The "Mid-Summer Derby" will be in the national spotlight this weekend for the 142nd running of the $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. The wide-open 3-year-old division will be front and center (Ch. 2, 5 p.m.) with four winners of some of the year's biggest races squaring off over the classic mile and a quarter.
The most notable of the four, the classic winner Shackleford (9-2), will try to dispel doubts that the mile and a quarter route will be his downfall. He petered out of both the Derby and Belmont, both longer than the 1- 3/1 6-mile Pimlico track where he took down the Preakness.
"The race at a mile and a quarter is a little different than when you're running a mile and an eighth," trainer Dale Romans said. "I don't think there is anybody quick enough to get in front of us if they want the lead."
The 5-2 morning line favorite, Stay Thirsty, owned by Mike Repole and trained by Todd Pletcher, is coming off an impressive prep race, winning the Jim Dandy at the Spa earlier in the meet by four lengths. He is seeking to be the ninth colt to pull off the Dandy-Travers double, last performed by Street Sense in 2007. Repole, the former Vitamin Water kingpin, thinks he has the horse for the course.
"He's had three starts [at Saratoga], two wins, and a second," Repole said. "He loves this place. He thinks he loves it more than me and that's hard to do. He's training just as good, if not better, than that race."
With Javier Castellano aboard and a pedigree that befits the distance, Stay Thirsty has to be respected as a proven horse at the historic race course.
Another angle that has proved just as powerful in the past is the Belmont/Travers double, last achieved by Summer Bird in 2009. There have been 30 horses that have completed the historic feat; this year, Ruler On Ice will take a shot. Never off the board in eight starts, the Belmont champion is coming off a third-place finish in the Haskell, where he finished strong behind Coil and Shackleford at the shorter distance.
The son of Roman Ruler, who finished third in the 2005 edition, is the fourth choice at 6-1. Trainer Kelly Breen was a man of few words at the post position draw but was happy with the No. 4 post. "I just hope we're in front at the wire," Breen said. "That's all that matters."
The horse that may make the most sense from a historical perspective is the West Coast shipper Coil (3-1), winner of the Haskell four weeks ago. He is trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, the only trainer in the past 23 years to win the Haskell and the Travers in the same season. The horse he accomplished it with in 2001 just happens to be Point Given, Coil's sire, who won the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell and Travers in 2001. After breaking slow in the Haskell, Coil went from last to first for his second graded stakes win.
Baffert compared Coil to his father after the draw on Wednesday.
"Point Given was definitely lightly raced as a 3-year-old," Baffert said. "He only had two stars coming into the Derby and he was getting better and better as he went along. Coil sort of reminds me of him a little bit in the fact that he's not big. I think this is a good spot for him."
Not only does Coil have his father's history on his side, but Baffert's statistics shipping horses (33 percent) and combination percentages with jockey Martin Garcia (33 percent in the last 60 days) are equally impressive.
In the past 10 years, some longer priced horse have managed to hit the board, so it's wise to consider the long shots. Hold Me Back (17-1, 2009), Helsinki (50-1, 2007), Dr. Pleasure (40-1, 2006) and Nothing Flat (31-1, 2002) all come to mind.
The Grade 1 King's Bishop, a top flight sprint race featuring the return of Uncle Mo, will also be part of NBC's telecast this afternoon immediately preceding the Travers.
Post Time outlook -- Travers: 1 - Coil; 2 - Ruler On Ice; 3 - Stay Thirsty
Based on the bombers that have hit the board in the recent past, we'll also play JW Blue (20-1), Moonshine Mullin (20-1) and Raison d'Etat (10-1) in the third spot on trifecta tickets underneath our top three selections.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace.