2014 Travers Day Stakes Preview

After Friday’s Personal Ensign, Picks and Ponderings stays at Saratoga for Saturday, the second day of this weekend’s three-day handicapping road trip.  The third day of the three-day trip takes us to Del Mar for Sunday’s Pacific Classic Day program. The headline race of the day is the Travers Stakes (GI), a race for three-year-olds run at the Classic distance of a mile and a quarter over the Saratoga dirt.  The card also includes the King’s Bishop (GI) for three-year-old sprinters, the Ballerina (GI) for older filly and mare sprinters, and the Ballston Spa (GII) for older fillies and mares on the grass.

The Travers Stakes and the Ballerina Stakes will both be broadcast on NBC; the telecast runs from 4:30-6:00pm EDT.  The Ballerina is a Breeders’ Cup Win And You’re In race for the Filly and Mare Sprint.

Race 9: Ballston Spa Stakes (GII), fillies and mares, three years old and up, 1 1/16 miles on the turf, post time 3:59pm EDT

This year marks the 26th running of the Ballston Spa Stakes, which offers a $250,000 purse to older filly and mare turf runners.  It was run at Aqueduct from its 1989 inception until 1993 at a distance of one mile, and then moved to its current location and distance in 1994.  The race is named after Ballston Spa, a village to the southwest of Saratoga Springs.  The village straddles the border between two towns, Ballston and Milton.  Local lore has it that in 1770 Eliphalet Ball, a minister, paid two brothers who had previously settled in Ballston a barrel of rum for the right to name the town after himself.  Little did the good minister know when he offered up the rum that slightly over two centuries later, his name would be lent to this race.

With the scratch of Dayatthespa, the class of the speed and the top selection according to the original draw, Night Song is the closest thing this race has left to early speed.  However favourable the pace scenario may be for Night Song, she could not dispatch with N1X company at this distance two starts back, and will probably be swallowed up by this far classier field.  In light of that scratch, Filimbi becomes quite clearly the one to beat.  Filimbi is racing stateside for the third time, after seven consistent yet undistinguished races in France.  The Graham Motion trainee steps into graded company for the first time of her career here, but after winning the De La Rose as easily as she did last out, she should handle the step up well.  It is a longer distance than she has ever won at, but she has two second-place finishes in France at longer; stamina should not be an issue.  Filimbi has never missed the board in ten starts, and has shown versatility in pace.  She will likely be well served staying fairly close to the pace as she did in an allowance win at Belmont two back, though she has run well from close up or far back.  Joel Rosario, who has ridden Filimbi in all three of her stateside starts, has the return call.  Shug McGaughey’s Abaco dials back in both distance and class from the Diana (GI) last out.  She finished a fast-closing fourth in that race, just 1 1/2 lengths behind Somali Lemonade.  The six-year-old mare has been extremely consistent: never worse than fourth and never farther than 2 1/2 lengths back in her last eight starts.  Though she runs most races from farther back, she did come in second behind Riposte in the Sheepshead Bay (GII) two starts back on a trip closer to the pace, suggesting she will still be able to run well given the likely lack of front end zip.  Dayattthespa‘s scratch helps Centre Court a bit, too.  Though lately she has been running races farther off the pace, she does have some races which she has won from closer to the pace: the 2012 Mrs. Revere (GII) and the 2013 Jenny Wiley (GI) come to mind.  Julien Leparoux rode her in both of those races, and if he can get her settled a bit closer to the front in this likely paceless affair, she stands a chance.  The biggest worry is the layoff; trainer George Arnold is not the best off of lays, and she has been on the shelf since the Distaff Turf Mile (GII) on the Kentucky Derby undercard.  However, she is working quite well, and won this year’s Honey Fox (GII) back in March off an even longer layoff.

