The most popular race to watch this weekend may be the least popular to bet at the world’s biggest contest for horseplayers.
Will anyone be crazy enough to go against Essential Quality in Saturday’s $1.25 million Travers Stakes? That specifically means any of the more than 460 competitors who have descended on Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino to start playing Friday for a $700,000 first prize in the National Horseplayers Championship.
The format of the tournament encourages smart value plays. It is all about racking up imaginary bankrolls based on the toteboards at racetracks around North America. The odds-on price that Essential Quality will command at Saratoga will be a waste of one of the 36 picks each player must make in a bid to make the cut for the NHC’s climactic rounds Sunday.
But back to that bet against Essential Quality (4-5 on the morning line). The Kentucky Derby showed he is not unbeatable. Getting bumped at the start and queueing up in the carousel behind the horse that got loose on the lead had a lot to do with it. That cannot possibly happen again in the Midsummer Derby, can it?
Could Midnight Bourbon (9-2), carrying his fifth different jockey in as many starts, snap his five-race losing streak with Ricardo Santana Jr. quarter-horsing him out of a rail draw, take a ground-saving, 1¼-mile trip and lead the field from gate to wire? That is exactly how he got his last win, way back in January in the Grade 3 Lecomte. The forecast of rain this weekend would only help that strategy.
The problem with that theory is that Midnight Bourbon will not be alone. He might not even be on the lead. Masqueparade (8-1) actually possesses most of the early speed. The only problem there is that he actually never has been out front early in any of his races. Jockey Miguel Mena tends to keep him just off the pace, and that pace has tended to be slow. Masqueparade’s last two wins came in a Churchill Downs allowance race and in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby. No one was clicking sub-12s in either.
Keepmeinmind (6-1) got within a half-length of beating Essential Quality last month in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy, and Dynamic One (6-1) picked off six horses in his come-from-behind victory against restricted company in the Curlin Stakes. Those two might need a lot of the speed up front to break down late. But that scenario would also play into the hands – or hooves – of Essential Quality, wouldn’t it?
Miles D (12-1), lightly raced for trainer Chad Brown, and King Fury (15-1), a flop on turf three weeks ago for Kenny McPeek, feel outclassed in this race, at least in terms of winning it. Actually, all six of the challengers feel outclassed compared with Essential Quality.
The what-have-you-done-lately crowd would claim to being unimpressed with Essential Quality’s narrow victory in the Jim Dandy. Conversely, the smart bettor would not forget that the favorite to win the Travers and the clubhouse leader to win the 3-year-old male championship already won the Belmont Stakes. You know. The Belmont. That 1½-mile Test of the Champion that featured a toe-to-toe fight between Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie. Essential Quality never blinked.
“I think he’s a classic-distance horse,” his trainer Brad Cox said Wednesday at the Travers draw. “He’s proven that already. He’s sharper this race than going into the Jim Dandy. My plan all along was to have him peak in this spot. Our goal since the Kentucky Derby was to have him at his best Travers day, and from a mental and physical standpoint I feel he’s right where we want him.”
So Essential Quality should win the Travers. And no one should bet against him, especially if there is mythical money to be made to get over Saturday night’s 10 percentile cut line in the NHC.
So why would a seasoned horseplayer even give one of the other six starters a whiff of his or her bet?
Cox wanted to win the Derby with Essential Quality. Then, as now, the last impression beforehand was a narrow victory in the last prep before the big date. He may have had excuses, but a loss is a loss is a loss. There is a little bit of déjà vu here.
“I’m not a gambler,” trainer Kenny McPeek said after he saw his colt King Fury was the longest morning-line shot for the Travers. “The price is the price. When Golden Ticket won (the 2012 Travers), nobody paid any attention. When Sarava won (the 2002 Belmont Stakes), nobody was paying any attention.”
McPeek thought about that the way a horseplayer trying to sneak into the NHC semifinals might ponder betting a long shot in the Travers.
“Maybe that’s better,” he said. “No pressure.”
My bet will be on Essential Quality cold on top with Keepmeinmind and Dynamic One boxed underneath.
Racing notes and opinions
Saratoga has seven Grade 1 races Saturday culminating with the Travers at 6:12 p.m. EDT. The best on the card might be the $600,000 Personal Ensign at 4:47 p.m., the 1⅛-mile race featuring a rematch of division leader Letruska (6-5) and last year’s Preakness winner Swiss Skydiver (7-2). When they shared the track at Oaklawn on April 17 for the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap, Letruska was the 3-1 third betting choice behind Swiss Skydiver and two-time Eclipse Award winner Monomoy Girl. She led almost the whole way and won by a nose – and by a six-pound weight advantage – over Monomoy Girl. Swiss Skydiver was a non-factor in third, and McPeek said afterward that she had been set back by an ankle infection that week. Further derailed by an isolated quarantine brought on by a nearby equine herpesvirus outbreak this summer, Swiss Skydiver was thrown into the deep water with the boys in the Grade 1 Whitney three weeks ago, and she finished a distant fourth. She and Letruska will carry 124 pounds each Saturday as will the other seven fillies and mares in the Personal Ensign. Letruska will have company on the early lead with Miss Marissa (20-1), the winner of the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap on July 10. Shuvee winner Royal Flag (10-1), a two-time Grade 3 victor the last 9½ months for Brown, looks like the most likely closer to pull off the upset. A box play with Letruska, Swiss Skydiver and Royal Flag appears to be just the ticket.
