2019 Travers Stakes Preview

This Saturday’s card at Saratoga is the biggest of the meet, and features the meet’s cornerstone race: the Grade 1 Travers Stakes.

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.

Saturday, August 24: Saratoga Race Course

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

This year, we’re going to do things a little differently than we have in past Travers previews.  We’re going to do a horse-by-horse preview, organised in A/B/C/X groups, for multi-race betting.  Of course, if you’re more an intra-race exotic player, we’ll have notes for ones we don’t love on the win end, but could see in the underneath rungs.

A Horses:

  • #6 TACITUS (5/2) – TOP SELECTION – Why add blinkers before a huge race?  Sometimes it works, sometimes Palace Malice happens, but I’m always wary of that move.  Other than that, though?  There’s much to like about this dependable horse being pointed to this spot.  He came close in the Jim Dandy despite a poor start, an effort good enough to prove he is holding his form.  Both on pedigree page and race performance, he’s a horse as well suited to the Classic distance as any in training.  Even the blinkers are intriguing; in a race without a lot of speed on paper, TACITUS is a horse who showed some speed earlier in his career, but hasn’t shown it recently.  They could put him more forward early, which could make him a serious threat late.
  • #12 TAX (6/1) – He won his prep, the Jim Dandy, over this course, beating TACITUS.  This is going to be tougher, of course, between the wide gate and the fact that TACITUS will likely be more deliberately pointed for this spot than the last one out.  But?  TAX should love the mile and a quarter, and although he didn’t show up in the Kentucky Derby, he’ll get his preferred fast track for this, not a sloppy one.  There also isn’t a lot of speed drawn into the Travers, something that should benefit TAX, and he is tactical enough not to have to sit right on the front if someone like LOOKING AT BIKINIS or MUCHO GUSTO really wants to gun it.

B Horses:

  • #2 CODE OF HONOR (4/1) – Though Maximum Security told him no when he got his head in front in the Kentucky Derby, CODE OF HONOR didn’t completely fold.  He kept going, crossing the wire third, a positive now that he’s going to try a mile and a quarter again.  He has had one race since the Kentucky Derby, a one-turn mile tightener in the Dwyer (G3), which he won easily.  Now, he steps back among the big boys.  The pace is a bit of a question, since there isn’t a ton of speed to run at and he hasn’t shown much early pace since his wire-to-wire maiden win.  But, he has the quality, and it also weighs in his favour that his maiden win came over the Saratoga course.
  • #3 HIGHEST HONORS (10/1) – Placing HIGHEST HONORS so high means taking a bit of a shot, since he is making only his fourth career start.  But, he is a horse who has come into his own as the distances have stepped up: he broke his maiden at a mile and a sixteenth at Belmont, a one-turn trip, and then built on that when winning the Curlin Stakes going a mile and an eighth, his first two-turn try.  Though he rallied from midpack in the Curlin, he sat a bit closer to the pace in that maiden win, and he gets a jockey change to Luis Saez, who does so well keeping horses forward.  If you’re planning on taking a shot with a lightly-raced horse to make his explosive entrance to the top of the three-year-old picture in the Travers, HIGHEST HONORS looks like the one most likely to make such a splash.

C Horses:

