on track to be one of the largest fields in the Travers history, matching the number of starters in 1965 and 1990 as the second-largest field after the 1977 edition, which saw a record 14 go to post.
“That says to me that there’s no one there that other horsemen think is dominant; you’re going to stay away when there’s dominant horses,” Desormeaux said of the field size. “According to the field, maybe they think we’re all on the same playing field. But Exaggerator doesn’t have anything to prove; he’s a dominant horse and, again, it’ll be fun to prove his dominance on a dry track.”
He’s been here, done that. But this year, the experience of arriving for the Grade 1 Travers is nothing like last year for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
“It’s a totally different vibe this time,” said Baffert, who arrived for the 146th Travers with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to great pomp, circumstance and fanfare. “When I drove into Saratoga last year the place was crazy. I was pretty overwhelmed by it, to tell you the truth. When I drove over Friday to watch [American Pharoah] gallop [in front of 15,000 fans], I couldn’t believe it. That’s when I really started feeling the pressure. It was a great time in racing. I’ll always remember the fans. Unfortunately, we got beat [second to Keen Ice] but it was still a glorious day in racing,” he said.
For the 147th edition of the Travers, Baffert takes the double-barreled approach with Gary and Mary West’s American Freedom and Juddmonte Farms’s Arrogate.
American Freedom, second to Travers morning-line favorite Exaggerator last out in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational, and Arrogate, who is making his stakes debut after three impressive wins in maiden and allowance company, are being asked to give Baffert his second Travers victory [Point Given, 2001] and first in five subsequent tries.
“You have to bring your best and that’s why I’m here,” he said. “I really think we’re going to run well. You don’t know until the gate comes open, but I feel pretty good about Arrogate’s chances. I think he can run with them.
“I’m high on American Freedom,” added Baffert. “You never how they will handle the crowds and all. So far everything has been good, but they’re going to have to leave there running. It’s a pretty tough race. It’s pretty wide open.”
American Freedom, who will run without blinkers for the first time, breaks from post position 2 under Rafael Bejarano, while Arrogate will depart from the rail with Hall of Famer Mike Smith aboard.
“I watched them train today [1 ¼-mile gallops] and they look like they traveled well,” Baffert said. “That was the main concern, that they shipped well. They got here a little late because the plane left late but they look good today.”
Baffert discounted the opinion of those who claim this year’s crop of 3-year-olds is weak, instead terming them “pretty tough.”
“I think it’s a very competitive race,” he said. “It’s the kind of race where you look at it, it’s a mile and a quarter, and other than Exaggerator, no one really stands out there. If it’s a dry track, you don’t know what he’s going to do. I think it’s like the Kentucky Derby. The field is wide open.”
The importance of the Travers on the North American graded stakes calendar can never be overstated, but this year it offers the extra bonus of being a major factor when deciding the end of year divisional championship.
“The Travers is the last chance for a 3-year-old to run in a major race,” Baffert said. “It’s not only the history, but the meaning of a Travers win on your resume. That’s pretty big for these horses. This race sets them up to see which ones are going to run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”
Baffert is also taking a double shot at the Grade 1, $500,000 Ketel One King’s Bishop on Saturday with sprinters Jazzy Times and Drefong.
“We came here with our best ones,” he said of his foursome.
Charles Chu’s Drefong has won his last three races in Southern California by a combined margin of almost 19 lengths and Jazzy Times has been equally impressive. But both are stepping up from the allowance/optional claiming ranks and contesting stakes company for their first time.
“Those are two extremely talented horses. That’s a good field. They’re drawing outside, which is pretty good. I would have liked to see Drefong draw inside a little bit, but he is an incredibly fast horse,” Baffert said. “You just don’t know how they will react to the change of surface. In California, they like that surface. This time last year I thought Jazzy Times was my best 2-year-old, and then we had to stop on him a little bit. But now he’s really turned it around so I expect him to be very competitive. But it’s a tough race.”
All was quiet in the barn of newly minted Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen on Friday morning as assistant trainer Scott Blasi put the finishing touches on Belmont Stakes winner Creator and Gun Runner, who will leave from post positions 12 and 13, respectively, in the Grade 1 Travers.
