Who Will Win the Travers Stakes?

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

Arguably the best race of the summer at Saratoga is coming up on Saturday, that being the $1,250,000 Travers Stakes (gr. I). The 1 ¼-mile "Midsummer Derby" is something like an unofficial fourth leg of the Triple Crown, frequently pitting some of the best three-year-old colts in the nation against each other, and the 2018 renewal will have a little added excitement thanks to the presence of Wonder Gadot, one of the most accomplished three-year-old fillies in North America.

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

#1 Trigger Warning (30-1): After looking more like a sprinter early in his career, this son of Candy Ride really turned things around with the addition of Lasix and ran well when third in the Ohio Derby (gr. III) and second in the Indiana Derby (gr. III) in his last two starts. However, he did show signs of distance limitations in both races (he led at the eighth pole each time before faltering late), and he wasn't facing the toughest caliber of competition either. The added distance of the Travers and the sharp rise in class could make it challenging for him to hit the board again.

#2 Wonder Gadot (5-1): The Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) runner-up used to have a reputation for hanging late in her races, but the addition of blinkers for the 1 ¼-mile Queen's Plate Stakes made a world of difference as she powered home to win by 4 ¾ lengths. She followed up with a similarly easy triumph in the Prince of Wales Stakes over a sloppy track at Fort Erie, and while it's fair to question the class of competition that she's been beating, you can't knock her versatility—she can win from just about any position on the track. Unfortunately, drawing post two could force her to commit to a pace-pressing trip, which might be less than ideal going 1 ¼ miles against a field of this caliber. I'm leaning against her in this spot.

#3 Gronkowski (4-1): The Belmont Stakes (gr. I) runner-up will receive plenty of support in the Travers, but for a few reasons I think he could be vulnerable. For one, he enjoyed a pretty nice setup in the Belmont, dropping well off the lead while the Triple Crown winner Justify led the field on a merry chase and exhausted everyone within striking range of the early pace. In many ways, it appeared that Gronkowski mostly "picked up the pieces" late in the race while saving ground as well.

Subsequently, a slight setback caused Gronkowski to miss some training time, and he'll be entering the Travers off a 2 ½-month layoff. That might not be a huge deal, but the cutback to 1 ¼ miles could potentially be problematic since Gronkowski has a grinding style that was perfect for the Belmont, but perhaps less ideal for shorter races. I'm tempted to play against him here, at least for the exacta.

#4 Bravazo (12-1): Consistency might not be this colt's strong suit, but when he's at his best, he can hold his own against just about any member of this foal crop. Three starts back, he came within a neck of upsetting Justify in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), and following a no-show effort in the Belmont, he rebounded nicely to finish second behind the Travers favorite Good Magic in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I).

At first glance, Bravazo's effort in the Haskell doesn't seem like anything to get excited about—he was beaten three lengths and never seriously challenged Good Magic. However, Bravazo did lose a shoe during the race, which couldn't have helped his chances, and I liked the way he fought on gamely in the homestretch, refusing to concede the race to Good Magic while gaining back a length of the winner's lead in the final furlong.

In many respects, Bravazo reminds me of Keen Ice, who finished a similarly non-threatening second behind Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Haskell Invitational. Much like Bravazo, Keen Ice kept plugging away and was gaining in the final furlong of the Haskell; subsequently, he scored one of the most memorable upsets in recent racing history when a better pace setup allowed him to turn the tables on American Pharoah in the Travers.

Does that mean that Bravazo will win the Travers? Not necessarily. But Good Magic had things pretty much his own way in the Haskell, and I thought Bravazo did a good job to finish as close as he did. As a son of Awesome Again out of a Cee's Tizzy mare, Bravazo shouldn't have any issues with the distance of the Travers, and with the right upset, I think he has a legitimate chance to upset the race at a nice price.

#5 Vino Rosso (10-1): Trained by Todd Pletcher, this well-bred son of Curlin has shown flashes of serious talent during his career, but he can also be a bit quirky. During the winter at Tampa Bay Downs, he had trouble maintaining a high rate of speed around the turns, and last time out in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II), he essentially lost touch with the field early on (despite a modest pace) before gaining nearly six lengths in the final furlong to finish third, beaten less than a length for victory.

Vino Rosso's lone victory thus far this season came when he won the Wood Memorial (gr. II) at Aqueduct by three lengths, but the strength of that field was questionable and Vino Rosso benefited from a very good pace setup. I still think he has a chance to be a factor in the Travers, though his complete lack of tactical speed in the Jim Dandy is a bit concerning, and he seems like a better candidate to round out the trifecta or superfecta than to actually win the race.

