An Early Look at the Travers Stakes

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")

With less than a week remaining before the running of the historic Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, I thought I would share my preliminary thoughts on some of the major contenders and try to get a feel for how the race might unfold.

So without further ado, here’s my analysis of six well-regarded Travers contenders, in alphabetical order:

Bayern: There can be no denying that his last two victories have been spectacular, but his romping victory in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I)—for which he earned an impressive 107 Beyer speed figure—was aided by a speed-favoring track and a moderate early pace. Under those circumstances, anything less than a runaway victory would have been a disappointment, and I think the combination of stretching out to ten furlongs over a (presumably) fairer racetrack this Saturday may bring him down to earth.

Commanding Curve: The Kentucky Derby (gr. I) runner-up proved to be a disappointment in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), finishing a distant ninth as the 8.90-1 fourth choice. At that point, his career seemed eerily similar to that of his stablemate Golden Soul, who finished second in the 2013 Kentucky Derby before losing form badly in the Belmont and failing to crack the superfecta in any stakes race since then. However, unlike Golden Soul, Commanding Curve returned to flash signs of life in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II), making a menacing run on the far turn before flattening out and finishing fourth. He’ll need to improve on that effort to contend in the Travers, but don’t count him out of the mix. If the pace is quick, the race could set up very well for him.

Kid Cruz: After flashing more speed than expected in the Jim Dandy, sitting just two lengths behind the leaders after a quarter mile, he dropped back progressively through the next five furlongs and appeared to be on his way to a dismal defeat. But somewhat surprisingly, he found another gear in the homestretch, coming on mildly to finish third by six lengths. He has trained well since then, and seems like a colt that should relish ten furlongs, but his Jim Dandy effort—coupled with an eighth-place finish in the Preakness—suggests that a third- or fourth-place finish may be the best he can achieve in a race of this caliber.

Mr Speaker: I have been a fan of this colt ever since his victory in the Dania Beach Stakes last December, although he has a rather annoying tendency of winning whenever I have selected a different horse. :) His biggest victory thus far was in the Belmont Derby (gr. I) last time out going ten furlongs on the turf, in which he defeated Adelaide (subsequent winner of the grade I Secretariat Stakes), Gailo Chop (subsequent winner of the group II Prix Guillaume d’Ornano – Haras du Logis Saint-Germain in France), Sheldon (subsequently third in the Secretariat Stakes), and Bobby’s Kitten (subsequent runner-up in the grade II National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes), among others. So there’s no denying that Mr Speaker can contend against the best three-year-olds in this country on turf, but can he do it on dirt? His pedigree strongly suggests that he can, but his only run on the surface resulted in a seventh-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream. But on that occasion, Mr Speaker found himself tracking fast fractions of :46.75 and 1:10.30—and, as we saw in the Belmont Derby, Mr Speaker is much better coming from well off-the-pace. Also, since the Belmont Derby, he has trained extremely well over the dirt at Saratoga, suggesting that he will be able to handle the track. If you’re looking for a talented colt that can handle the Travers distance and will likely be a solid price, this is your horse.

Tonalist: Prior to the running of the Jim Dandy Stakes, I wrote in the comments section of my preview blog post that "Tonalist probably isn't fully cranked for the Jim Dandy, the intention being to leave something in the tank for the Travers." This seemed to be confirmed by the results of the Jim Dandy, in which Tonalist—after breaking a bit slowly and putting in a good run from behind a slow pace—tired a bit in deep stretch as the heavy favorite and finished second. Since then, he has turned in a pair of solid five-furlong workouts, and should be much sharper for the Travers than he was for the Jim Dandy. We know he can handle the ten-furlong distance—after all, he won the Belmont Stakes!—and assuming he gets off to a better start on Saturday then he did in the Jim Dandy, I believe he is absolutely the colt to beat.

Wicked Strong: After finishing fourth in both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, Wicked Strong added blinkers for the Jim Dandy, promptly flashed much more early speed than ever before, and won by 2 ¼ lengths over Tonalist. His talent and consistency must be admired, but he also took advantage of a moderate early pace in the Jim Dandy, and maintaining his edge over Tonalist on Saturday could be a challenge if the latter steps up like I believe he will.

So in essence, my early idea is to toss Bayern from consideration for the trifecta (and maybe even the superfecta), with Tonalist being my key horse for the top position. Mr. Speaker and Wicked Strong are others I will strongly consider, with respect to Commanding Curve to get a piece of the purse at a major price.

If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them!

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