“I’ve done my job,” said Blasi. “Like always, the riders will have to make the right decisions. With the [13-horse] field I think everybody is taking a shot and that makes it competitive. I think the horses are pretty even throughout, numbers-wise, so you’re going to have to have some luck and your best trip to win. Hopefully, everybody runs their race and comes back safe,” he said.
Irad Ortiz, Jr. picked up the first-time mount on Creator for the Belmont, netting the jockey his first Triple Crown victory and the trainer his first Belmont Stakes score. Ortiz is back in the irons while Florent Geroux gets the return call on Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes winner Gun Runner.
Geroux, a native of France and a three-time Breeders’ Cup winner, will compete in his first Travers. While the experience is new, Geroux and Gun Runner are old friends, having partnered in all five of the colt’s 2016 starts when he earned $1,131,380 in purses.
“He has a good relationship with Gun Runner. He got familiar with him this winter and was working him and I think they click. He’s made a million dollars on the horse, so something went right,” said Blasi.
Among trainer Chad Brown’s trio of Travers contenders, My Man Sam at 20-1 is the longest price in the morning line, with Connect at 4-1 and Gift Box tabbed at 12-1.
Owned by Sheep Pond Partners, Newport Stables and Jay Bligh, his breeder, My Man Sam enters the “Mid-Summer Derby” following a second-place finish in a first-level allowance race against older horses on the second day of the Saratoga meet.
The 1 1/8-mile race marked his first start since finishing 11th in the Kentucky Derby. A son of Trappe Shot, who finished ninth as the favorite in the 2010 Travers, My Man Sam’s best finish in a stakes was his second in the Blue Grass in April at Keeneland.
“He needed some time to get over the Kentucky Derby,” Brown said Friday morning. “His energy level wasn’t where we needed it to be. We gave him some time and finally felt good about running him early in the meet in that allowance race. He came up a little short in there. It was disappointing he didn’t win, but he got a lot out of that race and continues to move forward off that race.
“He has really been full of himself this week,” he added. “He’s fit and sharp. This is the way he was acting before the Blue Grass. However, whether an effort like that will prove good enough to win the Travers remains to be seen. But I’m confident this horse is sitting on a really good race.”
Brown, who earned his 1,000th career victory Wednesday at Saratoga, said tomorrow is one of the biggest days of the year for his stable. In addition to his Travers triumvirate, Brown will saddle a bevy of starters, including turf sensation Flintshire, who will be the favorite in the Grade 1 Longines Sword Dancer, and the come-backing Lady Eli, who will make her ballyhooed return to the races in the Grade 2 Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa.
“Tomorrow is a Breeders’ Cup-level day,” Brown said. “You have to have good racing luck because we will get to a point tomorrow where it will be out of our hands. Tomorrow is a day when there is so much on the line. There are no do-overs on Travers day.”
Anaximandros is a 50-1 longshot on the morning line for the Grade 1 Travers, but the morning line is of no concern to his 40-year-old owner/trainer/breeder, Mikhail Yanakov, a relative newcomer to the training ranks.
“The odds don’t really matter so much since no one knows me,” said Yanakov, who came to the United States two years ago from Russia.
An upset win in the “Mid-Summer Derby” could change that quickly. Should Anaximandros win at his morning-line odds (or greater), he could leave his legacy alongside that of Jim Dandy, who won the 1930 Travers at odds of 100-1.
But Yanakov, who is from Stavropol, Russia and is of Greek descent, said he isn’t worried so much about history as he was of finding a suitable distance for the 3-year-old bay colt, who, by is named after pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaximander. (Little remains of Anaximander’s work, although Plutarch mentions Anaximander’s theory that humans were born inside fish, feeding like sharks, and that when they could defend themselves, they were thrown ashore to live on dry land).
After breaking his maiden at 1 1/16 miles on May 20 at Gulfstream Park, Anaximandros will be stretched out to 1 1/4 miles for the first time.
“I can’t find any other mile-and-a-quarter races in this country,” he said. “This is the last chance, and I want to see him in the mile and a quarter.”
