In many years such as this, when the Triple Crown is fraught with tumultuous upheaval, the mid-summer Derby offers clarification on the ranking of the three-year old division. Such is not the case in 2019. The 150th running of the Travers Stakes is more likely to add uncertainty rather than clarity to the question of which sophomore colt will ultimately be crowned champion of their division. Any of the top 6 morning-line choices in the field could potentially vault themselves into the championship conversation with an authoritative victory on Saturday. Furthermore, it may be even more likely that the eventual Eclipse award winner is found in the winner’s enclosure following another grade 1 race on the card, one some three eighths of a mile shorter than the marquee event. In any case, the divisional race is one that will not be decided this week, but will most certainly go all the way to the wire.
The Travers card is not just about three-year olds, however. With 6 grade 1 events and one grade 2, the 4th Saturday in August in upstate New York cannot be topped by many days on the national thoroughbred racing calendar. Think Christmas in August for horseplayers. Here is some insight on the blockbuster card:
Race 5 – the Grade 1 Forego
On paper this appears to be a match race between Promises Fulfilled and Mitole, two rubber burning colts whose class sets them apart from the rest of this field. The post draw dictated strategy as the always eager Promises Fulfilled will be sent hard from the rail under Luis Saez, with Mitole in close pursuit, hounding him all the way around. Promises Fulfilled is perfect in two starts at Saratoga and all indications point to the son of Shackleford entering this in fine fettle, having posted a bullet :58 and 4 over the main track two weeks out from this appointment. He exits a gate-to-wire victory, his first of the year, in which he molly-whopped 6 overmatched opponents in the John Nerud on Belmont’s Stars and Stripes card. The downside to the Dale Romans trainee is that he’s been beaten a combined 8+ lengths in two prior battles against his primary adversary in this tussle – succumbing to Mitole by 4 lengths in both the Met Mile on Belmont day and the Churchill Downs on Derby day. Mitole was the runaway leader of the sprint division prior to faltering in his lone prior start at Saratoga when he finished a distant 3rd to Imperial Hint in the Vanderbilt last month. The son of Eskendereya did not exactly have things go his way that day. Drawn on the rail, he hit the gate at the break and was unable to make the front. From that point he was pinned on a dead rail by Strike Power for the first half mile, then pounced upon by the winner, who sat the perfect trip on the outside of the dueling front runners. Despite the less than ideal voyage, the result was still a disappointing one for a colt that was so impressive in his two grade 1 victories, particularly the Met Mile, which hosted easily the most accomplished field in a race this year. One must wonder if those two Herculean efforts took their toll, and is the Steve Asmussen pupil capable of bouncing right back to top form in a spot where he will need to have his running shoes on from the moment they spring the latch. One other contestant worth mentioning is Firenze Fire. He finished well back in both the Met Mile and Vanderbilt, but he has the back class necessary to pick up the pieces if the top two just go too fast for their own good up front.
Race 6 – the grade 1 Ballerina
Come Dancing posted some very impressive open length victories at Aqueduct and Belmont back in the spring, and she will appreciate the cut back to 7 furlongs here following her most recent foray into grade 1 competition against the likes of distaff divisional leader Midnight Bisou. While the dominance she displayed in those early season trips to the winner’s circle will garner much deserved support at the windows, the grade 1 waters deepen further still at Saratoga. The Malibu Moon filly has been training well of late, but there is other formidable speed signed on here and she will have no choice but to fight off all challengers if she is to emerge victorious from her inside draw. Mia Mischief picked up her long awaited grade 1 triumph in the 7 furlong Distaff on Derby day. This distance seems to suit her a touch better than the shorter trip she traversed when 4th, beaten 2 1/4 lengths, in the Honorable Miss earlier in the meet. However, she is yet to find the wire first in three prior efforts at the Spa and may just prefer the cozy confines of her Kentucky home. Minit to Stardom was quite impressive taking the field pillar to post in the Honorable Miss, but she is likely to face more intense pace pressure today and will need to find even more to return to the winner’s circle in this spot. Separationofpowers affinity for the main track at Saratoga has espoused itself with two successful ventures in three prior attempts. She was dominant in victory in the Bed O Roses at the Belmont festival and has presumably been pointed toward this assignment since. The daughter of Candy Ride has ample tactical speed, and has also shown she can effectively rate from off the pace as she did in winning the Test over this course and distance last summer, defeating the re-opposing Mia Mischief in the process. Expect her to get her nose down and earn Chad Brown another grade 1 feather in his overflowing Saratoga cap.
