No matter how much fun the Whitney, Jim Dandy, Alabama, and Woodward Stakes are, the centerpiece of the Saratoga meet is and will always be the Travers. It has all the classic elements; restricted to three year olds all carrying 126 pounds, run on the dirt and run at the elegant distance of 1 ¼ miles. It’s not as prestigious as the Kentucky Derby, which barring something unforeseen always has a 20 horse field, and may be just a notch below the Preakness and Belmont, but after that, if you’re a trainer, a jockey, an owner, it’s a race that looks good on the resume. I watched Jerry Bailey being interviewed by NYRA CEO Christopher Kay and without hesitation Bailey mentioned that he had won three Travers, no thinking required.
Other races may have bigger purses and others like the Pennsylvania Derby are trying to grow in stature, but the Travers is the Midsummer Derby, period, and Saratoga remains the quintessential American racetrack. And, when you look at the field, you’ll see that the 2014 edition is nothing short of big time.
There are 10 horses in the field, and you can make a case for most of them to win the race. There are Hall of Fame trainers ready to see if their colt can add an American classic to his legacy. I’m not really a handicapper and I’m not the guy who looks over allowance and claiming races, studies the racing form and comes up with exotic ways to make money, but if it’s a big time race with big time talent, I’m ready. Most of my predictions “come to me,” they’re gut decisions, but they’re based on what I’ve seen, heard and read. The amazing thing about horse racing, specifically, the bettors, is that most of the time when they make a bet, they’re betting on horses that they haven’t seen run. That’s what separates the Travers from the Kentucky Derby and the pre-Derby races. The Travers horses have a resume, a list of work that makes handicapping perhaps a bit easier.
Commanding Curve drew the one hole, that’s not good and if the track is wet, it’s less than not good. The Dallas Stewart trained colt is really a one run closer and though he ran strong at the end to finish second in the Kentucky Derby, I’m not sure he’s the real deal. I don’t think he’s outclassed here, but I’m not sure he belongs in this class—yet.
Bayern is a threat. The Bob Baffert trained colt flew in from California on Wednesday, so obviously Baffert thinks he’s ready. If he had any doubt, he doesn’t get near the airport. Bayern is the speed horse. He will go to lead and set what you hope will be a legitimate pace. His win in the 1 1/8 mile Haskell was very impressive as he wired the field and was never threatened, but Monmouth is a speed-favoring course, but Saratoga is more honest. Still, I have to think Bayern is going to be there at the end.
Charge Now is trained by Bill Mott; another Hall of Famer who thinks the colt is sitting on a big one. I don’t see it, but Mott is known for being a second half of the year trainer. You don’t see Mott in the Derby and Preakness, but from June on, he’s a threat. We saw that with Drosselmeyer in the Belmont and the Breeder’s Cup Classic and last year with Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. My feeling is the Charge Now won’t be there in the end.
I haven’t seen enough of V.E. Day to think he’ll be a factor, but once again, if Jimmy Jerkens has him entered, then he can’t be completely dismissed. But, because I base my predictions on feel, I don’t feel anything here. Viva Majorca, trained by Ian Wilkes and owned by Saratoga socialite Marylou Whitney might be a crowd favorite, but he might be in over his head in this one.
In the six hole is Tonalist, the Peter Pan and Belmont winner. Bred to run all day, he finished second in the Jim Dandy, but it was a controlled second. He has the talent and he has another big one in him, but will it be tomorrow? He was clearly second best in the Jim Dandy, but he looked like he was treating it as a prep race.
Next to Tonalist will be the Jim Dandy winner, Wicked Strong and like Tonalist, he likes New York as he captured the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in April. He wore blinkers for the first time in the Jim Dandy he ran perfectly. He is a definite threat to win here. As long he stays straight, he’ll be running.
In the eight hole is Kid Cruz, who I believe is sitting on a big one. Trainer Linda Rice would be the first woman to win the Travers and “the Kid,” has the ability to do it. He continues to mature and improve and after winning two smaller stakes races, was third in the Jim Dandy, despite a curious ride by the red-hot Irad Ortiz. Normally a one run closer, Ortiz had Kid Cruz close to the lead in the Dandy, then drew back before firing up to get third. I look for the old strategy to reappear tomorrow with Kid Cruz settling in the back and making that one run down the stretch, and if Bayern does as advertised and sets honest fractions, the Kid should be right there at the wire.
The last two colts are Ulanbator and Mr. Speaker; the latter trained by Shug McGaughey. Like Mott, McGaughey would never enter a horse unless he was 100 percent sure he was ready, but I don’t feel that the Speaker is ready to shout in the Travers. Ian Wilkes is the trainer of Ubanator and truth be told, I haven’t seen enough of him to think he’s going to be a factor.
California Chrome is still the leader for 3-year-old Horse of the Year. He hasn’t raced since his disappointing Belmont and there are signs that he’s being pointed to the September 20 Pennsylvania Derby at Parx. That’s puzzling to me because trainer Art Sherman said that the colt’s next race would be in California, but the PA Derby offers incentives for champion three year olds and as mentioned, it’s a race that’s making an upward climb in the racing world.
The Travers winner will get that bump going forward, especially if the race is won by Bayern, Wicked Strong or Tonalist. They have the wins and a win in the Travers puts pressure on Chrome going forward. Tomorrow’s winner will likely be pointed to the Breeder’s Cup Classic, but they’ll face older horses there, so tomorrow’s race has enormous implications on the 3-year-old division.
In the end, I’m going with Kid Cruz, Tonalist, Bayern and Wicked Strong. I think Kid Cruz is ready to take the next step and join those other three in winning a big time, graded stakes race. Commanding Curve intrigues me; he could take a big step up or back depending on tomorrow’s outcome, so I’ll label him my sleeper, the trifecta wrecker if you will.
Until next time.