This Saturday's card at Saratoga is the biggest of the meet, and features the meet's cornerstone race: the Grade 1 Travers Stakes. This piece features full analysis of the Travers Stakes, as well as a selections grid for all of the stakes races Saturday at the Spa.
Colloquially dubbed the Mid-Summer Derby, the Travers has been run at Saratoga since 1864. The race has always been named after William R. Travers, president of the Saratoga Racing Association when the race was founded. Travers's own horse, Kentucky, won the inaugural running of the race. The race was contested at distances as short as 1 1/8 miles and as long as 1 3/4 miles, but has held steady at the American Classic 1 1/4 mile distance since 1904. It has been a Grade 1 affair since 1973, as long as stakes have been graded in North America.
The winners of the Travers Stakes have been a who's who of the last century and a half of American horse racing. The winner of the inaugural Belmont Stakes, Ruthless (1867), went on to become the first filly to win the Travers. Triple Crown winner Whirlaway (1941) added another jewel in the Travers. The great Man o' War (1920) counted this race among his victories -- and lends his name to the Travers Stakes trophy. The namesake of the day's marquee turf race, Sword Dancer, won the 1953 Travers.
The Travers even helped write a page of Illinois racing history: longtime local trainer Harvey Vanier won the race with Play Fellow (1983). Play Fellow was not himself Illinois-bred, but he went on to sire Western Playboy, another Vanier trainee who in 1989 became the most recent Illinois-bred to enter the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
Triple Crown winner Justify won't run in the Travers, since he has been retired. The last time a Triple Crown winner ran in the Travers was 2015, when American Pharoah tested himself at the Graveyard of Champions -- only to be run down late by Keen Ice, and add to the legend.
NBC will show the Travers Stakes; their broadcast runs Saturday from 4:00pm-6:00pm EDT. Horse Racing Radio Network will broadcast audio coverage of the Travers Stakes, as well as the graded stakes on the undercard. Their broadcast runs from 3:00-6:00pm EDT on Saturday, and it streams live on their website as well as on Sirius/XM 93.
Saturday, August 25: Saratoga Race Course
Race 11: Travers Stakes (G1), three-year-olds, one and one fourth miles on the dirt, post time 5:44pm EDT
It's not often a horse like CATHOLIC BOY comes around: a horse who is not only top-class on more than one surface, but whose connections give him the chance to shine at the top level on multiple surfaces, without sticking to one and then trying the other once he or she goes off form. Yes, his wins in the Pennine Ridge (G3) and the Belmont Derby (G1) may at first blush seem less impressive now that second-place Analyze It hung again versus Carrick in the Secretariat (G1) -- but keep in mind that Carrick is rapidly improving, was bred to get the distance, and did the mile and a quarter over a second faster than Arlington Million (G1) winner Robert Bruce. Analyze It may be a hanger, but he's a top-quality hanger, good enough to suggest that CATHOLIC BOY is just plain fast, and has had the necessary development for this point in his three-year-old year.
The outside post is a question, but even though he got a frontrunning trip in both of his last two -races, all the rest of his form has come from off the pace, including all of his dirt form. So, for a horse who can rate and rally, the post is less of a worry -- especially wtih horses like TRIGGER WARNING, MENDELSSOHN, TENFOLD, and perhaps even WONDER GADOT who can show speed, and with GOOD MAGIC and KING ZACHARY who may not be far off the going. The company is good enough that a ding-dong duel is unlikely, but it's fast enough early to give CATHOLIC BOY a fair chance if he drops in from the far outside gate and runs on later. And, with money likely to rain on GOOD MAGIC, GRONKOWSKI, and WONDER GADOT? CATHOLIC BOY should be a fair price for all the class and versatility he brings.
Beyond him? In a refrain that has begun to define summers at the Spa, Chad Brown holds a strong hand. He sends out the imposing pair of GOOD MAGIC and GRONKOWSKI. Between the two, GRONKOWSKI is slightly more appealing from a wagering perspective, because he offers more upside at a somewhat longer price. GRONKOWSKI blew the break in the Belmont Stakes, his first start on dirt. But, he settled kindly and came motoring into the lane. It would have been a good start had the Belmont been Plan A -- but knowing the Belmont was Plan B after a Derby bid was derailed by a foot bruise makes the effort all the more impressive. Now GRONKOWSKI has had more time to settle into the barn of trainer Chad Brown and to get used to his American routine. He should also, as discussed above, get an honest enough pace to chase in the Travers.
GOOD MAGIC, coming off a resounding score in the Haskell, stretches back out to a mile and a quarter. Though he has yet to win at the distance, he has not disgraced himself at the Classic distance: he ran on for second behind Justify in the Kentucky Derby, and even though he was off the board in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, he did so much of the front-end work and stayed on to finish fourth beaten a length for the whole thing. The biggest worry about GOOD MAGIC is the pace, since there's so much other forward action and he drew relatively wide. But? Despite his usual preference to be more forward that isn't a massive worry. He adapted to a wide draw in the Blue Grass (G2) by settling farther back and making a good late run. GOOD MAGIC will likely go off the favourite -- and though there are longer-priced horses who are more appealing to bet on the win end, he's consistent enough and well-enough placed to require defensive use.
#11 CATHOLIC BOY (8/1)
#3 GRONKOWSKI (4/1)
#9 GOOD MAGIC (2/1)
Longshot: Beyond the three top choices, it's hard to love much of anyone. Yes, the Jim Dandy (G2) was the local prep, and it showed some affinity for the course, but anyone coming out of that race needs to take a significant step forward to measure up. The most appealing of the longer-priced horses is a horse who at least finished in the same ZIP code as one of the top few selections in his most recent prep: #4 BRAVAZO (12/1). BRAVAZO finished a clear second behind GOOD MAGIC in the Haskell -- no match for him, but well clear of the rest. His races in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness suggest he can move up with the stretch out from a mile and an eighth back to the Classic distance. On pace, BRAVAZO has proven as versatile as anyone, able to be forward or rate midpack depending on what the race needs. Though he has yet to win with rider Luis Saez in the irons, BRAVAZO ran well in both the Preakness and the Haskell with Saez aboard. The one start at Saratoga was poor, but there's plenty to suggest it wasn't necessarily the surface -- that race came in BRAVAZO's debut, and at only seven furlongs. BRAVAZO is a route horse, and comes into the Travers with far more experience.
Below are all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for Saturday's stakes races at Saratoga. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!
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