2017 Travers Stakes Preview

This Saturday’s card at Saratoga is the biggest of the meet, and features the meet’s cornerstone race: the Grade I 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 (though don’t tell PM that…), 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 I 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.

Arrogate catches the horse racing world by surprise, setting a new track record in the 2016 Travers Stakes.  He would go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Pegasus World Cup, and the Dubai World Cup in his next three starts.

NBC will show the Travers Stakes; their broadcast runs Saturday from 4:30pm-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 108 and XM 201.

Saturday, August 26: Saratoga Race Course

Race 11: Travers Stakes (G1), three-year-olds, one and one fourth miles on the dirt, post time 5:44pm EDT

If you’re looking for dependability, go chat with the Maytag repairman.  If you’re looking for chaos, you’ve come to the right place: the three-year-old dirt division.

This year’s edition of the Travers drew a field of twelve to vie for a $1.25 million purse.  The field includes all three Triple Crown race winners, as well as the Haskell winner.  Nine of the twelve entrants are graded stakes winners, and two of the three who aren’t have multiple graded stakes placings to their name.

And, the race is as wide open as that suggests.  Few would be a complete surprise.  LOOKIN AT LEE, GUNNEVERA, and GIUSEPPE THE GREAT would be the most surprising to see on top, but have claims underneath.  ALWAYS DREAMING won the Derby, sure, and should be the frontrunner.  But?  His Jim Dandy over the same course was so bad that he’s hard to trust in the Travers, particularly as one of the likely shorter prices in the field.  Preakness winner CLOUD COMPUTING goes in the same basket — hard to trust off a poor Jim Dandy.  TAPWRIT, the other Triple Crown race winner, is the most appealing of the three Classic winners, almost by default…his stamina is no question, but will he be sufficiently ready to fire against this lot first off the bench, since he hasn’t raced since the Belmont?

WEST COAST will also get a lot of attention here, as the Obligatory Baffert Shipper.  Yes, Baffert snuck one on everyone last year with a class-riser named Arrogate.  His offering this year, WEST COAST, isn’t quite as sneaky: he shipped cross-country to annex the Easy Goer, and won the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Derby.  But, he’ll take loads of money (he’s the only Baffert, unlike Arrogate last year, who was the Baffert B behind American Freedom), and has faced only suspect company.  WEST COAST could acquit himself well, but all signs point to an underlay, and in such an open betting race as this taking an underlay is inexcusable.

So, with so much talk about the horses this space doesn’t love in the Travers, who makes sense here?  GIRVIN and GOOD SAMARITAN appeal almost equally much, although GIRVIN gets the slight nod as the one who stands to be a bit better price.  I’ve spent most of the three-year-old season thinking GIRVIN was a cut below — but his run in the Haskell (G1) last out made me reconsider that notion.  MCCRAKEN looked gone, and yet GIRVIN kicked on and caught him by a flared nostril.  Robby Albarado gave him a perfectly timed ride that day, and he gets the call again for the Travers.  Though Albarado is not based in the Saratoga colony all meet, he has been effective when he has shipped up to Saratoga this summer — four wins and four more money finishes in sixteen tries at the Spa.  All this adds up to a good shot for GIRVIN to paint the canoe orange and black.

GOOD SAMARITAN doesn’t come to the Travers off a Grade 1 win — but he does come in off the Jim Dandy, a Grade 2 over the same course.  That outing was his first try on dirt, and he trounced GIUSEPPE THE GREAT, ALWAYS DREAMING, and CLOUD COMPUTING that day.  The pace in front of him should be honest again today, and a closing kick like he showed last out should make him formidable.  Consistent GOOD SAMARITAN deserves another shot at a mile and a quarter — yes, his only off-board finish came in the ten-furlong Belmont Derby (G1), but he was a late-running fourth behind wire-to-wire winner Oscar Performance, who has the soundest claim for top three-year-old male on any surface this year.  The biggest question about GOOD SAMARITAN is the trip — it seems like he always finds a bit of trouble in larger fields.  But, if Joel Rosario can find space for him, he looms a threat.

For the third spot, a couple horses who have been in some photos this summer with the top choice got serious consideration: MCCRAKEN and IRAP.  Between a tight photo with GIRVIN in the Ohio Derby (G3) and then a romp in the Indiana Derby (G3), IRAP steps back up into Grade 1 company.  Could IRAP win this?  Sure, IRAP’s best puts him right with these.  His speeds are right in range, and he has some tactical versatility.  But, it hardly inspires confidence that O’Neill hasn’t had a graded victory at the Spa since Maryfield won the Ballerina ten years ago.  In a race that comes down to splitting hairs anyway, that’s hard to ignore.

One could argue that if you like GIRVIN, you have to like MCCRAKEN.  I’m not sure one can go that far  — he looked gone in the Haskell, got caught by GIRVIN, and gets an extra furlong to cover in the Travers.  But?  Brian Hernandez released MCCRAKEN too early at Monmouth.  He will get a target to chase, and with a better timed ride, his rally will be credible and he will dig in late should someone else run at him.  The mile and a quarter is a question, but with his training hiccups leading up to the Kentucky Derby, the son of Ghostzapper deserves another chance to go the Classic distance now that he is in full, fit form.  The 12/1 morning line seems a little high — but even if he goes off at something more like 9/1 or 10/1, a more realistic number, that’s still attractive given MCCRAKEN’s class and his suitable running style.


#6 GIRVIN (10/1)


#9 MCCRAKEN (12/1)

Longshot:  Eleven of the twelve runners in the Travers this year have graded stakes form.  The lone outlier is #12 FAYEQ (30/1) — but don’t count the Kiaran McLaughlin trainee out.  He looks like a horse getting good at the right time to try this spot.  He started sprinting, but did not really begin to blossom until trying a route distance for the first time.  FAYEQ beat older two back in a mile and a sixteenth maiden special weight going a mile and a sixteenth at Belmont, then beat older again in a one-other-than at Saratoga.  That latter win showed he could handle the footing at the Spa.  On pedigree, FAYEQ has a chance to stretch out to the Classic distance: he is by Malibu Moon (an A. P. Indy son who produced 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb), out of Lotta Kim (dam of 2009 Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra).  And, though he stands to be relatively forward, he can rate a few lengths off.  He stands to get the jump on the closers — and though holding off those seasoned, classy horses will not be easy, FAYEQ will be the right price to bet his pedigree potential and his trainer’s competence.


Below are all of Nicolle Neulist’s picks for Saturday’s stakes races at Saratoga. 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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