#6 Meistermind (30-1): As a son of Bodemeister (sire of 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming) out of Mining My Own (the dam of 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and 2012 Pacific Classic winner Dullahan), Meistermind is bred to thrive going 1 ¼ miles. Indeed, his lone win to date came over that distance at Churchill Downs, when he prevailed in a maiden special weight against older horses. That was actually a pretty solid effort since he was full of run and closed the final quarter-mile in approximately :24 3/5, but his subsequent fifth-place finish in a nine-furlong allowance race at Saratoga was disappointing, and his career-best Beyer of 89 means he'll need to step up his game to be competitive against this field. As a pedigree play at 30-1, he might be worth including on the bottom of the exotics, but a victory would count as a significant upset.

#7 King Zachary (15-1): The second of four Curlins entered in the Travers, King Zachary looked like he was starting to put everything together when he won the Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III) by 4 ¾ lengths with a 98 Beyer, but he couldn't replicate the performance one month later in the Indiana Derby (gr. II), failing to show any tactical speed en route to a fourth-place finish. He's shown enough talent to hint that he might be a serious runner down the road, but he's also never faced competition like he'll face in the Travers, so the waters might be a little deep on Saturday.

#8 Mendelssohn (12-1): Based in Ireland with trainer Aidan O'Brien, this son of Scat Daddy was among the Kentucky Derby favorites following a spectacular 18 ½-length victory in the UAE Derby (UAE-II) at Meydan, but he benefited from a very favorable track bias that day while facing a weak field and was eased in the Kentucky Derby after suffering a rough trip. Subsequently, he returned to the U.S. for the Dwyer Stakes (gr. III) and was a pace factor before weakening to finish a distant third. His reputation from the spring could make him an underlay in the Travers, and I'll be playing against him on Saturday.

#9 Good Magic (2-1): It's hard to knock anything that Good Magic has done in his career, which is why he's the clear-cut morning line favorite for the Travers. A decisive victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) earned him a 100 Beyer and the Eclipse Award as the champion two-year-old male of 2017, and only Justify was able to beat him in the Kentucky Derby. Furthermore, as mentioned above, Good Magic was a decisive winner of the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) in his most recent start; in fact, he appeared to be completely in control of the race from the start and was never seriously challenged.

If there is a chink in Good Magic's armor, it's probably the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Travers. True, Good Magic did finish second over this distance in the Kentucky Derby, but he was running out of steam in the final furlong and just barely held second place over Audible. He also weakened at the end of the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes (gr. I) after dueling hard for the lead with Justify and wound up finishing fourth, a half-length behind Bravazo.

Good Magic's Haskell victory signals that he's still in good form, but it's worth noting that he had everything his own way that day, and he figures to face a more challenging pace in the Travers due to the presence of Trigger Warning, Mendelssohn, Wonder Gadot, and Catholic Boy, four runners with enough speed to keep the pace honest. Regardless, I'm expecting a very good showing from Good Magic in the Travers—he might even win—but at 2-1 he doesn't offer much value, and I wonder if the final, testing furlong might get the better of him.

#10 Tenfold (8-1): He's consistent, and he's run reasonably fast throughout his career, but greenness has been an issue for this son of Curlin, who weaved around so dramatically in the homestretch of the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) that he almost gave the race away despite being clearly the best horse. I can't argue with anyone who wants to support him in the Travers—he's beautifully bred for the distance and obviously has a lot of talent—but if you're betting him to win, you're probably banking on the hope that he'll leave his inexperience and greenness behind and run more professionally on Saturday. Perhaps he will, but the Jim Dandy seemed like a step backward from that perspective, and I'm hesitant to rely on him too much in the Travers.

#11 Catholic Boy (8-1): Can anyone say "wildcard?" Sure, Catholic Boy has been running on turf as of late, but he did win the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) on dirt last December, and the only poor effort of his career came when he bled in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and finished fourth. Is he better on grass? Maybe, because he was pretty impressive beating the talented Analyze It in both the Pennine Ridge Stakes (gr. III) and the Belmont Derby (gr. I) at Belmont Park, with the latter race being held over 1 ¼ miles.

Yet at the same time, Catholic Boy was no slouch on dirt during the winter, and his improvement when switched back to turf also coincided with a change in running style—he's taken to front-running tactics after employing a come-from-behind style in his first six starts. It's also possible that he's improving with maturity.

In my opinion, the bottom line is that Catholic Boy is a Grade 1 winner over the Travers distance and has drawn very well in post eleven, which should allow him to stay out of the kickback and have every chance to handle the switch back to dirt. Toss in the services of the five-time Travers-winning jockey Javier Castellano, and I think Catholic Boy's 8-1 morning line odds look pretty appealing.


I won't try to talk you off of Good Magic if you like his chances, and he's a horse I would want to include in my multi-race wagers, but the possibility of getting six times the price on Bravazo is too appealing to pass up. With the right pace setup over this challenging distance, I think Bravazo will have every chance to turn the tables and secure his first Grade 1 win.

Catholic Boy is another that I would strongly consider for all exotics bets, with Vino Rosso and maybe Meistermind being others that I would use at larger prices for the trifecta or superfecta.

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


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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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