On Track with Johnny D: Travers Attracts a Crowd

Each season, at Saratoga, the Travers Stakes attracts a crowd. Normally, it’s ‘standing room only’ in the grandstand and clubhouse. This season, ‘sold out’ also applies to the starting gate where 14 runners are expected to dispute the outcome of the Mid-Summer Derby—largest starting lineup since 1977.

Here’s a horse-by-horse rundown of the Travers, reflecting one horseplayer’s opinion. A suggested wagering strategy for the race is included below.

Post Horse ML Trainer/Jock

1. Arrogate 10-1 Baffert/M. Smith
He’s got speed, the rail, a Hall-of-Fame trainer and jockey, and is owned by a world famous outfit. He’s also won three of four lifetime races, losing first time out after breaking slowly and encountering trouble. So, what’s not to like? Why is he a generous 10-1 on the morning line? Well, here’s the deal: Horseplayers aren’t sure if this one’s ready to make the gigantic leap from winning a mile and one-sixteenth, 3-horse allowance race at Del Mar to a cross-country, 14-horse, mile and one-quarter, $1.25 million-dollar Grade 1 at Saratoga. Valid concerns. There seems to be other speed in this race, so this son of Unbridled’s Song will have company if encouraged to set the pace. If rated by jockey Mike Smith, he could enjoy a ground-saving inside trip, but they’ll need to get lucky to find a seam in the lane. All things considered, as talented as this one might be, asking him to ship coast-to-coast and win the Travers in his first stakes race is an awful lot. We’ll pass for now.

2. American Freedom 6-1 Baffert/Bejarano
Bob Baffert’s other runner in the Travers has won three of five starts, and most recently finished second to Travers favorite Exaggerator in the Haskell Stakes. This son of Pulpit has been highly regarded since before breaking his maiden in the slop at Santa Anita in April. Since then he has attracted lots of attention in the wagering, favored in three of his next four starts. He won two of those—Sir Barton at Pimlico and Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows. He has speed and it will be interesting to see how a pair of Baffert frontrunners, drawn in posts one and two in the Travers, handle the race to the first turn. It’s no secret that Travers favorite Exaggerator loves an ‘off’ track, so American Freedom’s Haskell loss to him is forgiveable. However, the Travers pace figures to be solid, so ‘Freedom won’t get any breaks during the mile and one-quarter journey. We would be surprised to see him go wire-to-wire to win the Travers. Blinkers off for this suggests an attempt to get him to relax a bit. However, he’s quality, so an in-the-money finish is possible. Keep him around in exotics, for now.

3. My Man Sam 20-1 C. Brown/Franco
A huge late run in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland to be second to Brody’s Cause has been the highlight of ‘Sam’s career so far. He seems to like the Spa surface—second last out in an allowance race here—but he’d need to really improve to be a factor in here. He does start for the meet’s leading trainer, and the pace should work in his favor. He’s not the worst 20-1 stab in the world, but he won’t make our ticket.

4. Governor Malibu 12-1 Clement/Rosario
Since winning the Federico Tesio at Laurel in April, this guy has been reasonably close to some major scores—second in the Peter Pan at Belmont and Jim Dandy at Saratoga and fourth in the Belmont Stakes. He’s had some excuses in his recent races, too. However, he seems like he might be the kind of horse that always has an excuse—just a pair of wins in nine starts with five seconds. His ‘even’ running style will work well in the Travers, as he can sit behind an expected fast pace and get first run on the closers. He was pretty effective in the Belmont Stakes, so distance ought not be an issue. He’s also been second in two tries at Saratoga. Because he has been close so often, horseplayers must keep him in the mix. With just one win in five tries this year, he’s not a strong ‘win’ candidate, but three seconds in 2016 suggest he might be around somewhere at the finish. Keep him in the mix.

