Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, August 24, 2017 at 5:36 PM
APTLY NAMED MID-SUMMER DERBY ONCE AGAIN LADEN WITH QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS AND QUESTIONS...2017 TRAVERS ANOTHER BIG PAYOFF CHALLENGE
The Grade I Travers Stakes, the $1.25 Million Centerpiece of the Saratoga Meet every year once again, in 2017, lives up to its title as THE MID-SUMMER DERBY.
Each and every year the Travers is, unlike any other 3-year old test of a season, a mirror of the Kentucky Derby. For year in and year out, there are, just as is the case entering the Run For The Roses, more questions involving the status of the various 3-year olds developed enough and with resumes enough to be entered in this seminal race as there were prior to the First Saturday In May.
Just a recent sampling alone speaks to this contention. Below, before including a brief preview we'll take a look at just the last 4 editions of the Travers, which more than shows how wide open this race has become.
Do you remember these winners?
2016 - Arrogate ($25.40) - Final Prep A Win In A Second Level Allowance/Optional Claimer At Del Mar
2015 - Keen Ice ($34.00) - Final Prep A Second In The Haskell Stakes At Monmouth
2014 - V.E. Day ($41.00) - Final Prep A Win In The $100K Ungraded Curlin Stakes At Saratoga
2013 - Will Take Charge ($21.20) - Final Prep A Second In The Jim Dandy* At Saratoga
Is it any wonder that in those 4 years the average Exacta Payout was $168.80 and the average Trifecta Payout was $1,023.25?
*The Jim Dandy has recently been the biggest producer of Travers success. While only one winner in the 4 years mentioned above (and in a bit more detail below) in the last 12 years the Jim Dandy has produced 7 Travers winners. An 8th also had a final prep at Saratoga (in the Curlin) while 2 winners in the period exited the Haskell and one each Del Mar and Hollywood Park (Colonel John in 2008)
Again in 2017 the Jim Dandy will be well represented as 4 of the 5 that ran in will go forward in the Travers Good Samaritan, Giuseppe The Great, Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing) while the top two finishers from the Haskell (Girvin and McCracken) will join the fun.
THERE ARE FEW STANDARD ROADS TO THE TRAVERS
IN 2016 Arrogate was not only a surprise, but his record breaking Travers win is still the talk of aficionados. That he exited an allowance race had to raise questions despite the fact that he was trained by Bob Baffert, who also trained second place finisher American Freedom, whose second in the Haskell in his prior after wins in the Iowa Derby and Sir Barton Stakes before that made that one the more well-regarded of the two.
Gun Runner, who is currently at the top of the standings of the older division among a handful of analysts finished third after skipping both the Preakness and Belmont followed by a win in the Matt Winn at Churchill Downs before a so-so 5th in the Haskell prior to an improved effort in the Travers.
IN 2015 Keen Ice obviously pulled the biggest Travers upset in recent memory. Not so much because of his win and $34.00 mutuel but because it came at the expense of the invincible first in 37 years Triple Crown winner and Haskell Champion American Pharoah.
Keen Ice certainly had run competitively prior to the Travers, but the brass ring was not in his resume. He'd run a bang up second to American Pharoah in the Haskell and before that an improved 3rd in the Belmont Stakes after a not disgraceful 7th in the Kentucky Derby. Also following the same race spacing as Keen Ice was 3rd place finisher Frosted, who was second in the Jim Dandy in his final prep after running second in the Belmont Stakes following a 4th in the Kentucky Derby.
IN 2014 V.E. Day followed a completely unconventional path to his $41.00 upset victory. The James Jerkens trained colt was a last out winner of the Curlin Stakes, a lesser 3-year old development race a day before the Jim Dandy. The Curlin victory followed an allowance win on the turf at Belmont in early July.
Chasing V.E. Day under the wire were the 1-2-3 finishers from the Jim Dandy, Wicked Strong, Tonalist and Kid Cruz. Wicked Strong and Tonalist were, respectively, the 4th place finisher and winner of the Belmont Stakes prior to returning in the Jim Dandy while Kid Cruz had won the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont prior to the Jim Dandy.
IN 2013 Will Take Charge was a late developer who ran to no avail in all three legs of the Triple Crown. He was given a short break after the Belmont and showed improvement with a solid second at 18-1 in the Jim Dandy.