  • #1 OWENDALE (6/1) – It’s hard to get too interested in an Into Mischief son going the Classic distance, though OWENDALE went almost this long in the Preakness (G1), and ran on a still-interested third, suggesting that the stamina in his dam’s side has done something to balance out the distance concerns from the top of his pedigree.  And, his form has been solid: he laid an egg in the Risen Star all the way back in February, but his three starts since have been strong, including a last-out win in the nine-furlong Ohio Derby.  The one question for him, as for so many in this field, is pace.  Though, looking at his work in the allowance ranks, there is some latent ability to sit a bit closer.  Beating the likes of TACITUS and TAX at the Classic distance is something OWENDALE still needs to prove he can do, but he is going so well for top-flight connections that he’s impossible to dismiss completely.
  • #7 MUCHO GUSTO (6/1) – MUCHO GUSTO was a borderline C/X in this race given the mile and a quarter distance of the race: he’s hasn’t exactly taken to nine furlongs with mucho gusto, and now he has to go ten.  But?  He does have early soeed in a race without much of it, giving him a shot at a good trip.  And, he’s a Baffert shipper in the Travers.  Even Baffert shippers who don’t look like they quite fit on paper can turn out to be dangerous in this race.  There are enough real Classic-distance horses in this race to relegate MUCHO GUSTO to a marginal prospect — but the fact that Baffert sees fit to put him on the plane at all is enough not to dismiss him entirely.
  • #10 SCARS ARE COOL (30/1) – The first time I looked at SCARS ARE COOL entering the Travers, I was excited to see Ready Signal’s baby in a big race, but not sure what the heck he was doing in the Travers.  But, the more I thought about him?  The more I found him to be the most interesting among the massive longshots in the race.  After all?  One of my favourite angles in two-year-old and early-season three-year-old races is horses who are taking those jumps into stakes company for the first time after the light really coming on going long.  That’s exactly what SCARS ARE COOL is: a horse who ran fine in a pair of one-turn maiden races at Churchill, but then flourished third time out, when stretched out to two turns for the first time, in a nine-furlong maiden at the Spa.  So, he’s one who woke up with distance, and he’s one who can handle the course.  And, SCARS ARE COOL doesn’t have to sit too far from the pace, a problem several of the real longshots have.  These are gossamer threads, of course, now that he steps up to face top-level, seasoned dirt sophomores.  But, at what’s likely to be 40/1 or 50/1 on the tote?  You don’t need much, and you’re getting a horse who woke up with distance, and who might just get the right trip.

X Horses:

  • #4 LAUGHING FOX (30/1) – While no match in the Jim Dandy last out, after sitting closer to the pace than he typically likes, he was making up some serious ground late in the Preakness two starts back, which was as long as he has ever gone.  His best style is, dropping well off the pace and making one late run.  Alas, that isn’t the running style that likely carries the day in the Travers.  The Preakness was a good sign for him to be able to show up and make his oen run again at this slightly longer trip, though the lack of early speed makes him a marginal superfecta chance at best.
  • #5 EVERFAST (30/1) – The most perplexing horse of this year’s three-year-old class has danced most every dance, and he turns back up on another big stage.  With all the speed in the Haskell, it looked like he could possibly have his day; he wasn’t good enough, and plugged on for fourth.  Now he enters as race about as good, but with a pace setup that won’t be quite as rip-roaring.  As perplexing as he is, he seems to do his better work in classy races when he gets a bit more to chase, making it more likely that this won’t be EVERFAST’s day.
  • #8 CHESS CHIEF (30/1) – With ten starts underneath him, he’s got more seasoning than most in this race.  And, he did better than most people expected in his last two starts, running fourth in the mile and a sixteenth Indiana Derby (G3) and then second in the mile and an eighth West Virginia Derby (G3), both times chasing home the most consistent three-year-old dirt route stakes horse of the summer, Mr. Money.  The West Virginia Derby was a nice move, too, in that he sat closer to the pace than he had been before, and ran a good race.  Of course, he’ll need another move forward in this. The pedigree for the stretch out is a mixed bag: he is by Into Mischief, who suggests some distance limitations, though he is out of a daughter of top-class turf router Plenty Of Grace, something that should give CHESS CHIEF more bottom than the usual Into Mischief.  He’s one who could invade the gimmicks, but others make more sense on top.
  • #9 LOOKING AT BIKINIS (10/1) – There’s an argument to be made, perhaps, since there isn’t a critical mass of speed in this race and LOOKING AT BIKINIS should be forward.  But, he got a reasonably cozy front-end trip in the Curlin Stakes last out and faded to finish a well-beaten third.  Now he has to face better horses, and step up the extra furlong.  LOOKING AT BIKINIS is one this space would love to see cut back to the one-turn mile, not stretch out to the Classic distance.
  • #11 ENDORSED (15/1) – ENDORSED is another coming out of the Curlin.  He finished second beaten a length and a half in the race, close in the lane but unable to outfinish HIGHER POWER late.  It was a solid first try at two turns, and he does have enough pedigree to think that going long is where he ultimately belongs.  But, perhaps his best style is to sit back and make one run, something he may not get the perfect setup to do.  In lower rungs of exotics?  This space endorses ENDORSED’s chances.  On top?  That looks just a bit too much to ask.

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