There is a lot of window dressing on this weekend’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga. A filly. An Irish invader. A turf specialist. Even a tight end’s namesake.
But even as Haskell winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Good Magic (2-1) is a worthy morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $1.25 million Grade 1 race, this year’s summertime pinnacle for 3-year-olds lacks something. A lot of something.
It’s not just that Triple Crown winner Justify is retired to stud. Other Grade 1 winners like Audible, Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie are still on long breaks. Just last weekend Hofburg, third in the Preakness, got a fever and was also ruled out of the race that will qualify the winner for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Like it or not, the Travers looks more like the NCAA Tournament with all the top seeds knocked out before the Sweet 16.
Good Magic may be the Wynn Las Vegas favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. But one look at the best Beyer Speed Figures this year reveals that Justify, Audible, Bolt d’Oro, McKinzie and Hofburg all had better numbers than Good Magic’s 99.
So Travers bettors should notice that the bar has been lowered this year to hit the board over Saturday’s 1¼ miles on Saratoga’s main track. Put it this way. Would Kentucky Oaks runner-up Wonder Gadot (5-1) be the first filly in the Travers in 39 years if Justify, Audible and Hofburg – all eastern horses – had wound up in the race? And would she still be the third choice on the morning line?
Still, the door is open for a big payoff, even if Good Magic adds another notch in what is certain to be Chad Brown’s second Saratoga training title in three years.
“He’s been training very, very well,” Brown said. “He came out of the Haskell in really good shape, he’s had a couple of works since, and they’ve been great. The horse has been maintaining his form very well.”
Good Magic figures to be bet shorter than 2-1, so even Brown’s other colt Gronkowski (4-1) may yield some value, presuming his odds go longer. Remember, this is the same Gronkowski that was left at the gate at the start of his U.S. dirt debut in the Belmont Stakes before he made up 12¼ lengths in finishing second to Justify.
“He ran a great race in the Belmont and he’s had plenty of time to recover,” Brown said. “I feel the horse is sharper now than he was going into the Belmont. Hopefully he leaves out of the gate in a little better position.”
Although there is no obvious pace-setter in the field of 11, the Travers is full of horses that would be comfortable on or near the lead. That leaves a colt like Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso (10-1), the only pure closer in the race, a possible beneficiary of a strong, early pace.
The biggest question with Vino Rosso, as it is with so many of trainer Todd Pletcher’s horses, is whether he will live up to his springtime accomplishments. That question was stoked when he finished an enigmatic third as the 6-5 favorite last month in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga.
The Travers field also includes Jim Dandy winner and top value play Tenfold (8-1), Belmont Derby turf winner Catholic Boy (8-1), Preakness and Haskell runner-up Bravazo (12-1) and UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn (12-1).
Yes, the Irish megastable Coolmore is persistent in bringing Mendelssohn back for what it still hopes is a Breeders’ Cup Classic campaign. After getting crushed between two horses coming out of the gate in the Kentucky Derby, Mendelssohn improved on his last-place finish at Churchill Downs with a fading, third-place effort early last month in the Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes over a one-turn mile at Belmont Park. With visions of his win in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, trainer Aidan O’Brien and jockey Ryan Moore are back to try, try again with this colt that, like Justify, was sired by Scat Daddy.
More recent results convinced owner Gary Barber and trainer Mark Casse to send Wonder Gadot into this race that no filly has won in 103 years. This summer she was a dominant winner against males on fake dirt in the Queen’s Plate and real slop in the Prince of Wales, the first two races in the Canadian triple crown. Rather than try for the north-of-the-border sweep last Saturday over 1½ miles of turf in the Breeders’ Stakes at Woodbine, Barber and Casse decided to take a chance on this race worth three times as much.
“We feel that a mile-and-a-quarter is her game,” Casse said. “We get five pounds, which going a mile-and-a-quarter means something. And Gary’s always been one to kind of step out of the box.”
As Casse pointed out, he also trained two-time female turf champion Tepin to conquer the boys, most notably in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Mile. “We just thought this was a good year to try it,” he said, “since we have a filly that’s already beaten colts a couple of times.”
And since the colts this weekend do not include Justify and those others, the path to the $670,000 first prize looks a little less daunting.
Post time for the Travers is scheduled for 5:44 p.m. EDT Saturday. The weather at Saratoga is forecast to be mostly sunny with a high of 81.
Racing notes and opinions
Despite drawing outside in the field of 10, the 5-year-old closer Sadler’s Joy (7-2) is the morning-line favorite to win his second consecutive Sword Dancer Stakes, a $1 million Grade 1 race over 1½ miles of Saratoga’s inner turf Saturday at 4:49 p.m. EDT. Spring Quality (4-1), the winner by a neck over Sadler’s Joy in the Manhattan on June 9, is the second choice followed by Funtastic (9-2), Brown’s United Nations winner; and Channel Maker (5-1), one of the dead-heat winners last month in the Bowling Green. The bet here is on the other horse from that dead heat. Glorious Empire (10-1) breaks from the rail, which has produced 24 percent of the winners on this course. If he sits just off an uncertain pace in this race, he should be in position to hit the board at a big price.
Last year’s champion 3-year-old filly Abel Tasman (6-5) is the heavy favorite to win the $700,000 Grade 1 Personal Ensign, a nine-furlong race for females Saturday at 2:59 p.m. EDT at Saratoga. Trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, Abel Tasman was a 7½-length winner June 9 in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park. Elate (7-5) is the second choice after coming back from an eight-month break to win last month’s Delaware Handicap. The top two finishers in last month’s Grade 3 Shuvee – pace-setters Farrell (6-1) and Wow Cat (4-1) – are also in the field of six. This one looks like a duel between Abel Tasman and Elate, so this race may be best left for horizontal bets.
While the Wynn Las Vegas makes Good Magic the 9-2 favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, there is a new, nationwide pool that established Pacific Classic winner Accelerate as a 4-1 morning-line favorite. The first installment of the Breeders’ Cup Future Wager starts Friday at noon EDT and runs through Sunday evening. There are 23 horses plus an “all others” choice in the Classic wager and an identical setup for the Distaff, in which Kentucky Derby winner Monomoy Girl is the 7-2 pre-betting favorite. Separate pools will also be conducted Labor Day weekend and in early October. Details on the Breeders’ Cup Future Wager are available at breederscup.com/Future-Wagers.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week John Sadler, trainer of Pacific Classic winner Accelerate, and Steve Byk, host of At The Races on SiriusXM with a Travers Stakes preview, are the guests. The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher. VSiN’s “Road to the Breeders’ Cup” is sponsored by Xpressbet.