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Saratoga Skinny: Predicting a Travers Upset
Code of Honor winning the 2019 Travers (Credit: NYRA / Derbe Glass)

Saratoga Skinny: Predicting a Travers Upset

It’s going to be an eerie Travers this year.

Eerie because there will be no fans in the stands. Eerie because it’ll be run during a pandemic. Eerie because this is the Mid-Summer Derby, the cornerstone of the historic and traditional Saratoga horse racing meet.

The 151st running of the Travers will be eerie when it comes to the actual racing, too. Five years ago, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s arrival had the town abuzz, so much so that it was temporarily called “Pharoahtoga.” Nearly 15,000 people showed up just to watch him gallop the day before the race.

It was borderline insane to think that the people’s champ could lose – and yet, he did.

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The 2020 Travers is similarly eerie.

The New York-bred Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Tiz the Law is the toast of the town. Signs saying “Tiz the Law Says Wear A Mask” dot the local Stewart’s Shops (the area’s convenience store / gas station chain). One intersection’s four-way stop signs read “Stop” – underneath that, “All Way” – and further below, “(Tiz the Law).”

Even his ownership group, Sackatoga Stable, is about as local as it gets, so they understandably want very badly to win this race.

Tiz the Law’s hype train is real. The even-money favorite on the morning line, his odds may dip even lower once the wagering officially opens. He hasn’t lost all year, impressively taking the Holy Bull Stakes (G3) and the Florida Derby (G1) before his Belmont Stakes success.

Still, Saratoga is known as the “Graveyard of Champions” for a reason. Some of the sport’s biggest upsets have occurred here; American Pharoah was the fourth Triple Crown winner to suffer defeat at The Spa.

In what scenario could Tiz the Law lose at Saratoga, like so many greats before him? Let’s take a look in this special edition of the Saratoga Skinny.

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The Knocks on the Favorites

Uncle Chuck, the second choice on the morning line, is trained by a guy named Bob Baffert, who’s trained two Triple Crown winners (including American Pharoah) and has won the Travers three times: in 2001 (with Point Given), 2016 (Arrogate), and 2017 (West Coast). Jockey Mike Smith went so far as to compare Uncle Chuck and Arrogate after the younger colt broke his maiden on debut.

So it’s pretty simple, right? Uncle Chuck is the next coming of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner Arrogate and will therefore beat Tiz the Law, so play a big exacta with Uncle Chuck over Tiz the Law and call it a day.

But where’s the fun in that? The title of this article is “Predicting a Travers Upset,” and that $2 exacta might pay less than $8.

If we’re trying to make some money betting in-race exotic wagers, we have to be more creative than that. You may think I’m crazy (editor’s note: he is), but if you’d said that Keen Ice was going to win the 2015 Travers, they would’ve locked you up in an insane asylum (looking at you, Vinny).

I’m not just dreaming up a wild scenario for the sole sake of trying to beat these two. Both Tiz the Law and Uncle Chuck have real questions to answer Saturday:

The Distance

None of these horses have yet to race at this 1 1/4-mile distance. Both Tiz the Law and Uncle Chuck have decent pedigrees but still need to prove themselves.

Tiz the Law’s sire, Constitution, excelled at 1 1/8 miles to win the Florida Derby and the Donn Handicap (G1), but he finished his career running fifth in the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). Tiz the Law’s damsire, Tiznow, is the only two-time winner of the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic, so at least he has plenty of stamina influence on the bottom-side of his pedigree.

Uncle Chuck is sired by Uncle Mo, who sired 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, but there were many distance questions about Uncle Mo in the past. Uncle Chuck’s dam Forest Music was graded stakes winning sprinter, so it’s unknown if he’ll stretch out and dominate going this far.

For more information on each horse’s pedigree, check out these in-depth analyses:

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Tiz the Law Hasn’t Been in a Dog Fight

Tiz the Law has easily conquered every foes year. The last time that he had to face adversity, he didn’t overcome it; he finished third as the favorite in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). This argument might seem like a stretch, since he got a poor ride by regular jockey Manny Franco, but he hasn’t had to go eye-to-eye with another horse in quite a while.

Uncle Chuck’s Experience

With only 2 starts under his belt coming against four- and five-horse fields, the Los Alamitos Derby (G3) winner is far from battle-tested. That doesn’t often matter when Baffert has a really good one, but this may be too much, too soon. Even Arrogate had raced 4 times prior to upsetting the Travers at 11/1 odds. Uncle Chuck also has to travel outside of California for the first time.

Uncle Chuck winning the Los Al Derby (Credit: Benoit Photo)
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It’s tough to find chinks in the armor of the two favorites, but the pace might actually be the biggest aspect that they’ll need to overcome.

