LAS VEGAS--It is a simple question that has been asked for months, but the answer is beyond complicated. Which colt or gelding is the best 3-year-old male racing in North America this year?
A parade of candidates has streamed through the racing landscape. Defending 2-year-old champion Classic Empire. Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming. Preakness winner Cloud Computing. Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit. Each has been the answer to the question at one time or another, but every reign has been brief.
Which brings us to the $1.25 million Grade 1 Travers Stakes at 5:44 p.m. EDT Saturday at Saratoga. The winner of each Triple Crown race will be there. The last time that happened was 2015, when they were American Pharoah, American Pharoah and American Pharoah. Guess which horse was the top 3-year-old that year?
But even American Pharoah lost the Travers. That is a reminder to those who believe this race will definitely settle the 3-year-old question. For bettors that is a reminder that there is every chance that Always Dreaming (6-1), Cloud Computing (8-1) and morning-line favorite Tapwrit (7-2) will not win this weekend. In fact there are strong cases to be made for eight of the 12 colts in Saturday’s 1¼-mile race that has a distinct lack of pace.
“You can go so many directions,” said Doug O’Neill, who trains three-time graded-stakes winner Irap (8-1). “Obviously if any of the Triple Crown race winners were to win, they’d probably lead the way. But if we were so lucky as to win on Saturday, I think we’d be definitely in the mix. It’s got a lot riding on it as far as the end-of-the year awards go. So we’re pumped.”
The thought that Irap could even be in consideration for an Eclipse Award underscores just how squirrely this 3-year-old season has been. Remember, Irap needed to win at odds of 31-1 in the Blue Grass Stakes just to get into the Kentucky Derby. And he did. Then he finished 18th in the Derby. Then he won his last two races, both graded stakes. Go figure.
Seven-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher has the best chance to score Saturday, since he trains both Always Dreaming and Tapwrit. One of the biggest challenges he had was to figure out which race would be next for each horse.
“Everyone was in agreement that the Travers was the race for (Tapwrit),” Pletcher said. “We felt like if we ran in either the Jim Dandy or the Haskell (last month) we’d leave a little something on the table that we wanted to save for the Travers. I think he’s been training exceptionally well and has put in some good breezes, and I feel good that we have him fit enough and fresh enough to fire his ‘A’ race.”
Where this is Tapwrit’s first competition in 2½ months, the Travers will be Always Dreaming’s third race since he won the Derby on a sloppy track that Equibase still stubbornly calls “wet-fast.” He was a tired eighth after setting a costly pace in the Preakness, and then he finished third as the 11-10 favorite in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga.
“We left him probably a little bit short for the Jim Dandy,” Pletcher said. “I wasn’t anticipating quite as demanding of a racetrack that it turned out to be at that time. That race hopefully brings him forward.”
After winning the Preakness, Cloud Computing was held out of the Belmont because trainer Chad Brown felt the 1½ miles were too long a distance for him. But then he came up a dud finishing fifth at 6-5 odds in the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy.
“The track was very demanding,” Brown said. “This horse has never let us down in a workout or a race except that one day. (He was) very tired and just didn’t come out of that race like we’ve normally seen. He’s come back and worked great twice going to the track. It’s tightened up nicely, and he’s ready to run his race.”
His race is to chase the pace, but the question this weekend is which horse will set it? Just based on form, it figures to be Always Dreaming with jockey John Velázquez. Then again, he had the early lead in the Preakness, and that did not work out.
“We’ll let him run to the first turn and see where that lands him,” Pletcher said. “He’s a horse who doesn’t have to be on the lead, but if he were to get there the right way we wouldn’t take it away.”
That is the essence for two-thirds of the Travers field. Eight of the colts may or may not want the lead with the other four being closers, including former turf specialist Good Samaritan (5-1), the Jim Dandy winner in his dirt debut.