Selections:

#5 DAYATTHESPA (5/2)

#7 FILIMBI (2/1)

#3 ABACO (4/1)

#2 CENTRE COURT (5/1)

Longshot:  This year’s Ballston Spa is lacking in horses that are simultaneously viable and longer-priced.  Nellie Cashman has been flat in three starts this year.  Night Song, a lightly-raced four-year-old out of the Amy Tarrant barn, is a bit more intriguing in that she is the only speed in this field with the scratch of Dayatthespa.  She runs for a barn that does fairly well in what few graded stakes it enters, but she looks slow for this field, and faltered at this distance against far weaker two back.  Even if she does get on the front early (something she has absolutely no shot of doing against Richies Sweetheart in a sprint allowance last out), the field stands to swallow her up late.  Instead, look to the horse who is most likely to go off at a decent price among the five viable candidates here: #4 STRATHNAVER (6/1).  Strathnaver proved two back in the one mile Just A Game (GI) that she did not need to run a marathon distance to do well against classy company, missing by the scantest of noses against Coffee Clique.  The next out, she finished beaten only 2 1/4 lengths after a troubled trip in the Diana (GI), one of the year’s toughest filly and mare turf races to date.  She is in form, and though the pace is not likely to be great for an off-the-pace type like Strathnaver, she shows up consistently and is in good enough form to threaten the top echelon here.

Race 10: King’s Bishop Stakes (GI), three-year-olds, seven furlongs on the dirt, post time 4:33pm EDT

Saturday marks the thirtieth running of the King’s Bishop, a $500,000 purse for three-year-old sprinters.  The race was first run in 1984, though it was not run in 1986.  King’s Bishop (1969-1981) was by Round Table out of the Fleet Nasrullah mare Spearfish.  As befits the namesake of a Grade I race at the Spa, he ran several important stakes races in New York.  These included both the 1973 Carter Handicap and the 1973 Fall Highweight Handicap, both at Belmont Park.  However, there is also a local connection.  King’s Bishop won several stakes races at Arlington Park, including the 1972 Arlington Classic versus horses of his own age as well as the 1972 Round Table Handicap, named after his sire, against older horses.

Wildcat Red has outrun his pedigree, scoring wins at as long as 1 1/16 miles, and fighting as gamely as a horse can fight to hit the board at distances as long as nine furlongs.  However, ever since his win in the Hutcheson Stakes (GIII) earlier this year, his performance and breeding have suggested that this D’wildcat colt could become one crack sprinter.  Here he gets a chance to try.  He cuts back to a sprint for the first time since the Hutcheson, a race he won commandingly at this distance.  Pacewise, there is a lot of early speed: The Big Beast, Fast Anna, and Noble Moon have all showed a lot of affinity for the front end, and even C. Zee and Coup de Grace have been part of the early pace from time to time.  Wildcat Red should not be far off, but has shown in several of his sprint races that he can sit a length or two off early, and then pounce.  He is lightning fast, dead game, and bred for this: if he gets that just-off-the-pace trip, he will be hard to beat late.  The Big Beast is one of the new shooters to the three-year-old sprint division, but after two emphatic wins in maiden and then allowance company, he deserves this chance at the big time.  He has speed to spare, and has not been tested in his last two starts.  Jockey Javier Castellano, who rode him to those two wins, rides again.  Furthermore he comes out of a Tony Dutrow barn that has been burning up the track at the Spa this summer, with six wins in just 22 starts.  The biggest worry surrounding The Big Beast is the pace scenario: in his two wins to date, he has made every call a winning one, and had very little pressure.  However, one can see his quality and his ability to fight on if he does not get the lead from his very first start: he hit the gate coming out, was far out of it early, and fought on to miss the win by just a neck.  He is no one-dimensional speed horse, and the worry about the pace is a fairly small one.  This will be his trial by fire, but he has the speed and ability to meet it head-on.  Coup de Grace started the year on the Derby trail, but trainer Larry Jones has seen far more success with him since dialing him back to sprint distances.  He has won three of four since, with his only loss being a sixth-place finish behind Bayern’s absolutely freakish performance in the Woody Stephens (GII).  Even then, his sixth was not bad: he was pinched off at the start, and he finished only 3/4 length behind second-place Top Fortitude.  Pacewise Coup de Grace is very adaptable, and has been running from off the pace in his recent starts.  This should help him out a lot with all of the early speed in this race: though he has won from the front end, there is more explosive early speed in this field.  He would be best served if Rosie Napravnik, who rode him in his Amsterdam Stakes (GII) win last out, gives him the same kind of ride this time out.

