By Gene Kershner
Special to The News
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Saratoga Race Course’s signature race has been decided by a photo four times since 2008. The 145th edition of the Grade 1 Travers Stakes has a talented field that could produce another fabulous finish to the race known as the Mid-Summer Derby (NBC Sports Network, 4:30 p.m.).
The $1.25 million race includes the winners of the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, Haskell Invitational, Belmont Derby and the Spa’s prep race, the Grade 2 Jim Dandy. The field also includes the winners of the Grade 3 Dwyer and the non-graded Curlin Stakes. The field of 10 is headlined by the morning line favorite Bayern (2-1) who demolished a Haskell field by more than seven lengths, coming off the heels of a dominating performance on Belmont Day in winning the 7-furlong Grade 2 Woody Stephens.
The Haskell-Travers double was last pulled off by Bayern’s trainer Bob Baffert in 2001 when Point Given won the Travers. He’ll try and duplicate the feat he last attempted in 2011, when Coil finished dead last. It would also be Baffert’s second Travers win, he’s won Monmouth’s feature race seven times.
The big question mark about the favorite is whether he can get the classic 1¼-mile distance of the Travers, the same distance as the Run for the Roses. The son of Offlee Wild seems better suited for shorter distances as evidenced by his Woody Stephens and Derby Trial victories.
Assistant trainer Jim Barnes said Bayern is ready to roll.
“He’s doing very well. We wouldn’t have come otherwise,” said Barnes. “If you’re going to come 2,500 miles, you have to make sure that they’re hitting on all cylinders. Everything seems good.”
One horse that almost made the gate was Prince of Wales winner Coltimus Prime who was shipped to Saratoga last week to try the surface after his big win at Fort Erie on July 29. Trainer Justin Nixon decided to nix those plans after a subpar workout and point instead to the Ontario Derby at Woodbine in late September.
“He worked in 1:05, which is kind of slow, and we thought that maybe coming back in just under four weeks, obviously if we’re going to a race like the Travers we’d want to be 110 percent. The mile and a quarter in the Travers might be a bit more than he’d like,” said Nixon.
A horse that is intriguing coming into the race is Phipps Stables’ Mr. Speaker (10-1) who comes off a big turf effort winning the inaugural Grade 1 Belmont Derby by a neck over Adelaide at the classic distance. Adelaide came back to win last weekend’s Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington, flattering Mr. Speaker’s Belmont Derby.
He won the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in April on the polytrack and will try the dirt for the first time since January when he finished seventh in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream. The son of Pulpit is also the grandson of Hall of Famer Personal Ensign, and certainly has the breeding to succeed on the Spa’s dirt surface.
Trainer Shug McGaughey knows his colt will need some pace to win the Spa’s big race and will break from the outside post.
“I’m fine with the outside. The speed is on the inside of him. Bayern being in the No. 2, Tonalist and Wicked Strong in the middle, it’s fine. It will be interesting to see what they do. Bayern is a speed horse and someone has to go with him, so I’m fine with it. We can break and keep him outside of trouble, get him back and go from there,” McGaughey said.
After putting blinkers on second choice Wicked Strong (7-2), who finished fourth in both the Derby and the Belmont Stakes, trainer James Jerkens found the answer as he won the Jim Dandy convincingly on the front end. The Jim Dandy winner has also won 10 of the last 16 Travers and four of the last five. He’ll have to deal with Bayern on the front end and the pace scenario should be a deciding factor in the race.
Jerkens gave Wicked Strong an unconventional 3-furlong blowout on Thursday morning in preparation for the Travers. Jerkens and his father, Hall of Fame horseman Allen Jerkens, typically give their horses a blowout leading up to races.
“Anytime you expand the lungs close to a race as grueling as that, I would have to think it would be beneficial as long as you’re not overdoing it,” Jerkens said. “We always thought it just put the finishing touches on a horse’s fitness. A lot of people don’t even dream of doing it and do very well.”
The centerpiece race of the Spa’s 40-day meeting will renew the rivalry between Wicked Strong and Tonalist, the colt that derailed California Chrome’s Triple Crown attempt at Belmont Park in June. Tonalist finished second 2¼-lengths behind Wicked Strong in the Jim Dandy, and he has shown he has the endurance to handle the classic distance via his Belmont Stakes victory at a mile and a half.
Trainer Christophe Clement is ready to avenge the Dandy loss to Wicked Strong and thinks the added furlong will aid his colt.
“I think everything was fine. He just got beat. It’s called a horse race, and you get beat sometimes. I don’t think he ran a bad race, he just got beat,” Clement said. “I’m looking forward to the Travers. I’m looking forward to a mile and a quarter. I’m looking forward to the pace scenario. I’m excited.”
It’s the peak of summer racing, and if the past few years are any indication, this year’s Travers shouldn’t disappoint.
Post time outlook: 1 - Mr. Speaker; 2 - Wicked Strong; 3 – Tonalist.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.