Anaximandros finished fourth in his graded stakes debut in the Grade 2 West Virginia Derby on August 6 with jockey Leonel Reyes in the irons. Reyes, who is in his first year riding in the United States. after a successful career in Venezuela, will have the call again on Anaximandros as well as Applicator in the Grade 1, $1 million Longines Sword Dancer.
“I don’t want to change anything because he knows the horses,” Yanakov said. “I think with a bit of luck we can surprise people. Why not?”
Yanakov, who owns all of the horses he trains through Olympia Star, Inc., said he was happy with post position 6 for the Travers.
“He’s lucky with number [post] 3 but 6 is close,” Yanakov said with a laugh. “Hopefully it’ll be lucky for us.”
Yanakov worked for his family’s construction business in Russia before starting his training career. He also said he participated in competitive motorsports, though his family, which includes a wife and two children, was happy when he transitioned full-time into a new career. He first started buying horses in 2009 to take to Russia and currently has 30 broodmares and 15 horses in training based at his Gulfstream Park headquarters.
“I drove sport bikes and sport cars in racetracks, and my family said ‘he’s finished with motorcycles, let’s go with horses. It’s OK.’ They didn’t think I’d go so deep,” he said.
They came from all over the grounds Friday morning to an open, grassy area with picnic tables under tall trees next to Clare Court for trainer Eric Guillot’s pre-Travers gumbo party.
Guillot, from Iberia, Louisiana will run Grade 2 Jim Dandy winner Laoban on Saturday in the “Mid-Summer Derby”.
Guillot, who races on the southern California circuit and summers in Saratoga, started the tradition at Saratoga the day before his fleet gelding Moreno got beaten a nose by Will Take Charge in the 2013 Travers. According to Guillot’s brother, Chip, the gumbo chef, they’ve been cooking before big races for 15 years when they started throwing parties for Hill ‘n Dale Farm at Keeneland.
“We call it a ‘tout quelque chose’ – a little bit of everything,” Chip Guillot said. “The list of what’s in there is so long, it would take me all day to tell you. And, furthermore, I don’t remember.”
Chip Guillot oversees the Kentucky farm owned by his brother and Laoban’s owner, Mike Moreno, the two partners in Southern Equine Stables.
Asked if serving up gumbo to anyone who drops by will help Laoban, who is 15-1 in the Travers, Chip Guillot said, “Of course it does. We’ll give him a five-gallon bucket of it, too, before the race.”
After his victory by a nose in a maiden race May 29 at Belmont Park, Charles Fipke’s Forever d’Oro turned around 13 days later and contested the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. The 1 ½-mile “Test of the Champion” proved too much, too soon and the son of Medaglia d’Oro out of the Kentucky Oaks-winning mare Lemons Forever finished last.
Trainer Dallas Stewart, however, had a plan, and he took Forever d’Oro home and got him ready for Saratoga with an eye on the Travers.
“I took him back to Churchill and put some weight on him,” Stewart said. “He lost a lot of weight out of [the Belmont]. He didn’t leave training. I double-timed him on all the supplements and all of the grazing and all of the grain, and he’s really a good eater. That’s one good thing; if you’ve got a horse that needs weight, most of the time those horses won’t eat well. But he ate good and we poured it to him. I put about 150 pounds on him, and he looks good.”
Proof that a little home cooking helped Forever d’Oro came July 29 in the 1 1/8-mile Curlin. Although he broke last in the field of seven, Forever d’Oro raced within six lengths of the pace set by winner Connect and then, after altering course, rallied into third place, beaten four lengths.
The performance earned a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 94.
“He’s always working with good horses like [Ketel One King’s Bishop entrant] Tom’s Ready and we work him with his sister, Forever Unbridled [who will run in the Personal Ensign], sometimes, and he fights with them,” said Stewart. “I think he’s got a shot to win. He’s going to love the mile and a quarter. There’s plenty of speed in there, and he’s going to make that one run like he does. We’ll see. He could be one race away from hitting it, but he’s going to be right there. This has been the target right here.”
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