Is the Travers Winner Running on Saturday?

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

Memorial Day weekend is traditionally a big one in U.S. horse racing, and this year is no exception. More than 50 stakes are slated to take place from May 28-31, including a trio of Grade 1 events on Sunday at Santa Anita.

We're bound to see a bevy of high-class horses take center stage, and it's hard to know where to begin in analyzing the action. So I'll just dive in and highlight a handful of horses I expect to see in the winner's circle this week.

May 28

Belmont Park, Race 3: Allowance Optional Claiming: #2 Happy Saver (3-5)

The undefeated Happy Saver went 4-for-4 as a three-year-old last season, wrapping up his perfect campaign with a determined victory in the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). I loved the way the son of Super Saver saved ground behind a slow pace, then forged through an opening along the rail to defeat future Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Mystic Guide by three-quarters of a length.

Happy Saver hasn't run in 7 1/2 months, but trainer Todd Pletcher strikes at a 29% rate with horses returning from breaks of 90 days or more, so there's no reason to think Happy Saver will be particularly rusty in his first start back. He's the most accomplished horse in Friday's small field and figures to sit a perfect trip racing on or near a slow pace, so I'll be surprised if Happy Saver fails to come back a winner.

Penn National, Race 4: Penn Mile (G2): #3 Annex (9-5)

There's no shortage of speed entered in the Penn Mile, with #2 Original (8-1), #5 The King Cheek (12-1), #6 Sibelius (10-1), and #7 Outadore (8-5) all capable of setting or pressing the pace. This could prove detrimental to the chances of Outadore, a multiple stakes-winning sprinter who has faltered in two starts running one mile.

In contrast, a fast pace would suit Annex just fine. The Bill Mott trainee unleashed strong late rallies to win his first three starts at Gulfstream Park, including narrow triumphs in the Palm Beach Stakes and Cutler Bay Stakes.  He subsequently misfired in the American Turf (G2) at Churchill Downs, coming home eighth while failing to produce his typical rally. But the Penn Mile field looks like an easier spot, and the prospect of a fast pace stamps Annex as a major threat while adding blinkers for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.

May 29

Belmont Park, Race 3: Allowance: #4 First Captain (6-5)

There are few horses I'm more excited about these days than First Captain, who might just be a monster in the making for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. McGaughey isn't known for saddling ready-to-win first-time starters, yet First Captain fired off a huge effort in his April 24 debut sprinting seven furlongs at Belmont Park, rallying boldly with an :11.95 final furlong to win by just under a length.

This effort is all the more impressive when you consider how First Captain is bred to thrive running long. He's a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin out of the A.P. Indy mare America, winner of the Turnback the Alarm Handicap (G3). Racing 1 1/4 miles should be right up First Captain's alley, so I strongly suspect Saturday's allowance race will turn into a steppingstone toward the Travers (G1) at Saratoga. Not only do I believe First Captain can win the Travers, I think he can develop into the champion three-year-old male of 2021.

Santa Anita, Race 8: Triple Bend (G2): #5 Eight Rings (9-5)

Following a productive two-year-old season highlighted by a blowout victory in the American Pharoah (G1), Eight Rings failed to factor in two widely spaced starts at three, finishing fifth in the Bachelor Stakes and seventh in the H. Allen Jerkens (G1).

But Eight Rings has been given 10 months off and is eligible to come back fresh and fit for a big effort in the Triple Bend. He's been cranking out fast workouts in preparation for his return, including a bullet five furlongs from the Santa Anita starting gate in :58 flat. Furthermore, he's drawn the outside post in a five-horse field, affording hot jockey Flavien Prat plenty of options for working out a clean trip.

The fact Eight Rings has stayed in training for a four-year-old campaign suggests Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is confident the son of Empire Maker is better than his sophomore season suggests. Throw in the fact Prat and Baffert have gone 6-for-12 (50%) together over the last two months, and I think the stage is set for a winning effort from Eight Rings.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like this weekend?


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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

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