Race 7 – the grade 1 Allen Jerkens (formerly King’s Bishop)
If Shancelot can summon up 60% of the performance he put forth with an absolute blitzkrieg of the field in a 12 length tour de force in the Amsterdam, he will be impossible to beat. There is very little other pace signed up. Call Paul may be able to run with him for a step or two, but he just does not have the class to pose a real threat to the heavy favorite. More bad news for the 8 “others” in the field – Shancelot breezed the same 1:11 flat on Sunday that he did in preparation for that smashing coming out party four weeks ago. If something strange were to happen, Nitrous and Hog Creek Hustle are the most likely beneficiaries, but it’s quite difficult to imagine they’re not just running for place honors.
Race 8 – the grade 2 Ballston Spa
An arduous task awaits the betting public in the card’s only second level event. A seemingly paceless affair with 9 entrants all capable of finding the wire first on their very best day, this 8 1/2 furlong fixture on the Mellon turf course offers quite the challenge. Then again, it could be as simple as following the meet’s two leading riders – the Ortiz brothers. Jose lands on Secret Message for Graham Motion. Prior to having her head handed to her by the Chad Brown trio of Sistercharlie, Rushing Fall, and Homerique in the Diana, the Hat Trick filly posted consecutive scores in the Dahlia at Laurel Park and the grade 2 Nassau at Woodbine. Irad no doubt had his choice of several fillies in this field, having ridden Significant Form in each of her 10 previous trips to the post as well as Scottish Jig in both of her stateside starts. The elder Ortiz sided with Mascha for Chad Brown, a filly with whom he has the least amount of experience of the 3. She took a first level allowance heat here at the end of July, and her European form matches up well with this group as she was a fine second, beaten less than a length by the aforementioned Homerique in a group 3 contest at Deauville last summer. Florent Geroux takes the call on the British filly Indian Blessing, who bagged a trio of 3rd place finishes in her late season American voyage last year. She may find this group more suitable to her abilities.
Race 9 – the grade 1 Personal Ensign
If this race were run at its former distance of a mile and a quarter, it would be a lay-up for Elate. The nine furlong 2019 version brings others into play. Midnight Bisou has reeled off 5 straight victories this year with her tormenter from a year ago, Monomoy Girl, sidelined from a tough bout with colic. Each effort in that quintuple sweep came at the mile and a sixteenth distance. She is 0 for 3 at 9 furlongs and 0 for 2 at Saratoga. The rail draw does not exactly embellish her chances either. Coach Rocks set the pace and fell a length short of Midnight Bisou in the Molly Pitcher. Drawn just to the outside of that rival here, she may look to assume an identical role to the one she filled on Haskell day. Golden Award was allowed to walk on the lead to earn her graded stakes diploma in the Shuvee over this course and distance. She will not get such an ideal set-up today. Wow Cat should move forward markedly in her second start of the year and can certainly be in the mix at the end. She’s A Julie is an honest competitor but seems a cut below the best of these. The feeling here is that Bill Mott finally has Elate in the form that she always seemed capable of, but could not quite hold onto for any meaningful stretch. She fires a strong warning signal to her Breeders’ Cup Distaff competitors in Saratoga’s marquee race for the division.
