2020 Travers: A Horse-by-Horse Preview

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

The extended 2019-20 Road to the Kentucky Derby continues its path through uncharted waters with the running of Saratoga's historic $1 million Travers (G1) on Saturday.

The 1 1/4-mile "Midsummer Derby" has attracted a strong field as usual, with heralded Kentucky Derby contenders Tiz the Law and Uncle Chuck leading the charge. Let's take a horse-by-horse look at the entries:

#1 First Line: You have to admire the grit this son of First Samurai displayed breaking his maiden going 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga on July 29—he won by a neck after a prolonged stretch battle, with the rest of the field more than four lengths behind. Trainer Orlando Noda has been ultra-hot at Saratoga, going 5-for-14 (36%) so far, but First Line is taking a huge step up in class and will need to improve upon the 85 Beyer he posted last week.

#2 Country Grammer: Improving son of Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Tonalist raced professionally to win the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan (G3) on opening day at Saratoga, rating inside and behind runners early on before rallying up the rail to win by a neck with a career-best 96 Beyer. Saratoga's leading jockey Irad Ortiz stays aboard, and stretching out over 1 1/4 miles shouldn't be an issue. The only question is whether Country Grammer has the class to hold his own against this level of competition.

#3 Uncle Chuck: A half-mile in :47 3/5. Six furlongs in 1:13 2/5. Six furlongs in 1:12 1/5. Five furlongs in 1:00 1/5. Uncle Chuck has been training up a storm since his runaway victory in the 1 1/8-mile Los Alamitos Derby (G3), in which he beat next-out Shared Belief (G3) winner Thousand Words by four lengths. A lightly-raced son of Uncle Mo, Uncle Chuck could be any kind for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who the Travers in 2016 and 2017 with the similarly late-maturing champions Arrogate and West Coast. With his blend of tactical speed and finishing power, Uncle Chuck should work out a clean trip and relish stretching out over 1 1/4 miles in the Travers.

#4 Max Player: One-dimensional late runner has been effective racing 1 1/8 miles, winning the Withers (G3) by daylight before returning from a 4 1/2-month layoff to finish third behind Tiz the Law in the Belmont Stakes (G1). This son of champion Honor Code has been improving steadily, but has shown a hesitation to race in traffic and figures to pursue a wide journey in the Travers, giving up valuable ground to his rivals.

#5 Shivaree: Speedy sprinter stretched his speed sufficiently to finish second behind Tiz the Law in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby (G1), but his two runs since then have been less inspiring—a third-place effort in a 1-mile allowance race at Gulfstream and an 11th-place finish in the Blue Grass (G2). This durable chestnut is clearly talented and will be a pace player in the Travers, but he's never won running farther than 7 furlongs and may lack the stamina to stay 1 1/4 miles.

#6 Tiz the Law: Three-time Grade 1 winner is clearly the class of the Travers field after rolling to a decisive 3 3/4-length victory in the Belmont Stakes (G1). With a pair of 100 Beyers under his belt, Tiz the Law is the fastest horse in the Travers field, and he's been training as sharply as ever in preparation for Saturday's 1 1/4-mile test of speed and stamina. The Travers has been a long-term goal for Tiz the Law's connections, and there's no reason to think this talented son of Constitution won't fire a big shot exactly one year to the day that he dominated his debut at Saratoga.

If there's one knock against Tiz the Law, it's the fact he's yet to face any of the best 3-year-olds from California, and the key rivals he's beaten this season—Ete Indien, Shivaree, and Dr Post—have experienced mixed results in their subsequent races. But this is more of a quibble than a genuine downside to Tiz the Law's glowing resume, especially when you consider how easily he's been winning this season.

#7 Caracaro: I was impressed by Caracaro's  runner-up effort in the Peter Pan (G3). In his first start off a six-month layoff, Caracaro raced wider than Country Grammer, battled to the front in the homestretch, and was ultimately beaten just a neck after being bumped off stride late in the race. A repeat of this effort would make Caracaro a contender to hit the board on Saturday, but could this son of Uncle Mo be a candidate for regression while wheeling back just 23 days after a hard comeback race?

#8 South Bend: The 2019 Street Sense Stakes winner fired off a career-best 94 Beyer when rallying to finish second in the Ohio Derby (G3), which marked a return to dirt following five efforts against stakes company on turf. But South Bend benefited from a quick pace in the Ohio Derby and will face much tougher competition in the Travers while making his first start for trainer Bill Mott. A fast pace would help the chances of this late-running youngster, but overall the waters look pretty deep.


For win purposes, I view the Travers as a two-horse battle between Tiz the Law and Uncle Chuck. I believe there's a 95% chance one or the other will reach the winner's circle, with Tiz the Law looming as a slightly more likely winner than Uncle Chuck.

But this doesn't mean I'm keen to bet Tiz the Law in the Travers. If I believe Tiz the Law has a 50% chance of winning, and Uncle Chuck a 45% chance, then I'll absolutely be siding with Uncle Chuck based on their morning line odds. I have Tiz the Law pegged as fair value at 1-1 (equal to his morning line price) while Uncle Chuck is worth playing at 6-5—considerably lower than his enticing 5-2 morning line odds.

So assuming the final odds don't shift in a dramatically different direction, I'll ride the Baffert bandwagon and play Uncle Chuck over Tiz the Law, with Country Grammer to round out the trifecta.

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, videographer, voice actor, 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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