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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 12:00 AM


(Travers Day Preview—Part II)

By Jim Hurley

As has fortunately been the case in recent years, the 2014 Grade I $1.25 Million Travers Stakes has drawn a large field that is highlighted by 4 Grade I winners. In the last 4 years there have been 9, 11, 10 and 11 runners, and that has lead to the kind of payoffs one associates with the key Saratoga identifying slogan…"The Graveyard Of Favorites".

Win Mutuel - $18.75
Exacta - $174.20
Trifecta - $2,433.60
Superfecta - $17,879.40

That being said, the betting public will likely find one of three horses to key in on in this year’s edition. And that will once again, more likely than not, open up the potential for considerable payoffs.

Morning Line Favoritism (2-1) has been attached to the late developing Grade I Haskell winner Bayern. A winner of both that race 7/27 and the Grade II Woody Stephens on Belmont Stakes day by 7 plus lengths in each, the speedy son of Offlee Wild might go off as the favorite.

Also vying for the public’s attention will be Grade II Peter Pan and Grade I Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, who finished second in the Grade II Jim Dandy here in his most recent, and Wicked Strong, a winner of the Grade I Wood Memorial and Jim Dandy, in which he turned the tables on Tonalist, who had outgunned him in the Belmont Stakes.

Those three will, as I said, get all the public attention. But just as been the case in recent years, the top of the food chain 3-year olds have not always gotten the best cut of “steak.”

Last year circumstances were very similar to this year as Verrazano was installed as the ML and subsequent post time favorite (went off at 8-5) after a dominant victory in the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth only to stalk pace setter Moreno (who stayed on to drop a nose decision to Will Take Charge) before giving way with no excuse at the top of the stretch.

A year ago Verrazano became the latest in a long list of Haskell graduates to perform on a subpar level in the Travers (see Part I…18 starters last 10 years…1 win…1 second…2 thirds).

In fact, based on final preps, this year’s edition of the Travers has taken shape in much the same way recent editions have with the top 5 finishers of that race exiting the Jim Dandy Stakes, Bayern exiting the Haskell, the first, second and fourth place finishers in the Curlin Stakes (a $100K 3-year old race for later developing non-winners of a graded stakes run the day before the Jim Dandy) and Mr. Speaker, the upset winner of the Grade I Belmont Derby (turf).

To repeat, on paper this looks like a three horse race among Bayern, Tonalist and Wicked Strong. But last year the race looked to go through Verrazano, Belmont  Stakes and Jim Dandy winner Palace Malice and Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby winner Orb, and those three checked in 7th, 4th and 3rd respectively while Jim Dandy second and third place finishers Will Take Charge ($21.20) and Moreno (Exacta $313.00) upset the field.

In 2012 Jim Dandy winner Alpha, favored at 5-2 in the Travers was dead-heated by Kentucky Derby runner-up Golden Ticket at 33.5-1 while Jim Dandy 7th place finisher Fast Falcon (32.5-1) checked in third and Jim Dandy 6th place finisher Atigun finished fourth for a pair of Superfectas that paid over $38,000 and $20,000 respectively. As for the second and third favorites (Haskell Stakes runner up Nonios and Jim Dandy runner up Neck ‘N Neck), they chugged home fifth and sixth.

Even in 2011 when 5-2 favorite Stay Thirsty, following a win in the Jim Dandy) delivered as projected, the second favorite, Coil (winner of the Haskell in his prior) checked in last of ten, third favorite Shackleford, the Haskell runner up (who like Verrazano, couldn’t sustain his speed) was eighth under the wire and Haskell third place finisher and fourth favorite (Belmont Stakes winner) Ruler On Ice was a well-beaten fourth.

So as impressive “on paper” as this year’s Big Three might appear there is every “reward-able” reason to delve deeply into the 2014 edition of the “Mid-Summer Derby.”

Commanding Curve (15-1)—After his ridgeling’s huge price second to California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby when he closed from 18th at 37.8-1, trainer Dallas Stewart wisely skipped a Preakness Stakes that figured to play unfavorable to his running style. Unfortunately, that gambit didn’t work out any better in this year’s Belmont Stakes than it did in 2013 when Stewart also saddled longshot Golden Soul to finish second in the Kentucky Derby, sat out the Preakness in favor of the Belmont Stakes and watched his charge struggle home ninth before finishing up the track in both the Haskell and Travers. Not dissuaded by Commanding Curve’s no kick fourth in the Jim Dandy, Stewart has worked the 3-year old well at Saratoga since the Haskell and is hoping that he can beat the pattern. Regular rider Shaun Bridgmohan remains aboard and if a few runners that might be better suited with more relaxed trips early decide to chase the projected speedy pace setter Bayern early he might grab a minor piece by default. But even with such a favorable set up he will have to run his best since his third place finish in the Louisiana Derby back in late March.

