American Pharoah Stands Out in Travers Stakes

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Get ready, everyone! Saturday is the kind of day that racing fans dream of, with seven graded stakes races on schedule at Saratoga, including the $1,600,000 Travers Stakes (gr. I). The prestigious "Midsummer Derby" is always a great race, but this year’s renewal promises to be the most exciting in years thanks to the presence of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. There’s plenty to discuss, so let’s get started!

Travers Stakes (gr. I)

# Horse Jockey Trainer Last race
1 Upstart (15-1) Irad Ortiz, Jr. Richard Violette, Jr. 3rd Haskell Invitational (gr. I) (VIDEO)
2 American Pharoah (1-5) Victor Espinoza Bob Baffert 1st Haskell Invitational (gr. I) (VIDEO)
3 Mid Ocean (50-1) Manny Franco George Weaver 1st Maiden Special Weight7/14 del (VIDEO)
4 Texas Red (8-1) Kent Desormeaux Keith Desormeaux 1st Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
5 Frammento (30-1) Jose Ortiz Nick Zito 4th Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
6 Frosted (6-1) Joel Rosario Kiaran McLaughlin 2nd Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
7 Keen Ice (12-1) Javier Castellano Dale Romans 2nd Haskell Invitational (gr.I) (VIDEO)
8 Tale of Verve Gary Stevens Dallas Stewart 6th West Virginia Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO)
9 King of New York JulienLeparoux Kenny McPeek 3rd Curlin Stakes (VIDEO)
10 Smart Transition John Velazquez John Shirreffs 1st Curlin Stakes (VIDEO)

The Travers Stakes presents an interesting handicapping quandary. American Pharoah is the overwhelming favorite on the morning line at 1-5, and will offer very little value in the win pool. As a handicapper, it’s always tempting to pick against such a heavy favorite, but American Pharoah is an amazing horse that pretty much towers over his opposition. After drawing post two, and with Upstart in post one likely to scratch, American Pharoah should have little trouble securing the early lead, and from there, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which he loses. In my opinion, the only way he will lose is if he doesn’t handle the track (some horses just don’t care for Saratoga), or if he isn’t at his absolute peak fitness after only one very easy race in three months.

In other words, to make a case for American Pharoah losing, I have to envision "what-if" scenarios—scenarios that he could very well overcome on raw talent. Therefore, I really can’t advise anyone to bet against American Pharoah, because he is by far the most likely winner of the race and I would be very surprised if he loses. After trying to beat Beholder last week on the basis of seeking value (not a good idea in retrospect!), I won’t try to get as creative this week: Despite his short price, American Pharoah is my selection to win. And hey, as a fan, how can I not cheer for American Pharoah to win the Travers? :)

But if you’re looking to put a few dollars on a live longshot to hit the board or finish in the trifecta, or if you’re playing multi-race wagers and want to cover for the possibility that American Pharoah could lose, there are a few other horses that I think are ready for big efforts on Saturday. The first is Texas Red, who prevailed by a half-length over fellow Travers contender Frosted in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) last month. He ran an exceptional race that day, tracking a modest pace before accelerating the final three furlongs in less than :37 seconds to hold off Frosted’s late run. One can make a case that Frosted could turn the tables on Saturday—Frosted was coming off a two-month layoff, lost a shoe early in the race, and was conceding Texas Red four pounds—but it’s important to note that Texas Red has been specifically targeting the Travers for months, and his two prep races have been designed to get him to the Travers in peak form. In contrast, Frosted has been busily racing since the start of the year, and it’s hard to know when his long campaign might start catching up to him. Of the pair, I prefer Texas Red, and if he remains near his morning line price of 8-1, he might be worth a win bet. After all, the Jim Dandy has been a key prep for the Travers in recent years—10 of the last 17 Travers winners entered the race off a prep in the Jim Dandy.

For similar reasons, I like the chances of Smart Transition. Trained by John Shirreffs, the son of Smart Strike has a pedigree that suggests ten furlongs won’t be an issue, and he looked great when charging to a 4 ¾-length victory in the nine-furlong Curlin Stakes at Saratoga last time out. In terms of speed figures, he needs to take a big step forward, but it’s important to note that his last two workouts have been dramatically faster than his previous breezes, which suggests that he’s steadily improving and could be ready for a career-best effort on Saturday. The only concerns are that he’s drawn post ten—which could set him up for a wide trip—and there doesn’t appear to be a lot of early speed in the Travers, which could make it difficult for him to rally from off the pace. Still, at 20-1 on the morning line, he’s definitely a candidate for inclusion in the trifecta or superfecta, and if the early pace is faster than expected, I think we’ll see him rallying strongly in the homestretch.

Along similar lines, Keen Ice should be putting in a big run from off-the-pace. The son of Curlin has really stepped up in his last two starts, finishing third in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and a clear-cut second in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I). One can argue that his wide trip cost him second in the Belmont, and ten furlongs should be pretty much perfect for him in terms of distance. I was a little surprised at how well he ran in the Haskell given how speed-favoring the track was, and although I think he will drop from his morning line odds of 12-1, he could still offer excellent value as a possible upset candidate, although he will probably be heavily-bet in the trifecta and superfecta.

So to recap, my selection to win the Travers is American Pharoah, but if I were to try and beat him in multi-race wagers, Texas Red and Keen Ice would be my top choices, along with Smart Transition, who should offer plenty of value in every pool. Those are also the horses that I would use to round out the superfecta, along with Frosted.

I’ll be sharing my thoughts on all of the other stakes races on Travers day in the comments section of this post—I hope you’ll join me!


To help keep track of all the Breeders' Cup prep races, here is the link to's Breeders' Cup news page. To keep track of all the races for two-year-olds at Saratoga and Del Mar, here is the link to my "Diamonds in the Rough" column on The Turf Board. Also, here is the link to the currrent standings, entries, rules, and schedule for our "Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic" Handicapping Challenge. Enjoy the racing, everyone!

J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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