Each year, the Travers Stakes takes on a look of its own. Some years it proves to be an extension of the Triple Crown races and other years the Triple Crown horses make little impact, as fresh faces such as Arrogate, West Coast, V.E. Day, and Afleet Express pop into the picture well after the Triple Crown. Then you have a horse like Will Take Charge, who finished eighth in the Derby, seventh in the Preakness, and 10th in the Belmont Stakes rebound to win the Travers.
History has proven that it is extremely difficult for a Triple Crown race winner to maintain his form and capture the Travers. That is, except the Belmont Stakes for some reason. It is apparent that the grueling road to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness takes enough of a toll on a horse to prevent him from still being in top form in late August.
Street Sense was the last Derby winner to capture the Travers, and before him there was Thunder Gulch and Sea Hero in 1995 and ‘93, respectively, and you have to go back another 50 years to Whirlaway. After Whirlaway, only four Preakness winners have won the Travers.
Belmont Stakes winners, however, in the same period of time, have gone on to win 17 Travers Stakes, 16 of whom competed in the Derby or Preakness, and in most cases both.
The question is, why have so many more Belmont winners gone on to win the Travers? Perhaps it shows that the Travers is more geared toward stamina than the first two legs of the Triple Crown and the Belmont Stakes provides the kind of foundation needed to win the Midsummer Derby.
This year, none of the three Triple Crown race winners are going to win the Travers, but that doesn’t mean the Triple Crown horses are not going to dominate the race, and the Belmont is not going to play an important role in the outcome.
It is actually refreshing to see so many familiar faces from the Derby and the Derby trail heading the Travers. We will include Maximum Security because Jason Servis is still being indecisive about his decision. The feeling here has been that he would skip the Travers and wait for the Pennsylvania Derby, especially considering he didn’t ship to Servis’ barn at Saratoga, remaining at Monmouth Park, and Gary and Mary West also have Game Winner and already have won the Travers, but it seems as if Servis is still clinging to hope he can make it, so we’ll see. One would think he would have withdrawn him by now.
At this writing, six horses who competed in the Run for the Roses are legitimate Travers contenders. A look back at the Derby Dozen shows that Game Winner was ranked No. 1 the first eight weeks and No. 2 after being replaced by Omaha Beach on March 19. Tacitus was ranked as high as No. 3 on several occasions, Spinoff as high as No. 5, Maximum Security and Code of Honor as high as No. 6, and Tax as high as No. 7. All six horses were ranked in the Top 10 in the final Dozen.
Another Travers possibility who was ranked as high as No. 10 is Peter Pan winner Global Campaign, who is coming off a third behind Tax and Tacitus in the Jim Dandy Stakes, but did not compete in any of the Triple Crown races.
Also heading for the Travers is the inconsistent Preakness runner-up Everfast and the Preakness third-place finisher Owendale. So you have the runners-up of all three Triple Crown races – Code of Honor, Everfast, and Tacitus, as well as the third-place finishers of the Derby and Preakness, and the horse who actually finished first in the Kentucky Derby.
Looking at the Derby trail, you have the Florida Derby winner, the one-two finishers of the Wood Memorial, the Tampa Bay Derby winner, the Fountain of Youth winner, the Lexington Stakes winner, and the runner-up of the Santa Anita Derby and Rebel Stakes and Louisiana Derby.
As for the influence of the Belmont Stakes, many believe runner-up Tacitus was the best horse after a wide trip throughout from the outside post and bumping hard with War of Will in the upper stretch and then lugging in. Tax was fourth, beaten only 2 3/4 lengths, and Spinoff was sixth, beaten only three lengths. I believe all three have an excellent chance to win the Travers, with Spinoff, if he runs, being a very live longshot coming off a stirring victory over older horses, including the top-class Lone Sailor, winner of $1.2 million, who he crushed by 5 3/4 widening lengths. He may wait for the Pennsylvania Derby, but if he runs back in the Travers he could be sitting on another big race following a stylish and professional performance going a mile and an eighth and with a race over the track. But Todd Pletcher normally doesn't like running horses back in 18 days, so if he does you have to figure he bounced out of that race in great shape and is looking for more.
The two top-ranked Derby Dozen horses competing in the Travers, Game Winner and Tacitus, both with horrible trips in the Derby, likely will vie for favoritism. Tacitus has had terrible luck in his last four starts and should be extremely tough to beat with a clean trip. Game Winner, coming off a victory in the Los Alamitos Derby, had a very bad trip in the Kentucky Derby, being way too far back and losing a ton of ground. Maximum Security and Code of Honor, both coming off impressive stakes victories in the Haskell and Dwyer, respectively, will also take a lot of money at the windows. That would leave Spinoff and Tax as the big potential overlays.
Although the three Triple Crown race winners Country House, War of Will, and Sir Winston will be absent, the Travers, unlike many runnings, still will be dominated by Triple Crown horses, especially the Kentucky Derby. That means familiarity, as these horses are like old friends who we followed all winter and spring. And that is what makes this year’s renewal so compelling.
We’ll have a more in-depth look at the Travers field next week.