A Horse-by-Horse Analysis of the Travers Stakes

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

While the upcoming Saturday of racing at Saratoga is exceptional from start to finish-there are seven graded stakes races on the card, including six Grade 1 events-the highlight will undoubtedly be the $1,250,000 Travers Stakes (gr. I). For the first time since 1982, three separate Triple Crown race winners will face off in the ten-furlong "Midsummer Derby," and much like 1982-when the unheralded Runaway Groom defeated all three Triple Crown winners in a nearly 13-1 upset-this year's Travers is shaping up to be a similarly competitive event with plenty of contenders for victory.

Let's take a look at the entries...

1 Cloud Computing (8-1): It's hard to know what to make of this lightly-raced colt, who capitalized on a perfect setup to win the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and then finished last in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) in his very next start. To his credit, he was beaten less than a length for second while running substantially farther than Giuseppe the Great (the runner-up) and Always Dreaming (who finished third), but the performance was still a disappointment from a colt that had shown steady improvement in his previous starts. Drawing the rail probably isn't ideal and leaves Cloud Computing with few options in terms of positioning, and in this deep field, I'm tempted to look elsewhere for the winner.

2 Giuseppe the Great (20-1): This steadily-improving longshot from the barn of Nick Zito rallied to finish second in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II), but that race produced an unusual result with Good Samaritan romping to victory and the remaining four starters finishing less than a length apart. There are certainly reasons to believe that Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing can rebound to turn the tables on Giuseppe the Great... but then again, isn't it possible that Giuseppe the Great is simply improving at the right time and could take another step forward at the much more attractive odds of 20-1? Perhaps his pedigree is geared toward shorter distances than ten furlongs, but I think Giuseppe the Great is an intriguing candidate to hit the board at a big price.

3 West Coast (4-1): Memories of Arrogate's stunning victory in the 2016 Travers might cause the odds on this Baffert-trained runner to drop a bit, but there's every reason to believe that West Coast is capable of giving Baffert back-to-back wins in the "Midsummer Derby." Never out of the exacta in six starts so far, West Coast signaled his potential when making an early move into a quick pace in the Lexington Stakes (gr. III), where he lost by just a head in a strong effort, and he's gone unbeaten in three starts since then. Following an allowance win at Santa Anita, West Coast shipped to Belmont Park and dominated the 8.5-furlong Easy Goer Stakes, unleashing a huge move around the far turn to draw off and win by nearly four lengths while earning a 99 Beyer. A month later he posted a similarly impressive win in the Los Alamitos Derby (gr. II), waiting until late in the stretch before producing a powerful run that carried him to a 2 ¾-length victory with a 100 Beyer.

Baffert has been very patient with West Coast, allowing him to progress steadily in easier races, and now it appears that West Coast is perfectly positioned for a big run in his Grade 1 debut. He's already shown that he can ship east successfully, and both his pedigree and his performances suggest that ten furlongs won't be an issue. The only concern is that drawing post three could put West Coast in a tricky position early on thanks to his late-running style, but with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith in the saddle, I'm hoping that West Coast will find his way out of traffic and rally to win at 4-1.

4 Tapwrit (7-2): The Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner will seek to emulate Birdstone by winning the Belmont and the Travers without any prep race in between. The layoff might not be a huge concern, and he's got enough tactical speed to be forwardly placed if the pace is slow, but the bigger question mark is his inconsistency. He finished a soundly-beaten last in his debut at Saratoga last summer, and during the spring he ran fifth by 11 ½ lengths as the second wagering choice in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). Is he worth playing as the favorite in a year when the top three-year-olds have repeatedly taken turns beating each other?

5 Good Samaritan (5-1): This talented son of Harlan's Holiday figures to attract a lot of wagering support following his decisive victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II), in which he rallied from far back over a deep and tiring track to win by 4 ¾ lengths with an eye-catching 100 Beyer. That race marked his debut on dirt, and if he runs a similar race it's easy to envision him winning the Travers. But although his talent is undeniable, it's worth noting that he was able to avoid any significant kick-back in the Jim Dandy, which featured a small field. Now he's facing a large field in the Travers and has drawn one of the inside post positions, almost guaranteeing that he'll have some dirt kicked in his face during the course of the race. With a question mark like that to consider (along with the fact that Saratoga has been playing faster as of late than it was for the Jim Dandy), I'm tempted to look elsewhere for the Travers winner.

6 Girvin (10-1): The Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner didn't have much of an impact on the Triple Crown, but has come back strong since then to finish second in the Indiana Derby (gr. II) and first in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), winning the latter race with a sharp rally from off the pace. However, the main track at Monmouth seemed to be favoring outside runners on the day of the Haskell, essentially giving closers an advantage while putting horses on the rail (and setting the pace) at a disadvantage. For this reason, I hesitate to take Girvin's Haskell performance at face value, and while his overall form is excellent, I'll likely lean against him in the Travers.