Bayern (2-1)— There are so many ways to address this now colt. Unable to get to the track until his 3-year old season, the Bob Baffert trained son of Offlee Wild broke his maiden in daylight fashion at 7 furlongs and followed up with a dominant entry level allowance win in wire-to- wire fashion at a mile (both at Santa Anita.) In a rush to get qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, he went from that allowance to the Grade I Arkansas Derby, took the lead early but was pressed through the early fractions and wilted after a mile in a marginal 1:37 1/5. With Derby hopes still on the planning board the colt went to CD and 14 days later held on to win the Derby Trial by a nose before being DQ’d to second. He missed the Derby, prepped for the Preakness and was in trouble early, bumped around and was never a factor. It is certainly legit to consider the removal of the blinkers and the troubled trip as an excuse, especially since he came back three weeks later to absolutely dust his opposition in the 7 furlong Grade II Woody Stephens in wire-to-wire fashion and the Haskell in wire-to-wire fashion. Given those performances and the makeup of this field, it is understandable why many bettors will consider him unbeatable if he gets an easy lead. All those plusses being registered, there are other ways to look at Bayern that should make a serious handicapper/bettor circumspect at best. In the Arkansas Derby he was contested on the front end, although he set the pace he was under pressure and gave way to Danza and Ride On Curlin, both decent 3-year olds who reached their level and did not get past it. Even in the Derby Trial, when facing lesser, essentially allowances horse he was pressured to the finish and got that nose victory before the DQ but would have been passed if the race was a few jumps longer. Of course the Preakness tells us little but isn’t it possible to consider that on both the Woody Stephens and Haskell occasions he was most definitely on speed favoring tracks and even in the 9 furlong Haskell he ran over a surface that plays much more like a one turn speed track than a two turn level surface. And furthermore there is that history of Haskell runners which has been most underwhelming and a closer look shows no one able to battle Bayern through his :47 3/5 half mile and :24 2/5 fourth quarter. Perhaps there is too much minutia in this assessment, but at 2-1 there is significant liability betting a horse that will possibly get more contention (contention he has not shown a liking for) from both Tonalist and Wicked Strong, each of whose tactical speed has improved with racing plus even Charge now, who has flashed speed at points I his career and interestingly enough turf to dirt entry Mr. Speaker, who in his last main track traditional dirt race exited a turf win (like his last) and turned a half mile in :46 3/5 on the front end in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park…and that was before Mr. Speaker added lasix, with which he has been much more consistent. There is one more not insignificant factor in the assessment and that is the fact that Bayern shipped back to California after the Woody Stephens, shipped east for the Haskell and shipped back to Del Mar where he worked three times on the synthetic surface and shipped back across the country, arriving Wednesday morning. Some young horses handle that and some don’t. Is Bayern a talented race horse that appears to have finally figured it out. Yes. Is Bayern a talented race horse that is negligible when it comes to proving it against this kind at 2-1 at 10 furlongs? Yes.

Charge Now (15-1)—The lightly raced Tiznow colt prepped for this with a strong 5 wide rally at a mile and an eighth in the Curlin Stakes in his most recent. It has already been noted that in recent years the Curlin Stakes has not been a significant producer of Travers success. That being said, the Bill Mott trainee is bred for the distance, has shown a predilection for engaging early and after showing no liking for the sloppy oval in the Grade III Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows two back changed tactics a bit in the Curlin and sat in a tracking position early on before unleashing his rally. If he improves enough he could do battle early on or jockey Junior Alvarado could sit just off the early pace and move at the front runner (assumed to be Bayern) when asked. The colt is a tricky read because being that Bill Mott brings his horses along as slowly as they demand it is difficult to discern if he will indeed go close up early or of the more established graded stakes winners such as Tonalist and Wicked Strong start closer to the pace sits back and waits for one or more of those to falter late.

V.E. Day (15-1)— Another late developing 3-year old the James Jerkens’ trained son of English Channel out-closed Charge Now to claim a head decision on the aforementioned Curlin Stakes. It was the first fast dirt track race for the colt, which had previously run thrice on the turf and once on a sloppy main oval. Regardless of surface or conditions the youngster has at this point committed himself to being a deep closer that will depend on a sharply contested early pace if he is to improve in any fashion. As we have seen in recent Travers Stakes, especially in the supporting roles, there are surprises as often as certainties but as mentioned regarding Charge Now, graduates of the Curlin Stakes have not fared all that well in the Travers. And while final time in any given race is not a clear indication of how horses match up from different races at the same distance over the same surface it is noteworthy that 24 hours before the Jim Dandy the Curlin winning time was a full 7 lengths slower than the Jim Dandy winning time. On the other hand, the fourth place finisher in the Curlin was equal in tike to the fourth place finisher in the Jim Dandy. As mentioned regarding Charge Now, if the pace is unexpectedly contentious and fast this guy could improve enough to claim a minor award. It should also be mentioned that Jerkens will give a leg up to Spa leading jock Javier Castellano, who rides for the first time as Jose Lezcano stays aboard Mr. Speaker. And the conditioner has been no wallflower at the current meet as he has had plenty of victory days with (heading into Thursday racing) 6 wins, a second and 2 thirds from just 16 starters. It must also be noted that the trainer also has the better of the two uncoupled entrants in Wicked Strong so if this guy stays in it means the connections have high regards for him moving forward.

