Looking for Longshots on Travers Day

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

Raise your hand if you're ready for some top-class summer racing action at Saratoga!

Seven graded stakes (including six Grade 1s) are slated to take place on Saturday at "the Spa." Two of the most exciting events are the $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial (G1) and the $1.25 million Travers S. (G1), a pair of prestigious prizes featuring some of the fastest three-year-old Thoroughbreds in the country.

The quality of the competition is high, but could upsets be on the horizon? I believe a couple of 15-1 shots can outrun expectations this Saturday, so let's dig in and explore the possibilities:

H. Allen Jerkens Memorial (G1)

Just how much elite speed is packed into this seven-furlong sprint for sophomores? Well, all six entrants have shown the ability to win with pacesetting tactics, and several strongly prefer to race on the front end. Potential pacesetters include:

  • #1 Drain the Clock (6-1), gate-to-wire winner of the Bay Shore S. (G3) and a pace-pressing winner of the Woody Stephens S. (G1). He's raced first or second at every call in each of his last six starts and figures to vie for early supremacy while breaking from the rail on Saturday.
  • #2 Jackie's Warrior (1-1), who has carved out the pace in seven of his nine starts, including gate-to-wire romps in the Hopeful S. (G1), Champagne S. (G1), and Amsterdam S. (G2). He'll be tough to beat to the lead in the Allen Jerkens.
  • #3 Newbomb (30-1), who has set or pressed the pace in four of his five starts, including a front-running allowance win at Saratoga three weeks ago.
  • #4 Following Sea (5-1), who crushed maiden and allowance sprints while employing front-running and pressing tactics.
  • #6 Life Is Good (8-5), who hasn't been headed in three career starts, including victories in the Sham S. (G3) and San Felipe S. (G2) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

The only Allen Jerkens entrant who might actually be comfortable with rallying tactics is #5 Judge N Jury (15-1). Granted, he broke his maiden in gate-to-wire fashion at Saratoga last summer, carving out a fast pace before hanging on to win by 1 1/4 lengths. But the son of Tapiture showed a new dimension in a seven-furlong allowance at Saratoga one month ago, settling in fourth place behind modest opening fractions before finishing strongly to win by 8 1/2 lengths.

Judge N Jury's allowance romp marked his first start off a 9 1/2-month layoff, so he's eligible to take a step forward in his second start back for high-percentage trainer Danny Gargan. Who knows? If the Allen Jerkens favorites burn each other out in a destructive pace duel, Judge N Jury might just pick up the pieces and secure a stretch-running victory.

Travers S. (G1)

In case you haven't noticed, #2 Essential Quality (4-5) has been my handicapping Achilles heel. I've tried to beat last year's champion two-year-old male every time he's run this season... which has been a losing strategy four times out of five.

But old habits die hard, and I'll take another shot against Essential Quality in the Travers. This time, my argument stems from his narrow victory in the Jim Dandy S. (G2) at Saratoga last month. Essential Quality had to work much harder than expected to defeat longtime rival #3 Keepmeinmind (6-1) by half a length, and his resulting Beyer and Brisnet speed figures were significantly lower than the ones he posted in his Belmont S. (G1) victory two starts back.

It's possible Essential Quality will take a step forward in his second start of the summer, but the Travers has been hard on favorites over the last dozen years or so, with double-digit longshots visiting the winner's circle more often than top betting choices. History suggests playing against Essential Quality isn't the craziest strategy.

#4 Dynamic One (6-1), a rallying winner of the Curlin S. at Saratoga last month, will be a popular choice for two-time Travers-winning trainer Todd Pletcher. The improving son of Union Rags was strong down the homestretch of the Curlin, and his performance was hardly a fluke—during the spring, he finished second by a head in the Wood Memorial (G2) after arguably striking the front too soon.

I strongly respect Dynamic One as a live Travers contender. But for win purposes, I'm going to place my faith in #7 King Fury (15-1), who just happens to be the longest shot in the field.

I was a big fan of King Fury last season, when the Kenny McPeek trainee showed surprising early maturity to dominate his debut racing 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs. Even after racing wide around both turns, King Fury pulled away to score by 2 3/4 lengths. Later in the season, he showed impressive grit and tenacity to beat future Arkansas Derby (G1) winner Super Stock by half a length in the Street Sense S. at Churchill.

King Fury's 2021 form has been somewhat muddied by circumstances. After kicking off the year with a resounding 2 3/4-length win in the Lexington S. (G3) at Keeneland, King Fury entered the Kentucky Derby (G1), but wound up missing the race with an illness. After taking some time off from breezing, he came back in the Ohio Derby (G3) and rallied furiously down the homestretch to finish second, beaten just half a length while edging Keepmeinmind by a nose for the runner-up spot.

I'll forgive King Fury's recent 10th-place finish in the Saratoga Derby (G1) since he was trying turf for the first time. As a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin out of the Grade 1-winning Flatter mare Taris, King Fury has the pedigree to improve with maturity and handle 1 1/4 miles, so I'm optimistic returning to dirt in the Travers will trigger a big rebound. And by "big rebound," maybe we're looking at a 15-1 surprise victory.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Grade 1 races at Saratoga this Saturday?


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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.

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