J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Saturday at Saratoga, a full field of fourteen horse will enter the starting
gate for the historic $1,250,000 Travers Stakes (gr. I). The ten-furlong race
could not have come up much tougher, for just about every three-year-old colt
that has achieved anything this year has been entered in the race (with the
exception of Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, who is receiving a short summer
break.). It promises to be one of the most exciting renewals of the Travers in
many years, so without further ado, let's take a look at the entries!
Travers Stakes (gr. I)
handicapping this incredibly deep field, I found it helpful to keep a couple of
historical trends in mind. The first is that the Haskell Invitational (gr. I)
at Monmouth Park has not been a particularly strong prep for the Travers; just
two of the last fourteen Travers winners prepped for the race in the Haskell,
and notable Haskell winners like Coil, Verrazano, Bayern, and American Pharoah
have all been beaten at short prices in the Travers.
horses that prepped at Saratoga-particularly in the Jim Dandy Stakes, but also
the Curlin Stakes-have an impressive record in the Travers, with eight winners
in the last eleven years. For these reasons, I am strongly tempted to play
against Exaggerator and American Freedom, the 1-2 finishers in
the Haskell. In a general sense, I'm a huge fan of both colts, particularly
Exaggerator, who has shown flashes of sheer brilliance while winning three
grade I races this year. But my gut feeling is that the Travers won't set up
well for either of them, since Exaggerator could be facing a dry track and a
modest pace, while American Freedom could be compromised by drawing post two in
a large field and heading to a track that isn't quite as fast and
speed-favoring as he is accustomed to.
result, I find myself gravitating toward the horses that ran in the Jim Dandy
Stakes (gr. II), primarily Laoban and
Governor Malibu. As you might
recall, Laoban won the Jim Dandy in an astonishing upset, prevailing at 27-1 in
what was the first victory of his eight-race career. He got a great setup that
day, getting an easy lead through a half-mile in :49.07 seconds, but he
capitalized on that advantage in a huge way, accelerating the third
quarter-mile in :23.39 and the fourth quarter in :23.64, running his pursuers
off their feet in the process. Despite these fast internal fractions, Laoban
still had enough left in the tank to run the final furlong in :12.29 and win by
1 ¼ lengths.
Laoban could get a much different setup in the Travers, but how many horses run
the last five furlongs of a route race in :59.32? He posted a bullet workout on
August 20th to signal his readiness for the Travers, and my feeling is
that Laoban might just be reaching his peak. He'll be a popular horse to play
against off his upset in the Jim Dandy, but I think he is developing into a
talented colt that will be a force to reckon with on Saturday. Catch him if you
for Governor Malibu, he did little
wrong in the Jim Dandy Stakes, settling behind the slow pace while saving
ground and rallying late to finish second. He had a bit of traffic trouble in
that race, getting stopped while attempting to close ground up the rail in the homestretch,
and he also had a tough trip when fourth in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) two
starts back. His running style of
settling in mid-pack and rallying should be well-suited to the Travers, and the
ten-furlong distance of this race seems perfect for him. He should be able to
save ground again from post four, and if he gets a clean trip this time, expect
to see him produce a big finish in the final two furlongs.
Destin, third in the Jim
Dandy after tracking the pace, is also eligible to step up and run a big race.
He was beaten by just a nose in the Belmont Stakes, so we know he'll have no
issues with the Travers distance, and for what it's worth, and he'll be
carrying equal weights with Laoban and Governor Malibu after conceding them
four pounds apiece in the Jim Dandy. Also, Destin will be ridden by Javier
Castellano, who has won four of the last six renewals of the Travers.
Connect and Gift Box both ran well when finishing
first and second in the Curlin Stakes on the day before the Jim Dandy, turning
in efforts that were similar to the performances of Laoban and Destin, although
Laoban and Destin finished stronger. Connect has a strong reputation and is the
4-1 second choice on the morning line, but of the pair, I would be tempted to
side with Gift Box, who was compromised by the slow pace in the Curlin, yet was
still beaten only a length. However, I suspect that both Connect and Gift Box
might be in just a little too deep against a field of this caliber, and Gift
Box has yet to win around two turns and might be more of a miler than a true
to rebound in the Travers are Belmont Stakes winner Creator, who finished last of six in the Jim Dandy, and Gun Runner, who was fifth of six in the
Haskell. Both had legitimate excuses, with Creator being compromised by a slow
pace and Gun Runner failing to handle a sloppy track, and both are eligible to
rebound with better setups. In particular, I like the chances of Creator, who
is proven at this level of competition and should thrive at ten furlongs. I've
always been a big fan of Gun Runner, who has never run a bad race on a fast
track, but I do wonder if ten furlongs is too far for him, especially since
he's drawn post fourteen and figures to get a wide trip.
would also like to mention Arrogate,
who is a major wildcard in this race. Bob Baffert doesn't have the strongest
record with horses running at Saratoga, but Arrogate has shown significant
talent and potential while scoring three straight wins against maiden and
allowance company in California. All three of those races were against older horses,
and while two of them featured slow paces, Arrogate finished powerfully each
time and looks like a horse that will thrive at ten furlongs. His Beyer speed
figures of 97, 103, and 99 stack up well against this field, and if he were
drawn outside, I would consider picking him to win. Instead, he's drawn the
rail, but at 10-1 or higher, I think he's worth playing in the exotics in case
he works out a good trip and delivers a big effort.
to recap, my top three choices in the Travers are Laoban, Governor Malibu,
and Arrogate, with a preference for
the first two. I would definitely use all three in multi-race wagers, while
waiting to see how the track is playing to determine which colt would be the
best play on top.
it's your turn! Who do you like in the Travers Stakes?
To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!
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 www.theturfboard.com.