As the summer just flies right by, the summer racing season will reach its apex this Saturday with the 144th running of the Travers Stakes, the Midsummer Derby for three year olds. The race features strong contenders with Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Belmont Stakes winner Palice Malice, and Haskell winner Verrazano. This year’s field looks strong, which sometimes is not the case given the dizzying array of races and the varying plans of the many trainers. There was a time when the Travers was a must, a race you had to enter and try to win. The Breeders Cup changed that thinking as some trainers skipped the Travers and geared their horses for a fall campaign that pointed them to the Breeder’s Cup Classic.
The Haskell was also run closer to the Travers which offered trainers the option to run there and skip the big race at the Spa. Fortunately, things have changed to make the Travers appealing once again. The Breeder’s Cup is a week later and there is enough of a spread between the Haskell and the Travers to make running both races a possibility. Verrazano makes the case for 2013, winning the Haskell so impressively he will likely be the favorite this Saturday. Having the Jim Dandy and the Haskell on the same weekend makes for delicious theater giving handicappers the delight of determining which horse’s performance was better.
Palice Malice looked great in the Jim Dandy, winning in 1:47.37. Verrazano blew away the field in 1:50.68 in the Haskell. Palice Malice has won two in a row—the Belmont and the Dandy—and comes to the Travers in top form. Verrazano has also won two in a row, both at Monmouth and both in dominating fashion. It will be interesting to see where the money goes come Saturday. Both are trained by Todd Pletcher, so the Spa faithful, which loves to bet “trainers” to win won’t be able to do that with these two. The hunch here thinks Verrazano will be the post time favorite, simply because he will get the most attention by the media. Deep down the media thinks Verrazano is a better colt than Palice Malice. In the winter and spring, many thought he was the best of the three year old crop and they made plenty of excuses for his poor Kentucky Derby performance. The experts want him to be the better horse and for that reason, the public will probably make him the favorite. His last two performances certainly validate that favored status.
Palice Malice will certainly get his fair share of attention and deservedly so. In fact, he has probably been the sharpest three year old thus far. He set the blazing fractions in the Kentucky Derby before fading down the stretch. But, he ran with blinkers on, seemingly oblivious to the other horses in the field. After skipping the Preakness, the blinkers were off in the Belmont and a calm, controlled Palice Malice pulled away in the Belmont, and then dominated the Jim Dandy. His connections had the perfect excuse, they could say it was the blinkers and they have the results to back it up.
Orb is the supreme wild card. He was always respected, but some of that respect was given begrudgingly. In a way, Orb reminds me of Funny Cide, the gutsy gelding from 2003. Most thought Empire Maker was the horse to beat, and when Funny Cide won the Derby, then the Preakness, many were not convinced of his prowess. When Empire Maker beat him in the Belmont, many trotted out the “I told you so,” mantra. Orb probably had more credibility than Funny Cide, his Derby prep races were spectacular, and after the Derby, he was considered a real threat to win the Triple Crown, but he faded in the Preakness, and though he finished third in the Belmont, it was a soft third as he never really threatened.
Orb also has the classy and likeable trainer in Shug McGaughey and because of that, people will wager on the son of Malibu Moon. He hasn’t run since the Belmont, but he did a have a fine workout last week, but he also had a fine workout before the Preakness, and as we know, workouts are workouts, races are races. He has the class to come back and come back strong, but the layoff and how he reacts to race conditions will be the key.
Missing will be Oxbow, the underrated colt who ran well in the Derby, won the Preakness, and was right there in the Belmont. He is done for 2013 after injuring his ankle in the Haskell. That is sad to hear because it would have been nice to see him run here and the Classic, but personally, I believe Oxbow has hit his peak, and would not have been a threat to win the Travers. This colt ran hard in the spring and I think a downward trend would have continued the rest of the year. Here’s hoping that we get to see Oxbow in 2014 rested, rejuvenated and ready.
There are three other horses of interest. Will Take Charge, who looked outclassed in the spring campaign, ran well in the Jim Dandy finishing second to Palice Malice. The Travers will be a make or break race for him. Is he capable of rising up and pulling an upset? If he does, he would definitely be pointed to the Classic, if not, he may be moved down to lower graded stakes races. I don’t see Will Take Charge taking the step up but I commend his connections for entering him. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because trainer D. Wayne Lukas is the ultimate “riverboat gambler,” who usually will race over rest.
Is Moreno capable of shocking? He was third in the Jim Dandy, and this race has seen longshots come through in the past. Heck, this is horse racing, for every Seattle Slew, there is a Sarava, and the term “upset” originates, of course, from Saratoga. The third is Golden Soul, who was a hard charging second in the Kentucky Derby but hasn’t done much since. Like Will Take Charge, the Travers will prove if Golden Soul is legit or a fluke. To me, he’s outclassed, but he can prove me and others wrong with a strong performance. He has worked well, and optimism resonates from his camp.
The Travers is the Travers, a celebration of 144 years of racing excellence. The scene at Saratoga is second-to-none and it will no doubt, be a fantastic race on a fantastic day.