Race 10 – the grade 1 Sword Dancer
This seems like the logical spot to spread in horizontal wagers. Bricks and Mortar has the male turf division all sewn up, and is also a huge front runner for Horse of the Year. Chad Brown opted for the richer, more prestigious Arlington Million for the son of Giant’s Causeway two weeks ago, leaving the “other’ grade 1 event in this division seemingly wide open. Channel Cat, Channel Maker, and Sadler’s Joy have been mainstays in these turf marathons the past few years, but none of them find the winner’s circle with much consistency. Given their knack for erratic results, the temptation to side with some of the newer shooters in this spot is compelling. Ya Primo gave a good account of himself in his North American debut in the Bowling Green last month. Jose Ortiz sees fit to return to the saddle, and Chad Brown sent the Chilean-bred out for a couple of bullet works since that effort. Expect him to be more prominent early, and it won’t take a dramatic improvement to tilt the scales in his favor. Pillar Mountain and Annals of Time are both interesting moving up the class ladder off comfortable victories in optional claiming company.
Race 11 – the grade 1 Travers
Owendale, Code of Honor, Tacitus, and Tax all competed in at least one leg or another of the Triple Crown, and adding the Travers trophy to the mantle of any one of them would certainly propel them near the top of the jumbled sophomore class. Tacitus will go favored, but as his backers in the Jim Dandy learned, anything can happen when this group of colts gets together. Trainer Danny Gargan has made no bones about it, practically daring any of the other contenders to run with Tax from the break. The draw dictated terms for the Jim Dandy winner, and Tax will be hard sent from his outside post. Given his quickly diminishing margin of victory in that 9 furlong event, and the fact that he was backing up in both the Derby and 9 furlong Wood Memorial, it is more than fair to question whether he can make all the running in the demanding mile and a quarter mid-summer Derby. Looking At Bikinis and Mucho Gusto will likely be the closest pursuers of the sworn leader. Looking At Bikinis had a bad trip stuck on the rail in the Curlin Stakes, won by his re-opposing barn mate Highest Honors, and should not be discounted here as he was the far more highly regarded of that pair heading into that test. Mucho Gusto owns the only triple digit Beyer speed figure in the field, earning a 100 for his game runner-up effort to division leader Maximum Security in the Haskell when he was a full 8 lengths clear of the third place finisher. The son of Mucho Macho Man is a bit of a surprise entrant as stable mate Game Winner was the Baffert trainee originally pointed to this spot until a virus ruled him out. After a :59 and 1 bullet at Del Mar on Monday morning, Baffert vowed that the work was too good not to ship and run. Code of Honor broke his maiden here last summer and exits a facile score in the Dwyer at Belmont, but his late kick can be deceiving. His best performances have come at shorter route races with plenty of pace signed on to set things up for the closers. That scenario is unlikely to play out here. Owendale has taken 2 of 3 since Geroux picked up the mount with the lone loss coming when he hit the board in the Preakness. The rail draw should not be a problem for the deep closer, and the 10 furlongs seems to be right in his wheelhouse. One minor area of concern with the son of Into Mischief is that after a bullet :58 and 4 work at Churchill on August 3rd, Brad Cox waited an additional week to breeze him again. Did he need that time to sufficiently recover from the stiff breeze, and is he back to 100% returning to grade 1 company? If so, he is most certainly a major threat. The lightly raced Highest Honors is certainly eligible to take another huge step forward following his first start around two-turns in the Curlin, and that would put him right in the mix. Luis Saez replaces Jose Ortiz in the irons. Ortiz rode the colt in his first three starts, but has also ridden the other Tapit colt in this race, Tacitus, in each of his 7 prior trips to the post. He’ll maintain that spot aboard the race favorite once again in the Travers. The Bill Mott trainee and Juddmonte homebred has been training in blinkers recently, which the Hall of Famer believes have improved his focus. He will race in the new shades today, and a sharper Tacitus will no doubt make for a more formidable Tacitus. The question is will that equipment change ultimately bring such a hectic division into sharper focus?
Travers Day Plays:
Race 6 – $0.20 pick 6 – 4 w 1 w All w 4 w All w 1,3,6,7,9 = $81
Race 7 – $0.50 pick 5 – 1,5,9 w 3,5,9 w 1,4,5 w 5,6,7 w 1,6,7 = $121.50