5. Forever d’Oro 30-1 Stewart/Saez
This one hails from a barn famous for getting strong performances from longhshot 3-year-olds in big races. Look for this one to be running on late in the Travers.a Can he get there? He was third at the Spa, beaten four lengths last out, by Connect and three lengths by Gift Box. The added distance and expected quick pace will help his cause, but he will need to step up his game. He’s an add-on to super tickets for those willing to go deep.

6. Anaximandros 50-1 Yanakov/L. Reyes
Treatment might be available for this ailment. In fact, we think we saw a commercial on NBC for it during the Olympics. All kidding aside, nothing in this one’s past performances suggests he can seriously compete in this race.

7. Exaggerator 3-1 J.K. Desormeaux/K. Desormeaux
The brothers Desormeaux deserve kudos for the way they’ve engineered Exaggerator’s career. He’s been in solid form through 13 races over two years against top competition—six wins, three seconds and one third. His ‘off’ track prowess is legendary, as he has four wins in five starts over the wet stuff. Those wins include Delta Jackpot, Santa Anita Derby, Preakness and Haskell! But, it must be noted, this son of Curlin is no slouch over a fast track—a troubled fourth, three lengths behind Nyquist in the BC Juvenile; second, less than two lengths behind Nyquist in the San Vicente; third, less than three lengths behind Danzing Candy in the San Felipe and second, less than two lengths behind Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby. He is one-for-one over the Saratoga strip—an amazing Saratoga Special score last season. The only blemish on his resume is an 11th in the Belmont Stakes, which came on the heels of a Derby second and a Preakness win. While training for a planned start in the Jim Dandy Stakes, Exaggerator turned in an unimpressive workout at Saratoga. That move may have prompted his connections to shift focus to the Haskell at Monmouth instead of the ‘Dandy at the Spa. It was a stroke of genius as the Monmouth race set up much better for Exaggerator pace-wise, and it rained! There’s no way to diminish Exaggerator’s record. He’s a good horse and must be respected as favorite in this race. However, coming back a bit quickly from his Haskell and racing on a ‘fast’ track at the ‘graveyard of favorites’ aren’t positives. We’ll use him on top for sure, defensively, but hope he’s a bit off his game Saturday.

8. Destin 10-1 Pletcher/Castellano
This son of Giant’s Causeway came within a nose of winning the Belmont Stakes, but was nailed by Creator in the final jump. He also was second in the Jim Dandy to Laoban and Governor Malibu, two foes in here, in his last start. He has two Tampa Bay stakes wins to his credit and a maiden victory in eight lifetime starts. He ought to be just off whatever pace develops, so tactically, he’s in the mix. The combination of trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Javier Castellano has been dominant for years, so there’s that positive. It’s not particularly encouraging that, after comfortably following Laoban (a maiden in the race) through gentle Jim Dandy fractions, Destin offered little fight and actually was passed for second by a weaving Governor Malibu. Must keep this one around for further consideration. Respect connections. Tricky call.

9. Gift Box 12-1 C. Brown/J. Alvarado
With just five lifetime starts–only two since May—this promising son of Twirling Candy appears to have some upside. Will he require a bit more time and a more suitable spot to display that undiscovered talent? Probably. A bit less than 4-1 in his first start, he’s been well backed at the windows since, never more than 2-1 in any race. Last out, he fell short to stable-mate Connect in the Curlin Stakes by one length. Also, jockey Javier Castellano, who has ridden Gift Box in every start, abandons the mount in favor of Destin. This ridgeling has talent, but we’re not quite sure he’s ready for this challenge.

10. Connect 4-1 C. Brown/J. Velazquez
The most highly regarded starter from meet-leading Chad Brown’s trio of Travers runners is Connect at 4-1 on the morning-line. He is unbeaten in three starts this year, with his only loss coming first out at Aqueduct in December. He figures to be in the thick of an expected competitive early Travers pace. Is he good enough to parlay a Curlin Stakes victory into a Travers payday? Maybe, but we don’t think the price is right on this one. If he starts at 4-1, he’s no bargain. Not when you can have the more accomplished Exaggerator at 3-1 or the consistent Governor Malibu at 12-1. This son of Curlin is talented, no doubt. However, he had everything his own way on the lead in the Curlin against six foes. That won’t be the case in the Travers against 13 others. We probably will use him defensively in exotics, but stand against him for the win.