“It seems like a good post for us,” Good Samaritan’s trainer Bill Mott said. “For us it really doesn’t matter. I wasn’t really concerned about the draw, but we’re fine with that.”
The same goes for McCraken (12-1), the gritty colt that was nosed out by Girvin (10-1) in the Haskell at Monmouth Park.
“I have no problem with it,” trainer Ian Wilkes said of McCraken drawing gate 9. “He came out of (the Haskell) going forward. He made a great, long, half-mile move. The horse has such a fine turn of foot. I think he’s on his game.”
The unknown commodity comes from the west coast – and is appropriately named West Coast. The lightly raced colt sired by Flatter (no relation) has won his last three races including the Grade 3 Los Alamitos Derby. But he has never raced 1¼ miles. His trainer Bob Baffert has been down this road before. Last summer he brought Arrogate to the Travers for his first 10-furlong race, and all he did was win it by 13 lengths.
“He looks like he wants the distance,” assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes said of West Coast. “He really doesn’t have a lot of early speed, so (jockey Mike Smith) is going to have to just play the break and put him in a comfortable position.”
If the Travers is a microcosm of the rest of the year, there is every chance a value play will win it and further muddle the 3-year-old picture.
“You got horses from everywhere, all the best,” Mott said. “It shaped up to be a really good field. So now we’ve got to go out there and run our race.”
But if Good Samaritan or another one of the non-classic winners were to come through Saturday, there are still two other horses that could make a case to win the Eclipse Award as the best 3-year-old male.
Last year’s best 2-year-old – Classic Empire – has had one setback after another before and after finishing second in the Preakness. A foot abscess kept him out of the Belmont Stakes, and he has since been so ornery some mornings that he has at times refused to work out. Trainer Mark Casse is hoping to run him back in the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 23.
Then there is Oscar Performance. He has won his last three races, including the Grade 1 Belmont Derby and the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes. The reason he has not been on the same radar as the Travers field is the fact that he races on the grass. He won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last year and may be aimed to the Breeders’ Cup Turf this fall.
Fortunately for the 250 or so of us who vote for the Eclipse Awards, these are not just nine-month honors, and we have until the end of the year to figure this out. With any luck one horse may rise above the anarchy. Maybe even Saturday.
Songbird, Lady Eli are heavy Saratoga favorites
Two popular female horses – 4-year-old filly Songbird and 5-year-old mare Lady Eli – figure to be odds-on choices for their races on Travers day at Saratoga.
With 13 wins in 14 races, two-time Eclipse Award-winner Songbird (2-5) is the heavy, morning-line favorite against four other fillies and mares in the $700,000 Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes at 2:23 p.m. EDT Saturday. For her critics who point to her mere, one-length victories in both her races this year, the question is not so much whether Songbird will win but by how much.
“If folks aren’t happy with some of the things that Songbird’s done, then that’s their opinion,” her trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said. “I’ve stated that I don’t feel like I have to defend her. Her record speaks for itself, and she always gives her very best. That’s all we could ask in any horse that we’re training.”
Also a two-time Grade 1 winner this year, former Breeders’ Cup champion Lady Eli (4-5) figures to be bet heavily to win from her rail post in the $400,000 Grade 2 Ballston Spa Stakes at 6:20 p.m. EDT.
Lady Aurelia suffers narrow British loss
It appeared that the 3-year-old American filly Lady Aurelia (10-11) had won Friday’s $450,000 Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes over five furlongs of turf at York, England – until the finish-line photo showed up.
Instead, the 4-year-old Irish-bred filly Marsha (8-1) nosed out Lady Aurelia and nine other rivals – mostly boys – showing up the premature exhilaration of Lady Aurelia’s jockey Frankie Dettori.
It was Lady Aurelia’s first race since she became a two-time Royal Ascot winner with her victory two months ago in the Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes. She will be shipped back to trainer Wesley Ward’s barn at Keeneland and is expected to be trained for this fall’s Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Del Mar.