SARATOGA SPRINGS – It’s up for grabs. The 3-year-old male division, that is.
The outcome of the 148th running of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course should provide Eclipse Award voters with a key result in deciding who will don the crown as the 3-year-old male champion.
With separate winners of all three Triple Crown races, the Haskell and Jim Dandy, Saturday’s Travers winner will have a big say on who will jump atop this topsy-turvy division.
For the first time since 1982, the main event of the 40-day Saratoga meet will include all three winners of the Triple Crown winners in the gate for the $1.25 million Grade 1 race. The last and only time that occurred, an Ontario-bred colt, Runaway Groom stole the show and the race. Post time for the Travers (Race 11) is 5:44 p.m. and the race will be part of an hour-and-a-half national telecast on NBC which starts at 4:30 p.m.
Included in the 12-horse field are the Haskell winner (Girvin), the Jim Dandy winner (Good Samaritan) and the winner of the Ohio and Indiana Derbies (Irap). Half of the field will be trying to lay claim to the right to say they are the best of the sophomores on the track in 2017.
Trainer Bob Baffert will add the highly regarded West Coast (4-1), who enters deep waters for the first time in an attempt to win back-to-back Travers training titles after last year’s improbable victory by Arrogate in track record fashion.
Derby trail veterans McCraken (second in the Haskell), Lookin at Lee (second in the Derby) and Gunnevera will make this the most loaded Travers fields in recent memory.
Irap (8-1) is the wild card in the race. He’s trainer Doug O’Neill’s first Travers entrant, which is amazing in itself. The Bluegrass winner rebounded from a dismal trip in the Kentucky Derby to capture lower level Derbies in Indiana and Ohio impressively. His win in the Ohio Derby was flattered when second-place finisher Girvin won the Haskell at Monmouth and the second-place finisher in the Indiana Derby came back to win the West Virginia Derby.
He was in my Derby mix back in May and I haven’t lost faith in the Tiznow colt who should have no issues with the distance and will be coming in third off the layoff on his form cycle. A win in the Travers puts his resume right up there with the classic winners heading into races against older horses.
Trainer Doug O’Neill credits those two races as foundation builders for the Travers. “I think the Ohio Derby really sent him forward and then we saw it again in the Indiana Derby. He continues to train like a mature horse mentally. And we’re optimistic that we’re facing a lot of these horses that were part of the Derby, where we got annihilated.”
“But I think just the traffic, the 20-horse field, he just wasn’t mentally ready for that. Hopefully, come Saturday, we’re going to be ready for the biggest challenge of his life since the Kentucky Derby, which will be the Travers,” O’Neill told the national media during a teleconference earlier in the week.
McCraken (12-1) will attempt to become the third Haskell second-place finisher (Summer Bird, Keen Ice) to win the Travers in the last 10 years. He was nosed out of a win by Girvin at Monmouth after running a gritty race.
The son of Ghostzapper hasn’t run a bad race other than the Derby in his career and should relish the Saratoga surface versus the speed-favoring Monmouth track. The Matt Winn winner could be sitting on a big race and trainer Ian Wilkes is confident that the Haskell didn’t take too much out of him.
“I think he's on his game. I'm ready to run. The horse has such a fine turn of foot. Brian [Hernandez, Jr.] knows, and he knows what to do. I think the way the race set up and unfolded in the Haskell, he had to move. He made a great, long half-mile move. The horse can run a strong half mile," said Wilkes.
A Jim Dandy runner has claimed the Travers 18 times since 1960, the last being Will Take Charge in 2014, who went on to take the 3-year-old title without winning a classic race. This year’s Dandy winner won on the dirt for the first time in that race and has the stamina to handle the classic distance.
Good Samaritan (5-1) is the third choice on the morning line and will try and give trainer Bill Mott an Alabama-Travers double after winning the classic filly race last weekend with Elate. The son of Harlan’s Holiday showed a big effort on a deep, tiring track on Dandy day and should be around at the finish on Saturday.
Mott was excited about the competitive field and noted on Tuesday that his horse is ready for the challenge. "You got horses from everywhere, all the best,” said Mott. “You got the Derby winner, the Preakness winner, the Belmont; you've got everybody. It shaped up to be a really good field. So now, we've got to go out there and run our race. No issues at all. All is good up to this point,” he said.
Out of the Triple Crown winning colts, Belmont Stakes winner and morning line favorite Tapwrit (7-2) should be fresh and ready to roll in the mile-and-a-quarter trek around the Saratoga oval. He has trained well up to the Travers, skipping the local prep wherein the two other classic winners Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing both faltered on a deep track in the Jim Dandy.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will be seeking his third career Travers, winning in 2005 with Flower Alley and 2011 with Stay Thirsty. Jockey Jose Ortiz is seeking his first Midsummer Derby win.
It's a monster card with four "Win and You're In" Breeders' Cup challenge races on the card, and seven graded stakes in total. Two-time Eclipse champion filly Songbird will run in the Personal Ensign against rival Forever Unbridled.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Irap; 2 –McCraken; 3 –Good Samaritan; 4 – Tapwrit
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.
|2||Giuseppe the Great||Zito||Gaffalione||20-1|
|8||Lookin at Lee||Asmussen||Santana Jr.||30-1|