11. Majesto 30-1 G. Delgado/R. Santana, Jr.
Off a sixth, beaten double digits in the Curlin and a troubled Kentucky Derby venture in May, we’d be hard-pressed to find a reason to like this one. He did finish second to Nyquist in the Florida Derby, but after Mohaymen didn’t show up someone had to be second. Pass.

12. Creator 15-1 Asmussen/I. Ortiz
Regular readers of this space know of our affection for this horse. He was our pick to win the Kentucky Derby at 16-1 when he was wiped out on the turn for home to finish 13th. Fortunately, that disastrous Derby trip did not diminish our enthusiasm for this son of Tapit and we picked him to win the Belmont Stakes. He did, in the final stride, keying a nearly $1,400 ten-cent superfecta offered in this space as part of a $50 total Belmont Stakes investment. Following the victory, Creator went to the bench until the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga, July 30. Some would argue it was the worst race of his career, as he began and ended the race in last place. Closer examination of proceedings could suggest something else. First, Creator was not trained with the Jim Dandy as his major objective. Conditioner Steve Asmussen made it clear pre-race that winning the Travers, not the Jim Dandy was the ultimate goal. Second, the slow early pace of the Jim Dandy did not favor a closer like Creator. Laoban (a maiden in the race) galloped along on the lead early and kicked home in the stretch. Governor Malibu passed Destin in the lane late for second, but there was little change of position in the ‘Dandy lane. Third, Creator since has worked steadily for the Travers. Trainer Steve Asmussen, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame a few weeks ago, seems confident. Fourth, there appears to be enough early speed in the race to set the Travers table for a closer like Creator. At 15-1 Creator is the kind of runner we’d be willing to get behind in this race in a big way. He should run well in the Travers. How well is the question.

13. Laoban 15-1 Guillot/J. Ortiz
You gotta hand it to trainer Eric Guillot. And they did in the Jim Dandy when the conditioner’s belief in this horse finally paid off. The then 0-for-7 maiden son of red-hot sire Uncle Mo took the Jim Dandy field on a merry chase around the Saratoga oval at 27-1! Can lightening strike twice? Not likely. This time around Laoban will have plenty of company early and will garner more respect from enemy riders than he did in the Jim Dandy. Still, you gotta hand it to trainer Eric Guillot. What’s done is done.

14. Gun Runner 10-1 Asmussen/Geroux
This is not a good post position for Gun Runner. Jockey Florent Geroux, one of the best young talents in the nation, will have his hands full attempting to find a comfortable position during the long run to the first turn. This son of Candy Ride is best when stalking the early pace. However, maneuvering into a cozy spot behind the leaders without losing plenty of precious ground on the first turn will be a challenge. There’s a chance Geroux might ask Gun Runner for speed out of the gate and see if they can either gain the lead or tuck in neatly just off the pace. Either way Gun Runner’s energy reserves figure to be taxed and that’s not a positive for a solid, but unspectacular runner. Out of respect for this guy who tries just about every time we’ll keep him around in the bottom of exotics.

Bottom Line:
One to Beat: 7 Exaggerator

Should Run Well: 8 Destin, 12 Creator

Figure in Mix: 4 Governor Malibu, 9 Gift Box, 10 Connect

Suggested Travers Play
10-cent Superfecta ($54)
First: 7, 8, 12
Second: 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12
Third: 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12
Fourth: 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14

10-cent Superfecta ($54)
First: 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12
Second: 7, 8, 12
Third: 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12
Fourth: 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Travers Attracts a Crowd

On Track with Johnny D |

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