Will Exaggerator Be Beaten in the Travers?

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

On 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)

When 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.

Secondly, 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.

As a 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.

Obviously, 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 can!

As 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 ten-furlong runner.

Looking 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.

I 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.

So 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.

Now 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.

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