Also exiting the Jim Dandy was Palace Malice who failed in the Kentucky Derby and in typical Todd Pletcher fashion skipped the Preakness and regrouped to upset the Belmont. His victory in the Jim Dandy was equally impressive but he returned to also ran status in the Travers finishing 4th in the Travers behind 31-1 runner up Moreno and 3rd place finisher Orb, the Kentucky derby winner. 4th place Preakness finisher and 3rd place Belmont Stakes finisher.
For his part, Moreno was 3rd in the Jim Dandy after winning the Dwyer prior to his Travers step up.
EVEN WIDER BACKGROUNDS FROM 2017 TRAVERS ENTRANTS CREATE AM EVEN BIGGER CHALLENGE
Given the historical cliff notes above and how disparate they are, an argument can be made that in 2017, a year in which there is a major consensus that there is no 3-year old division standout, the Travers Stakes could easily eclipse the Win, Exacta and Trifecta Average payouts of the last 4 years.
Most noticeable is that for the first time since 1982, when separate Triple Crown winners Gato Del Sol, Aloma's Ruler and Conquistador Cielo met in the Travers, the 2017 edition will have derby Champ Always Dreaming, Preakness Winner Cloud Computing and Belmont Hero Tapwrit set to go. It is also worth mentioning that all three were beaten by Runaway Groom.
By now you've likely discerned the theme so let's take a brief look at the field.
CLOUD COMPUTING - Still lightly raced Chad Brown trainee has two career wins from 5 career starts. The connections will be looking for a repeat of his Preakness upset, not his Jim (not so) Dandy effort.
GIUSEPPE THE GREAT - Exits a second in the influential Jim Dandy. Trainer Nick Zito doesn't have the stock he once did and this guy is still eligible for non-winners of two lifetime. But his credentials were even less than that before his last.
WEST COAST - Four wins and two places in six career starts, including an easy margin win in the Grade I Los Alamitos Derby in his last. Oh, and he has speed and comes from that Baffert barn.
TAPWRIT - One of three Todd Pletcher runners he was tearing it up in Florida early in the year then was a disaster in the Blue Grass and Kentucky Derby before using the Pletcher-Preakness-Skip to bounce back and win the Belmont. Been off since that win. Will he be short vs. more seasoned runners?
GOOD SAMARITAN - Had raced entirely on turf until moved to the dirt for the Jim Dandy. Trainer Bill Mott believed a Harlan's Holiday colt out of a Pulpit mare should have no trouble handling dirt. The trainer was right as his colt pulled the Jim Dandy upset.
GIRVIN - A sore hoof and a horrendous trip in the Kentucky derby are the only bad efforts in a (7-4-2-0) career that includes a solid return effort second in the Ohio Derby right behind well-regarded Irap and a stirring Haskell win in his last.
ALWAYS DREAMING - Todd Pletcher's Kentucky Derby winner was a no show in the Preakness and finally returned in the Jim Dandy to a less than encouraging performance. He has his believers but he got the perfect Derby trip in a historically slowly run edition. Has much to prove.
LOOKIN AT LEE - He has a resume of consistent performances. With the exception of an arguably troubled trip in the Belmont Stakes he has closed ground in each of his last 10 races at 7 different tracks. Unfortunately he never closes enough ground and has not won since early in his juvenile campaign. Would a win be a surprise? Yes. Would a 4th place finish be one? No.
MCCRACKEN - His troubled trip as one of the top choices in the Kentucky Derby is his only less than impressive effort that has seen 5 wins and 2 seconds from 8 career starts. In the Haskell he might have been best. He was 4 wide coming off the turn, bid to take the lead and came up a photo short of Girvin.
IRAP - An upset winner of the Blue Grass and abject failure in the Kentucky Derby the Doug O'Neill trainee has been a monster in winning the Indiana and Ohio Derbies. These are a tad tougher but it cannot be dismissed that there is no 2017 3-year old standout. Could be this good.
GUNNEVERA - Trainer Sano rebuilt some confidence with a minor stakes win at Gulfstream in his last. His Preakness 5th was sneaky good because Mike Smith probably forced him into the race along the rail earlier than he might have wanted. He is fresh and has shown he'll run at them late.
FAYEQ - The least class tested of the field he enters off an entry allowance 9 furlong win in his last. Class test and tough post are considerations but so is 25% at the meet trainer McLaughlin.
As we said early on, the MID-SUMMER DERBY Travers Stakes always has just as many questions as the Kentucky Derby...perhaps even more so this year.