TimeformUS Weekend Stakes Plays - The Travers and the Pacific Classic

The Grade 1 Travers
Saratoga / August 23 / Race 12 / 5:45 EDT

by TimeformUS Analyst Mike Beer

The 145th Travers Stakes, a Grade 1 for 3yos contested over 1 1/4 miles and carrying a purse of $1.25 million, has drawn an excellent field of 10.  The contenders seem to be coming from three different directions, so let's break them down into three groups and take a look.

Group 1 will be the three colts who prepped for this race in the Curlin Stakes over this track back on July 25th.  Those horses, Charge Now (#3, 15-1), V. E. Day (#4, 15-1), and Viva Majorca (#5, 20-1), are the less-accomplished runners in the field, and all of them will be looking to take a step forward at the right time on Saturday.

Group 2 contains the Jim Dandy runners, and there are five of them.  The Jim Dandy is the traditional course prep race for the Travers, and the 1-2 finishers from that race, Wicked Strong (#7, 7-2) and Tonalist (#6, 3-1), are very talented 3yos: major players in today's race.  The other three have accomplished some good things on the track but will need to come forward in order to get more than a small piece of this race.

Group 3 is small, but it holds the two most interesting horses in the field.  Bayern (#2, 2-1) is the ML favorite and, any way you look at him, the horse to beat.  The other horse, Mr Speaker (#10, 10-1), is an even bigger wildcard.  Mr Speaker is certainly among the top 3yo turf horses in the country and a recent Grade 1 winner on that surface, so the very fact that he will be running in this race for his Hall of Fame trainer is worth noting. 

The runners from Group 1 all have something to recommend them, but they are clearly up against it in a Travers as loaded as this one.  It is easy enough to believe that any or all of Charge Now, V. E. Day, and Viva Majorca may turn out to be very good. The reality, however, is that right now they are too slow to win this race.  The Curlin was a race that fell apart late, with V. E. Day, who was off slowly and trailing the field all the way to the top of the stretch, closing late to prevail.  He is two-for-two on dirt, and appears to have no distance limitations.  Charge Now missed by just a head in the Curlin and, of the three, he was the one who raced closest to the pace throughout.  Because of that, we will give him a little extra credit.  He is a half-brother to a Kentucky Derby winner and is trained by a guy who tends not to run his horses where they can't be competitive.  Immediately after the Curlin field hit the wire, we thought that Viva Majorca was the horse we wanted out of that race.  In retrospect, the patient ride he was given may have worked to his advantage.  He was making the best late run, but it was a race that lent itself to those tactics.  Still, he could easily have been right there at the finish if able to get started a little earlier. 

The Jim Dandy group contains ML second choice Tonalist, hero of the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes,  and third choice Wicked Strong, who won the Grade 1 Wood Memorial way back in April.  To say that they are both big players in the Travers would be an understatement.  Wicked Strong got the better of Tonalist in the prep, and he did so by employing a new running style with blinkers on for the first time.  He went right up to sit on the pace on the outside, somewhat surprisingly ahead of Tonalist, and he was able to turn away a mild challenge from that rival before going clear at the end.  While it would be little surprise to see that result hold up four weeks later, we believe that Tonalist will turn the tables on Wicked Strong this time, and he is our pick to win the Travers. 

To us, Tonalist is a horse who has been meant for races like this from the beginning.  Things did not work out for him earlier in the year, which resulted in his losing a chance to compete in the Kentucky Derby, but his return in the Grade 2 Peter Pan was an impressive display over a sloppy track that he may not have cared for, and he came right back to spoil a Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes despite racing wide through every yard of that 1 1/2-mile stamina test.  The Jim Dandy appeared to be a perfect prep race to get him to the Travers, and we are taking him to run his best race yet on Saturday.

With all due respect to Tonalist and Wicked Strong, the most naturally talented horse in the field on Saturday will be Bayern.  The question about the 1 1/4 miles is an obvious one.  If he can see it out, he's going to be extremely tough to beat.  He is a horse who has been unbeatable, brilliant even, when able to get control of the pace, and there is no other confirmed speed to go with him in this race.  He does figure to get a more serious challenge at some point on Saturday than he did in either of his last two races, so we'll see if he can withstand that and then go on to complete the 9th and 10th furlongs in strong fashion.  We have struggled with our decision, but we are standing against Bayern in the Travers.