About the other Saratoga Grade 1 races Saturday (all times EDT):
* Ballerina (3:02 p.m.). Gamine (3-5) looks like the biggest reason trainer Bob Baffert went to court to get rid of the New York Racing Association’s ban against him after Medina Spirit failed a drug test following his Kentucky Derby triumph. She looks like the free square in multi-race bets. In vertical plays, do not ignore 5-year-old Ce Ce (4-1), who won a Grade 2 race last out July 2 at Santa Anita.
* Forego (3:37 p.m.). It was not that many days ago when the NYRA racing office sent a message to owners saying it was having trouble filling this race. Yaupon (5-2) is favored in his second race back from an eighth-place fizzle in the Dubai Golden Shaheen. His back-in-America win at Pimlico on July 4 was nothing special. Mind Control (7-2) and Lexitonian (9-2) have had eye-catching victories this summer, but they cannot be trusted, either. Whitmore (4-1) will be a sentimental choice, and it would be easy to dismiss him as being too old at age 8. But his four losses since his Breeders’ Cup Sprint victory last fall have been competitive. If two things can simultaneously be true, Whitmore will be both an underlay and the best bet among the older horses in this seven-furlong race.
* H. Allen Jerkens Memorial (4:12 p.m.). The discussion begins and ends with Jackie’s Warrior (1-1). A bad start in a neck loss two races ago are the only reasons he is not 7-for-7 in one-turn races. Yes, I see Life Is Good (8-5) coming in 3-for-3, but can he run a straight line for Pletcher after he could not for Baffert? If he is not a bad actor, I may go down in flames here. Count me all-in on Jackie’s Warrior.
* Sword Dancer (5:25 p.m.). Coming off a blinkers-on victory last time out in a 1½-mile turf stakes at Belmont Park, Gufo (3-1) looks well positioned here to make it two wins in a row over the same distance for trainer Christophe Clément. Japan (9-2) carries international colors from Ireland. He also carries 20 – yes, 20 – fewer pounds than in his Group 3 win back home last month. But he does not look like the sort of horse that can stay the 1½ miles. The forecast rain Saturday may be a good thing for Gufo, because the course was rated good for that July 5 triumph. It may be a better thing for Channel Maker (8-1), the now 7-year-old gelding that won this race in 2020 for trainer Bill Mott. The harder it rains, the more money there will be on Channel Maker, and he should be the choice. If there is just enough to soften the course a little, then Gufo is the pick.
The NHC brings me back to Las Vegas for the first time since my wife and I moved to Kentucky in April. Even though the temperature is forecast to reach 109 outside during the tournament, air-conditioning is odds-on to make the Bally’s Event Center 35 degrees or so cooler. Actually, if the National Thoroughbred Racing Association wanted a more efficient way to maintain indoor comfort, it might turn to the iceberg that still exists between the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association and Churchill Downs Inc. If I counted correctly, the impasse that prevents Nevada horseplayers from legally betting on tracks whose video distribution goes through CDI is into its 671st day Friday. It is clear Nevada bookmakers are fine booking the Kentucky Derby on their own and leaving the rest of the year’s races at places like Fair Grounds and Oaklawn to be non-entities. And CDI is happy to live without the smaller and smaller potatoes coming from Nevada racebooks. If there is one possible solution on the horizon, it might yet come from the alliance formed in May between NYRA Bets and BetMGM. It seems only a matter of time before the two of them fire a shot over the hoary establishment and try to get their advanced-deposit wagering partnership off the ground in Nevada. Considering next year’s NHC is scheduled for Jan. 28-30, Fair Grounds and Oaklawn will be conspicuous by their absence from the betting menu. Regardless of whose fault the impasse is (the correct answer is both sides), it should be enough of an embarrassment for Las Vegas to be a call to action – whether it is by NYRA-MGM and/or other partnerships just waiting to be born.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode originates from the National Horseplayers Championship in Las Vegas. A panel of competing handicappers including former NHC winners Thomas Goldsmith and Judy Wagner and Thoroughbred owner-horseplayer Jon Lindo discuss the tournament postponed by COVID. “Saratoga Live’s” Maggie Wolfendale Morley previews Saturday’s $1.25 million Grade 1 Travers Stakes. VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo handicaps weekend races at Saratoga and Del Mar. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.