Lack of Pace Could Be Key in Travers Stakes

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

In analyzing the field for Saturday's $1.25 million Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, I'm struck not only by the lack of division leaders entered in this 1 ¼-mile race, but also by the extraordinary lack of speed horses in the mix.

The three classic winners of 2019—Country House, War of Will, and Sir Winston—are all skipping the Travers for one reason or another, along with the disqualified Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security and the reigning champion two-year-old Game Winner. The runners who remain are a mixed bag of classic-placed veterans and potentially promising up-and-comers, but there isn't a single Grade 1 winner among the dozen entrants.

Nor are there many speed horses in the field. At least half of the runners could be considered deep closers, and none of the others have done their best running on the front end. Only #7 Mucho Gusto and #9 Looking At Bikinis have shown any frequent interest in setting the pace, yet their career-best performances were achieved by rallying from off the pace in small fields.

Breaking down the Travers entrants into four categories based on running style, here's how the race seems to be shaping up:


#1 Owendale
#2 Code of Honor
#3 Highest Honors
#4 Laughing Fox
#5 Everfast
#6 Tacitus


#8 Chess Chief
#10 Scars Are Cool
#11 Endorsed


#7 Mucho Gusto (potential front-runner)
#12 Tax


#9 Looking At Bikinis

With the few speed horses drawn in the outer half of the field, there could potentially be a bit of a rush to the first turn as runners like Looking At Bikinis and #12 Tax attempt to clear the field and save ground. But even if this occurs, the pace should settle down around the turn, and Mucho Gusto could wind up sitting a perfect stalking trip.

Mucho Gusto's Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert needs no introduction. Since 2016, the California-based conditioner has compiled at 9-for-17 record at Saratoga, which includes victories in the 2016 and 2017 Travers Stakes with Arrogate and West Coast. When Baffert ships a horse to Sararoga, it's wise to sit up and take notice.

A consistent runner who has yet to miss the trifecta in eight starts, Mucho Gusto has generally given the impression of being a sprinter/miler more than a classic route runner. But as a son of Mucho Macho Man out of a Giant's Causeway mare, Mucho Gusto is bred to run long and improve with maturity, so it's possible he just hasn't grown up yet. Certainly his form has been improving this summer, culminating with a runner-up effort behind Maximum Security in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) at Monmouth Park.

Mucho Gusto's Haskell performance was noteworthy for a few races. For one, he gave Maximum Security a stiff challenge, rallying wide to reach even terms before ultimately settling for second place by just one length. For another, Mucho Gusto ran fast in defeat, leaving the rest of the field eight lengths behind while posting a 100 Beyer speed figure. He's the only horse in the Travers field to have cracked the triple-digit Beyer barrier.

Originally, Mucho Gusto was expected to bypass the Travers and target next month's Pennsylvania Derby (gr. I) at Parx. But following a blazing Monday morning workout at Del Mar, in which Mucho Gusto clocked five furlongs in a bullet :59 1/5, Baffert elected to ship the colt to Saratoga instead, which strikes me as a confident move. Considering Mucho Gusto's pedigree, and his career-best Haskell effort against division leader Maximum Security, I suspect he's still improving and sitting on a big effort this Saturday.

Yes, the 1 ¼-mile distance is still a question mark. Mucho Gusto has weakened in both his races over 1 1/8 miles, so adding another furlong could potentially stretch the limits of his stamina. But if he sits a dream trip in the Travers, setting or stalking a slow pace, he'll have every opportunity to carry his speed farther than usual. At 6-1 on the morning line, Mucho Gusto strikes me as the most appealing play in the Travers Stakes.

For second place, I respect the 5-2 morning line favorite #6 Tacitus. Winner of the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) and Wood Memorial (gr. II) during Kentucky Derby prep season, Tacitus endured a series of tough trips in his three subsequent defeats. A wide trip compromised his chances in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), where he came up a length short against the ground-saving winner Sir Winston. Even worse, Tacitus stumbled badly at the start of the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) and had to wait in traffic at a key moment on the far turn, two factors that contributed to his narrow runner-up finish behind Tax.

The Jim Dandy featured a slow early pace, to the extent that assigned the race a Closer Favorbility Ratio (CFR) of "3" on their 1-to-100 scale, signifying a notably speed-favoring race. I would seriously consider picking Tacitus on top if not for three factors—one, he might get another poor pace setup in the Travers. Two, he'll be a shorter price than I'm willing to accept in the win pool. And three, he'll be racing with blinkers for the first time in the Travers. Perhaps the equipment change will sharpen his focus, but I'm concerned that the blinkers will instead key him up too much to excel over the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Travers.

You can make a case for just about any other horse to hit the board in the Travers, so I'm tempted to use 30-1 shot #10 Scars Are Cool underneath. Trained by Stanley Hough, the son of Malibu Moon was tons the best in a 1 1/8-mile maiden special weight at Saratoga on July 21, rallying strongly under a vigorous hand ride to win going away by four lengths.

Scars Are Cool's performance was all the more impressive since he was carried extremely wide coming off the far turn, but shrugged off the incident to mow down the leaders. The 92 Beyer he posted might be a little light, but Scars Are Cool has improved with every start, and even a small step forward should be enough to land him in the Travers Stakes superfecta. He does have enough tactical speed to stay engaged if the early pace is slow.


First: #7 Mucho Gusto
Second: #6 Tacitus
Third: #10 Scars Are Cool

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


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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

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