7 Always Dreaming (6-1): Which Always Dreaming will show up in the Travers-the one that scored decisive victories in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby (gr. I), or the one who disappointed when eighth in the Preakness (gr. I) and third in the Jim Dandy (gr. II)? It's hard to ignore the way Always Dreaming faded after setting a slow pace in the Jim Dandy, but Pletcher has noted that Always Dreaming wasn't fully cranked for the race, which was contested over a deep and tiring track. Always Dreaming figures to be part of another modest pace in the Travers, and assuming that he's stepped forward since the Jim Dandy, he could be poised to rebound in a big way over a quicker racing surface. That said, it's been ten years since a Kentucky Derby winner came back to win the Travers, and 6-1 seems like a pretty short price on a horse that may have peaked in the spring.

8 Lookin At Lee (30-1): The Kentucky Derby runner-up has run well in a several major races dating back to last summer, but remains 0-for-10 in graded stakes company and around two turns. He most recently finished third in the West Virginia Derby (gr. II) while rallying from the back of the pack, but he benefited from racing on the outside (the better part of the track) and was still beaten 4 ¼ lengths. He also benefited from a fast pace and a perfect ground-saving trip in the Kentucky Derby, so unless similar circumstances arise in the Travers, this race might be a little deep for him.

9 McCraken (12-1): Trained by Ian Wilkes, McCraken has shown flashes of major-league talent during his career, but slight injuries and troubled trips derailed his spring campaign and he could only finish third in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and eighth in the Kentucky Derby. To his credit, he rebounded from his difficult spring to win the Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III) and finish second by a nose in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), but like Girvin he benefited from rallying wide over a track that seemed to be favoring outside closers, and McCraken has given the impression that he might be a bit better at distances shorter than ten furlongs.

10 Irap (8-1): Few horses have come as far this year as Irap, who went from a 0-for-7 maiden to a three-time graded stakes winner in the span of less than four months. With the exception of an eighteenth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby (for which numerous excuses can be made), Irap's recent form is exceptional, as he defeated subsequent Haskell Invitational (gr. I) winner Girvin in the Ohio Derby (gr. III) prior to winning the Indiana Derby (gr. II) by five lengths in a visually stunning performance. In that race, a very wide trip didn't even begin to bother Irap, who made an early move to seize the lead around the far turn before drawing off with complete authority while running the final five-sixteenths of a mile in a quick :30.43.

Furthermore, it's not as though Irap defeated an easy field in the Indiana Derby, for the runner-up-Colonelsdarktemper-returned to win the West Virginia Derby (gr. III) in his next start. With recent Beyers of 102 and 98, Irap fits well on speed figures, and his outside draw should give him plenty of options to work out a good trip. Remember, he won the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) after tracking the early pace, and in the event that the Travers pace is modest, Irap could work out a perfect trip racing close to the lead. I suspect his odds could drop slightly from 8-1, but in the event that he does start at that price-twice the price offered by West Coast-Irap might offer the best value in the race.

11 Gunnevera (20-1): During the winter, Gunnevera looked like a serious Kentucky Derby contender when he rallied to a powerful 5 ¾-length victory over Practical Joke in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), but his long campaign seemed to catch up to him during the sprint and he could only finish seventh in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Preakness Stakes while never seriously threatening in either race. However, following a brief rest, Gunnevera return to win the 8.5-furlong Tangelo Stakes earlier this month by five lengths, overcoming a slow pace to rally past four rivals and win easily. While the slow pace obviously helped his finishing kick, it's still worth noting that Gunnevera ran the fourth quarter-mile in a quick :23.30 and finished the last sixteenth in :06.26 while easing across the wire, suggesting that he had plenty left in the tank. With this race serving as a sign that Gunnevera might be returning to form, I think he's worth including at 20-1. Don't forget, he was quite impressive winning the Saratoga Special Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga last summer.

12 Fayeq (30-1): This half-brother to Rachel Alexandra lost his first two starts sprinting but is 2-for-2 since stretching out beyond a mile. On July 26th he won a nine-furlong allowance race at Saratoga by 3 ½ lengths despite refusing to switch from his left lead at any point in the race, and while the final time wasn't eye-catching-1:51.19-the track was slow and the effort produced a respectable 92 Beyer. Fayeq strikes me as a promising colt with the potential to be a graded stakes winner if he can put everything together, but going ten furlongs against a field of this caliber-especially while breaking from post position twelve-figures to be a difficult task.

To condense all of these thoughts into something simpler, West Coast and Irap are the two horses I like best in the Travers, though I also have a lot of respect for Tapwrit. I view these three as the main players and would lean on them in multi-race wagers, with a preference for West Coast as my top choice. For the trifecta or superfecta, I'll also put in a good word for Giuseppe the Great and Gunnevera, a pair of late runners that could have an impact at 20-1 or so.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Travers?


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. 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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