Quick: name the oldest graded stakes race in America. It's not the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, or the Santa Anita Derby. It's the Travers, also known as the Mid-Summer Derby, run at a mile and a quarter (same distance as the Kentucky Derby) at beautiful Saratoga Race Track in upstate New York, and it's this Saturday. To the surprise of nobody in racing, Derby-Preakness winner Big Brown is sitting this race out. The connections are using as their excuse that the Haskell took a lot out of him, but even more to the point, there's no upside in him running. He's already beaten almost every 3 year old of consequence; why risk looking bad by losing to a bunch of them in the Travers? Instead, he's going to a ready-made grass race and will then go to the Breeders Cup Classic.
This doesn't mean the Travers stinks; to the contrary, it's a fascinating betting race with 12 entries who have had various levels of success this year, and very few of which have run all that quickly. Let's break them down from 12 to 1. Some of these names will be familiar from the Triple Crown Trail, others, not so much.
Thanks But No Thanks
12. Tizbig. Trained by Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens, who knows how to get a longshot into the winner's circle, he's the opposite of a conservatively managed horse, as he ran 2nd on Sunday. Yes, earlier this week. He looks like cheap speed that will ensure a quick pace and nothing more.
11. Cool Coal Man. Nick Zito still keeps telling us this horse is good, despite him having done absolutely nothing of merit since March. I'm sure he's a lovely animal and I'd be privileged to own and pet him, but at some point you need to show improvement. If anything, he's regressed.
10. Tres Borrachos. This horse's name is Spanish for 'three drunks'. I have just given you all of his good qualities.
9. Court Vision. This colt can been called a lot of things fairly accurately, none of them flattering: money-burner, cocktease, hanger, grinder, loser, overhyped, bust. Now he draws post 12 and has to move back from grass to dirt while trying to shed all of those labels. I would not bite.
Don't Let History Fool You
8. Da'Tara. Hey the Belmont winner! Yes. He followed that up by running dead last in the Jim Dandy, the prep race for this. The wiseguy circuit will try to tell you how Albert the Great rebounded off a bad Jim Dandy to run 2nd in the Travers in 2000 when the pace scenario was better. True. The problem is I don't think the pace scenario will be any better here, thanks to Tizbig. After 6 furlongs of being pressed, I look for him to start wilting.
7. Macho Again. As every telecaster on ESPN, TVG and all racing shows will tell you, the last three winners of the Jim Dandy have won the Travers. The streak stops here. His last race wasn't awful, but he was staggering a bit at the end, and would have been caught by Pyro had they run another 50 feet. That race smacks of the type of effort from which an overachiever regresses.
The Odd Ducks
6. Harlem Rocker. Hyped by everyone after winning the Withers and beating quick sprinter J Be K, he skipped the Preakness to point for the Canadian Triple Crown, whereupon he promptly flopped, albeit on a synthetic track. He came back and won his last on a regular dirt track, which you would think would make him competitive, except that he ran it painfully slowly. It's also worth noting historically that multiple horses from Canadian Triple Crown races have tried the Grade 1's in the US and failed miserably: Awesome Again did little until he was a 4 year old, and Archer's Bay, Wando and Wild Desert are cautionary tales. While I'm remiss to knock off a horse simply based on the history of his countrymen, he'll be around 4-1 while not being all that fast and having history against him. Look elsewhere.
5. Colonel John. We'll refer you back to our articles here and here where we note that this guy is a synthetic track freak and we have no idea how he'll do on a dirt track. Four months later, nothing has changed. His Derby effort was a rough trip that showed nothing one way or the other, and his last race was an oddball third on a synthetic surface. So we still have no idea how he'll do in a fair race on the dirt. You want to take 9-2 on that when he hasn't hit a triple digit Gowanus Speed Figure? Didn't think so.
The Price Plays
4. Amped. Hmmm. This guy's going to be the longest shot on the board, but hear me out on why he could hit the board at 40-1. Many criticize Nick Zito for sending in horses that have no shot to do anything, but the last two times he received that criticism, Da'Tara won the Belmont and Coal Play just lost the Haskell. He knows there's going to be an honest pace here, hurting one of his horses (Da'Tara). He probably knows that Coal Man is a plodder. So why not take a shot with a horse that actually can close a little and will get pace to run at? I'm not endorsing him for the win spot, just for underneath in exotics.
3. Tale of Ekati. Yeah yeah, he's almost as bad a tease as Court Vision. Well, not quite: he did win a Grade 1 this year in the Wood. He exits a puzzling Jim Dandy where he didn't finish close to the winners but made a strong middle move that got him nowhere fast. While the move meant little in terms of the race itself, it's the kind of move that indicates he may move forward in his next effort. He should sit a decent trip here, and he's one to use at a fair price underneath.
The Prime Contenders
2. Pyro. For better or for worse, after Big Brown, he's been the second-best 3yo colt this year. He did win a pair of prep races for the Derby, and won his comeback race in the Northern Dancer (albeit over nobody) and ran a creditable second to Macho Again in the Jim Dandy. And every indication is that he'll improve on that race and with the extra furlong. So why are we picking him to finish behind...
1. Mambo In Seattle? Price aside, it's a simple upside calculation. I firmly believe we've seen what Pyro can do. I don't think we've seen this horse's best yet by far. Perfectly bred, he's never been out of the exacta on a dirt track, and comes in from expert connections in Neil Howard. He ran faster than Pyro on Jim Dandy day in the Henry Walton, and it's typical for Howard horses to blossom in late summer/fall. The Grasshopper comparisons to last year's runner up aren't great actually--this is going to be a better horse than Grasshopper, who's done little this year to backup his 2nd in the Travers. Look for this guy to take a big step forward today, and make himself not only a fun prospect for the fall season, but also the best 4yo come next season.
Good luck to everyone and enjoy the race! If you're checking out the entire card, give looks to Porte Bonheur in the Victory Ride, Operation Red Dawn in the Bernard Baruch, and I'm So Lucky in the King's Bishop.