Selections:

#2 WILDCAT RED (4/1)

#7 THE BIG BEAST (5/2)

#8 COUP DE GRACE (2/1)

Longshot:  #3 MYOSITIS DAN (12/1) returns to the dirt after an allowance win at this distance over the Arlington polytrack on the Million Preview Day card last out.  It is clear this horse loves the polytrack: all three of his career wins have come over poly.  Two of those have been at this seven-furlong distance.  The biggest question here is surface, since he is winless in five tries on dirt.  However, his only time off the board on dirt was in a sloppy mess his first time out: forgivable on both fronts.  His breakout start was the Derby Trial (GIII) two back, at a mile over Churchill’s dirt.  He let Bayern and Embellishing Bob do the dirty work on the front end, and came charging late to miss that pair by just a head all told.  With all of the early speed in this race, he will likely get at least as good of a pace setup again.  This is the classiest company he has faced to date, but trainer Tom Proctor found the perfect situation for trying him in a Grade I.

Race 11: Ballerina Stakes (GI), fillies and mares, three years old and up, seven furlongs on the dirt, post time 5:08pm EDT

2014 marks the 36th running of the Ballerina Stakes.  Ballerina, by Rosemont out of the Easton mare Red Shoes, won the inaugural running of the Maskette Handicap (now Go For Wand Handicap) at Aqueduct.  The race has been run since 1979, and has been run at seven furlongs on the Saratoga dirt for the entirety of its history.  This year’s running offers not only a $500,000 purse, but also a berth to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint through the Win And You’re In program.

La Verdad is probably the speed of the speed in this field, but she is not going to get a plum, unpressured lead in this field.  Artemis Agrotera, My Miss Aurelia, and Geeky Gorgeous are likely to try her for a piece of it, and La Verdad is in trouble if she doesn’t get it her way up front.  This should open it up for an off-the-pace type late, and Hot Stones looks to be in the right form to do it.  She is trying seven furlongs for only the second time in her career, but her only try at the distance was a win two starts back in the Bed o’ Roses (GIII) at Belmont.  She has never fired a clunker at the Spa: in three starts over the track, she has a win and two third-place finishes.  One of those thirds was last out in the Shuvee (GIII) — a race at nine furlongs, likely too long for her.  She stands to love dialing back here.  Finally, jockey Irad Ortiz rides.  Ortiz has ridden Hot Stones to her last three wins, and has the hottest rider in the colony of late.  Better Lucky was racing in mainly turf miles until recently, but tried a sprint in the dirt last out in the Shine Again.  She won, beating Grace Hall and My Miss Aurelia as the longest shot in the short field.  That race was her first start over the Saratoga dirt, and was strong enough to convince trainer Tom Albertrani to start her in this tougher spot.  She has never raced in a graded stakes over the dirt before, but is a multiple GI winner on the grass; she has class to spare.  In her five career grass starts, she has been on the board four times, and won thrice.  Pacewise, she tends to come in from midpack, so the likely snappy front end should suit her just fine.  My Miss Aurelia races second off a layoff of a year and a half, and her best days may be behind her.  Even if that is actually the case, she still looks competitive here assuming she improves at all second off the lay.  As long as jockey John Velazquez gets her relax and stalk off the pace, something she has done in several of her past wins, she should not be pace compromised.  Going into this race she is working well, and trainer Todd Pletcher hits at just shy of 30% both second off the lay as well as with horses making their second start for the barn.  Last out she finished third, just a half length behind Better Lucky in the Shine Again, despite being bumped around down the stretch.  That was her only non-winning start in four attempts over the dirt at the Spa, and that affinity for the track counts for a lot.

Selections:

#8 HOT STONES (6/1)

#2 BETTER LUCKY (4/1)

#4 MY MISS AURELIA (3/1)

Longshot: #5 WILLET (6/1) once again tries the move up from state-bred company to graded company.  However, this seems to be a better-timed move than previous attempts she has made.  She is third off the layoff here, and has raced well in both of her other outings this year.  Two back she finished second to La Verdad in the Dancin Renee.  In that race La Verdad had a nice lone-speed trip; she is unlikely to have that sort of trip here, giving Willet something to run at late.  Last out she did have a hot pace at which to run, and she romped.  Of course, this field is a big step up from a New York-bred allowance, but between the pace, her current form, and her 5-2-3-0 record on the Saratoga dirt, she should have a good chance at a good price.