Mr Speaker is a question of a different sort, and while we don't want him in this race, we could easily make the case for taking him.  Distance will clearly be no issue for him, and while his lone dirt start resulted in a disappointing finish and a quick switch back to grass, he found himself contesting the pace that day, and he was without lasix, which would be added for his very next start.  He has enough pedigree for one to believe that dirt may be a surface he will handle just fine (his second dam is the great Personal Ensign, and he gets a 90 pedigree rating for dirt routes), but he will need to do more than simply handle dirt to win this Travers.  He will have to show that he is better on dirt than he is on turf.  Maybe he is.  But we're not betting on it.
The play:

We believe that Tonalist will win the Travers, but this is not a race in which we are interested in making win bets at odds of 5/2 or 3/1.  Should he somehow go off at odds higher than that, we'd bet him enthusiastically.  The plan for the late card multi-race wagers is to key Tonalist, use Wicked Strong liberally, and relegate Bayern to backup status. 

The Grade 1 Pacific Classic
Del Mar / August 24 / Race 10 / 5:30 Pacific Time

by TimeformUS Analyst Justin Finch

The Grade 1, $1,000,000 TVG Pacific Classic has 11 horses signed up to run 10 furlongs on the Polytrack. However, it seems likely that Ice Cream Truck will defect to an easier spot, and Irish Surf may end up doing likewise. That would leave us with a very accomplished field of 9 or 10, led by the properly celebrated Game On Dude and the fledgling star Shared Belief.
According to the TFUS Pace Projector, Game On Dude will have a clear early lead at the opening half-mile, while Shared Belief will be alone in second place, stalking the defending champion. Should that scenario actually materialize, the noise level at Del Mar is going to threaten anything previously heard at that seaside paradise. But the invader from Argentina, the aptly named Mystery Train, reportedly has plenty of early speed, and the Pace Projector is unable to make a projection for him. Will he use that speed and make a run for the early lead in his North America debut against top-of-the-line speed horses such as Game On Dude and Shared Belief, one drawn to his inside and one to his outside? One can't rule it out, but we are inclined to doubt it.
Our focus in the Pacific Classic will be on three horses:
Majestic Harbor: This six-year-old is fresh off a lifetime top speed figure of 110, earned when he sprung a 14-1 upset in the Gold Cup, leaving Game On Dude, Clubhouse Ride, and Imperative, among others, in the dust. The performance, while a surprise, did not look anything like a fluke to us. Rather, it looked as if the horse who was best on the day won the horse race, as happens in this sport from time to time. Can Majestic Harbor repeat that performance? Can he repeat it while racing on Polytrack? He has raced on a synthetic surface only once. His performance was not his best, nor was it awful. He ran well in his only turf start, and turf form often translates to Polytrack. Moreover, his TFUS Pedigree Ratings indicate that he has strong breeding for synthetic. So there are mixed messages here. But we look at Majestic Harbor as a serious threat once again.
Shared Belief: This undefeated gelding missed the Triple Crown chase with a foot injury but has done nothing wrong in his five starts. He has improved his speed figure in every start. He comes in off a lifetime top of 113. He has handled synthetic with ease. He has handled added distance with aplomb. His trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, is about as astute as trainers get, and Hollendorfer has handled this highly talented colt in characteristic fashion: with great care and with a plan in mind. Well, here we are. Is Shared Belief good enough to win the Pacific Classic from the outside post after stalking Game On Dude? It would not surprise us in the least if he is, but at his likely short odds, we are inclined to wager that he is not.
Game On Dude: This is an introduction that is certainly worth skipping, since we have already written it many times in this space. Suffice it to say that Game On Dude is not what he once was, and there is more than a little sadness in that fact, but one of the consolations attached to this particular decline is that since he was so good in the past, he can win a race like this while running several lengths off of his peak form. When one thinks about it, that is a striking state of affairs. After all, we are talking about the Pacific Classic here. At any rate, our calculation with Game On Dude goes as follows: If he runs the best race of which he has recently (repeat: recently) been capable, he is very likely to win this race. However, his chances of running that well are probably only about 50%. Therefore, his morning line odds of 3-1 are reasonable.

The play:
Win bet on Game On Dude if the morning line odds hold up.

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