SARATOGA SPRINGS – My first live Travers Stakes was in 2005, when Flower Alley beat Bellamy Road and favored Roman Ruler as 33-year-old John Velazquez won it for the first time.
Fast forward 14 years to the 150th running of the $1.25 million Grade 1 Travers on Saturday afternoon and the Hall of Fame jockey is still looking for his second win in the Saratoga meeting’s biggest race.
This year, in his 19th Travers, he’s aboard serious contender Code of Honor (4-1) for trainer Shug McGaughey. The maturing 3-year-old colt comes out of a convincing win in the Grade 3 Dwyer and has been raising eyebrows in the mornings at the Spa.
With the defections of Haskell winner Maximum Security and Game Winner spiking a fever and not shipping in for the race, Code of Honor’s chances improved immensely. The race has no Grade 1 winner in the field and only four G2 wins by three horses – Tacitus (Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial), Code of Honor (Fountain of Youth) and Tax (Jim Dandy).
The son of Noble Mission will join a crowded field of 12 that will head to the gate on Saturday afternoon racing at the classic mile-and-a-quarter distance. The Travers is scheduled to go to post at 5:44 p.m. as Race 11 on the blockbuster 13-race card.
The race nicknamed the Midsummer Derby will be part of a special one-hour broadcast beginning at 5 p.m. on Fox. Undercard coverage will also be televised nationally on FS2 from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT.
Code of Honor finished third in this year’s Kentucky Derby, placed second via the disqualification of Maximum Security, handling the classic distance on the First Saturday in May.
For a moment when the rail opened up for Velazquez a Derby win seemed to be within reach. Unfortunately, Maximum Security overcorrected back to the rail after he had veered out several lanes, shutting off the colt, thus ruining his chances at donning the roses.
McGaughey was modest at the draw on Tuesday night reflecting back on the First Saturday in May. “In the Derby, I'm not trying to stand here and say he might have won but he was compromised a little bit when [Maximum Security] came back over,” said McGaughey. “I think he flinched a little bit from that and it took away from his run just a little bit. He was third-best, and we got lucky and moved up to second."
His main competition Saturday will come from the unlucky Tacitus (5-2), the morning line favorite for trainer Bill Mott. After finishing fourth in the Derby, placed third, and second in the Belmont, his sights were set on the big Travers prep race, the Jim Dandy, to prove his doubters wrong.
But once again, he found trouble, this time exiting the gate, stumbling at the break and falling back to fifth. He couldn’t make up the ground, just falling short to the fortuitous Tax (6-1), who took advantage of Tacitus’ bad luck and captured the prep race for trainer Danny Gargan.
Mott will add blinkers to help the son of Tapit focus on the task at hand. His best training finish in eight career Travers was a second place finish by Vision and Verse in 1999. He wants this race as badly as a Triple Crown race and Tacitus will give him the best shot he’s had in years if he can get a clean trip.
The trainer who is dominating Saratoga for the second straight year is also looking for his first Travers training victory. Chad Brown will send two horses postward in Highest Honors (10-1) and Looking at Bikinis (10-1).
Highest Honors captured the nongraded Curlin Stakes on a muddy track during Jim Dandy weekend in impressive fashion and looks to be coming into the race somewhat under the radar.
He’s lightly raced, but he is a colt who could get away from this group, a trend we’ve seen in recent years with Arrogate, West Coast and last year in Catholic Boy. With regular rider Jose Ortiz staying aboard Tacitus, Luis Saez, a good front-end rider, gains the mount on the Tapit colt out of a Dixieland Band mare.
Javier Castellano will be seeking a record extending seventh Travers win aboard Looking at Bikinis, the third-place finisher in the Curlin. Brown felt that the son of Lookin at Lucky was compromised by the muddy track that day and is willing to give him another shot in the Travers.
Two contenders that have sure upped the competition are Ohio Derby and Lexington Stakes winner Owendale (6-1) and west coast shipper Mucho Gusto (6-1).
Owendale, the third-place finisher in the Preakness, ships in from Churchill Downs where he has posted several impressive workouts since his narrow win in Ohio. Trainer Brad Cox has been having a solid meeting so far at Saratoga and drew the rail for the Midsummer Derby.
Cox feels the rail position is not an issue based on his colt’s late running style. He was closing late in the Preakness, but ran out of room, the extra sixteenth of a mile in the Travers could be the difference.
“We'll just sit back and let the pace go. I thought his Lexington was his best race to date and it came off a similar layoff, so it was by design,” Cox said at the draw. “His work two weeks ago at Churchill was phenomenal and he galloped out huge and he's coming into this race in good shape, very similar to the Preakness.”
A late addition to the field, Mucho Gusto gives Bob Baffert a shot at winning his third Travers in the last four years after winning with Arrogate (2016) and West Coast (2017). He comes out of a solid second place finish in the Haskell behind divisional leader Maximum Security and Baffert wouldn’t ship him back across the country without thinking he has a decent shot.
Haskell winners, however, have struggled when running back in the Travers, this year an extra week separates the two races so it could make the difference for Mucho Gusto’s chances.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Code of Honor; 2 – Tacitus; 3 – Highest Honors; 4 – Owendale
|2||Code of Honor||McGaughey||Velazquez||4-1|
|4||Laughing Fox||Asmussen||Santana, Jr.||30-1|
|9||Looking At Bikinis||Brown||Castellano||10-1|
|10||Scars Are Cool||Hough||Gaffalione||30-1|
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Cox