Race 12: Travers Stakes (GI), three years old, one and one fourth miles on the dirt, post time 5:45 EDT

The Travers Stakes was initially run in 1864, and won by a horse named Kentucky.  Kentucky’s co-owner was William R. Travers, the first president of Saratoga and the namesake of this race.  It has not run continuously since then, but has run every year since 1913; this will be the 145th running of the Midsummer Derby.  It has been run at distances as short at 1 1/8 miles and as long as the marathon 1 3/4 miles, but has been run at its current ten-furlong distance since 1904.  This year’s edition is the richest race of the Saratoga meet, with a $1,250,000 purse up for grabs.

Bayern looms large over this field.  He has won his last two starts, the seven-furlong Woody Stephens (GII) and the nine-furlong Haskell (GI), in runaway fashion.  He is likely to be the speed of the speed, but the question is whether he can get the ten furlongs of the Travers.  Bayern likely can.  Take the Haskell, at a furlong shorter.  It would be one thing if he put the field to sleep on the front end before drawing away, but that was not the case.  The classy Wildcat Red was on his tail early, and he did not get away with slow early fractions.  He went the quarter in 23.54, and the half in 47.66: more than honest for a race that long.  After that, he had more than enough in the tank to draw off.  In this race, who is going to challenge him on the front end even as much as Wildcat Red did last out?  Charge Now?  Mr. Speaker?  Maybe Wicked Strong or Tonalist running even closer to the front than usual?  Not likely.  That seems a self-destructive strategy for any of them, and Bayern will set the fractions unless he falters badly early.  He should have plenty left to hold his lead at the end.  The other elephants in the room are the 1-2 finishers in the Jim Dandy, Wicked Strong and Tonalist.  Wicked Strong showed significant improvement after putting on the blinkers for the Jim Dandy, and stands to be closer than most to Bayern’s early pace.  Though he has never won at 1 1/4 miles or longer, this colt has either been gaining on the front or widening his lead in every single race of a mile and an eighth or longer, which encompasses five of his nine career starts.  He clearly handles the Spa well, as he showed in the Jim Dandy, and has posted two strong moves since the Jim Dandy.  Wicked Strong showed improved focus with the blinkers in the Jim Dandy, and stands to be the most likely threat to Bayern late if he falters, or ended up getting more early pressure than looked likely on paper.  Tonalist is a good horse, and made it clear in the Belmont that he has the stamina to run all day.  However, he was flatter than expected in the Jim Dandy.  He has been working consistently enough leading into this race, and trainer Christophe Clement has said that the Jim Dandy was less a goal in itself than a Travers prep.  Still, with the tougher field he faces here, it is difficult to take that assertion at face value at a short price.  Stepping aside from the usual suspects and moving to horses who are making more of a name for themselves later in the season, one who deserves serious consideration here is Viva Majorca.  He comes in here making his first graded stakes attempt, having finished fourth in the Curlin Stakes at the Spa last out.  The most attractive thing about Viva Majorca is the pace he likes to run: in his previous races, he has been able to stay far enough off the pace not to get embroiled in a futile fight for the lead, but never far enough to be out of touch.  With a fast, classy horse like Bayern likely to be on the front, this is exactly what he needs to do in order to maximize his chances here.  Last out he acquitted himself well in his first attempt at a route distance.  He had to steady, he got bottled up badly, but he started running strongly once Julien Leparoux got him out to open space outside.  He looked strong, he was gaining on the field, and was in good enough stride late to suggest he has a strong chance to handle Classic distances like his sire Tiago did.  He has been working like gangbusters leading up to this race, as well, suggesting he is fit to face his toughest test yet.

Selections:

#2 BAYERN (2/1)

#7 WICKED STRONG (7/2)

#5 VIVA MAJORCA (20/1)

Longshot:  #4 V. E. DAY (15/1) comes into this race off of a win in the Curlin Stakes.  The front end got a little feisty between Tiz’naz and Joint Custody, and V. E. Day swooped in from the rear of the pack to pick up the pieces late.  That was over the Saratoga course; he can clearly handle the surface.  He will not likely have the pace setup he wants, though his allowance win two starts back suggests that he does not absolutely need to come in from the clouds to win a race.  He also gets a jockey upgrade to Javier Castellano, the current top rider in the Saratoga colony.  V. E. Day will likely have to run a career best to contend with this crowd, but he is trending in the right direction, and it seems perfectly within the realm of possibility for a son of English Channel out of a Deputy Minister mare to get a mile and a quarter.

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