2020 Travers Pace Analysis

You couldn’t find much wrong with American Pharoah entering the 2015 Travers, but he was a victim of a fast pace and being pressed by an all-out Frosted. That same undoing could very well happen to the two favorites this year.

TimeForm US projects a fast pace, and First Line and Shivaree are both listed as E/P8 running styles with Brisnet. For those unfamiliar, it means that they both have the highest early speed rating (8) and will want to be on or very near the lead.

Since he’s leaving from the one-hole, First Line will have to bust from the gate under jockey David Cohen. He can be called “cheap speed” because he just recently broke his maiden in his fourth career start. Shivaree is a bit classier as the runner-up in the Florida Derby, but he tired badly after running on the pace in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) in his last start.

If both Shivaree and First Line fight for the lead, Uncle Chuck may need to exert more energy than he’d like to either try taking it himself or else sitting just off going into the first turn. Baffert told his jocks to get the lead when he won in 2016 and 2017, so he may try similar “come and get me” tactics here. It’s possible that the long-legged Uncle Chuck out-foots Shivaree and First Line early, but doing so could soften him up.

Caracaro also has good early speed and will want to be involved under 5-time Travers winner Javier Castellano. Caracaro was runner-up by a neck over this course in the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan Stakes (G3) and may keep Tiz the Law company behind the three early pacesetters.

Uncle Chuck may end up being too good early and shake off the early pressure. Tiz the Law will likely come to Uncle Chuck’s throat latch in the turn, and the duel of the meet could ensue down the stretch, but what if they’ve been softened up by a fast pace while also going the farthest that they ever have?

The Upset Candidate

A tiring Uncle Chuck combined with a hard-charging Tiz the Law trying to tackle him at the 1/8 pole is the one scenario in which they both get beat, so if it happens, who’ll be the late charger approaching the wire?

Country Grammer is my upset pick to win the 2020 Travers.

Please don’t lock me up in an insane asylum.

I have to admit that I’m biased; I picked Country Grammer in the third round of the Racing Dudes Triple Crown Fantasy League. Back in mid-December, I thought he’d be a late bloomer who would win the Peter Pan and then the Belmont Stakes, just like his sire, Tonalist. Well, the world turned upside down, but he still won the Peter Pan, and he now has a chance to win the Travers at a distance that Tonalist loved.

Country Grammer’s Peter Pan win over Caracaro was remarkable because he fought back after being headed in deep stretch and showed grit. The extra furlong here should be no problem for him.

What I love most about Country Grammer is where he’ll sit. The Chad Brown pupil sat nearer to the early Peter Pan pace than he had in his previous 2 starts and should stalk right behind Tiz the Law and Caracaro here. As Tiz the Law makes his move, Country Grammer should be able to follow, unless Manny Franco goes too early on Tiz the Law, which may happen when he sees Uncle Chuck unleashing his stride. Country Grammer will then be in the perfect spot to spring the big upset.

Country Grammer winning the Peter Pan (Credit: NYRA / Chelsea Durand)

Call me crazy (editor’s note: already did), but if Country Grammer floats up from his 6/1 morning line, then I will be making a very handsome win wager on a horse who’s getting the services of Saratoga’s leading jockey, Irad Ortiz, Jr. That guy on a late-charging horse is always a good angle; he’s one of the best closing jocks in the game. 

I might make a nice exacta box wager with Country Grammer and Tiz the Law, depending on the probable payouts.

Looking to make a major score in the Travers, I’ll play the following superfecta bet:

  1. #2 Country Grammer
  2. #6 Tiz the Law, #3 Uncle Chuck
  3. #6 Tiz the Law, #3 Uncle Chuck
  4. #7 Caracaro, #4 Max Player, #8 South Bend

You can make that $1 superfecta bet for only $6, so if you have six spare bucks left in your account, punch this ticket. If it comes across, it’s likely to pay a couple hundred for the price of a Starbucks coffee. Max Player may be too far back early to win, but he’ll be making a late run and could quite possibly hit the superfecta. Caracaro has a lot of upside, and though he may tire after attending the early pace, he could still hold on for fourth. South Bend is the other deep closer in the field and just joined the Bill Mott barn, so we’ll throw him in the fourth spot at a price.

If you want the best in-depth analysis of the races (and not more of my crazy theories), then please pick up a copy of the Racing Dudes’ Inside Track to the Travers Stakes Wagering Guide. Included inside are my top four picks for all five graded stakes. I like a few longshots early in the Pick 5 sequence, so check it out!

Hope all is well with everyone out there during the pandemic. Feel free to follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim for all of my updates during the big day! Good luck with your wagering!

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