Viva Majorca (20-1)—After an even fourth in the recent Curlin Stakes in which the son of Tiago broke 5½ lengths off the early pace and finished close enough (beaten a total of 1 length) trainer Ian Wilkes has decided to reach high. In comparison to the two opponents that finished in front of him in the Curlin (Charge Now and V.E. Day) there are reasons to believe this guys might have a bigger upside in here. First, he did show better early tracking run than the other two and second, those other two had already been two turns a number of times whereas this colt was making his first start (in his fifth career start) around two turns. He was also sent off at a shorter price than either of his two Curlin rivals so obviously is well-regarded in some quarters. While both trainer Wilkes and jockey Julian Leparoux have struggled at the current meet, neither is a journeyman and the two recent works, a third best of twenty-five in 1:00 breezing on 8/11 and a second best of thirty-two in 1:00 2/5 breezing on 8/17 could indicate that this longshot is moving forward.

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Tonalist (3-1)— Despite his 3-1 ML it is possible, listening to a number of pundits who are decrying his disappointing effort in the Jim Dandy, you could get a square price on the accomplished son of Tapit. The Christophe Clement trainee returned from a minor injury and sickness induced layoff to crush his opponents in the Grade II Peter Pan which propelled the colt to his dramatic victory in the Belmont Stakes 4 weeks later. In the Belmont Stakes he was within a length of the pace setter throughout, refused to give up ground when racing 4 wide on both turns and through the stretch while Commissioner dug in along the rail and prevailed by a head in a tough fought victory under Joel Rosario. After his $20.40 Belmont upset win, he disappointed those that went to the funeral instead of the earlier wedding in the Jim Dandy as he was no match in the final furlong at 9-10 after Wicked Strong took command. Once again he was caught wide on both turns, but was also further off the pace than he was in either the Peter Pan (on the lead before they hit the turn in the one turn 9 furlong race at Belmont) or in the Belmont Stakes. Whether his slow start and non-response in the Jim Dandy (was neaten 2¼ lengths and 3¾ clear of Kid Cruz) is indicative of a downturn or a product of a bounce off the Belmont Stakes (although the 7 weeks between the two races should have precluded a bounce) is tough to call. However, the way Tonalist ran with only 4 weeks between the Peter pan and the Belmont Stakes and the fact that it has been an equal 4 weeks since the Jim Dandy might speak to that issue. Some might find only two non-descript breezes in the time since the Jim Dandy troublesome but it is worth noting that Clemente is not a Baffert type blow-them-out-fast-and-often type drill trainer and between the Peter pan and Belmont the colt also worked only twice. On either his Peter Pan or Belmont Stakes efforts in which he utilized his strong tactical speed he will once again be a major player. And if the public follows a number of the pundits in disregarding him more than they should you could also get value on his best.

Wicked Strong (7-2)—Yes, he might be as good as his Grade I Wood Memorial and Grade II Jim Dandy victories. The Jerkens-trained (16-6-1-2 at the meet) son of Hard Spun has always been well-regarded and other than a pair of sub-par races at Gulfstream over a surface he clearly did not care for, and this guy has always indicated he had the goods. In fact, following his Wood Memorial triumph he was a solid 6.5-1 in the Kentucky Derby and though none can claim they would have beaten California Chrome given the same good trip that one got, Wicked Strong’s supporters can lay claim that the colts bad stumble at the start and traffic problems twice during the race cost him dearly in a performance that saw him still come on for fourth in the best non-winning effort in the race. After skipping the Preakness he prepped well for the Belmont Stakes, and after jockey Rajiv Maragh allowed a number of the rivals to go at it early the colt was forced to go out into the 8 path at the 3/16ths marker and therein lost the ground that would have had him closer than the 1¾ lengths he was beaten. There is no question whatsoever that Jerkens has this colt completely in hand. Two weeks before the Jim Dandy, Wicked Strong breezed 6 furlongs in 1:13 flat and 7 days before winning the Jim Dandy he turned in another effortless 6 furlongs in 1:13 flat breezing. After his Jim Dandy win he jogged until breezing a half mile in :48 3/5 and last Saturday (once again 7 days before his key engagement) he breezed 6 furlongs in 1:13 flat. He couldn’t be in better form and if he gets the trips he got in the Wood and Jim Dandy as opposed to those of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes he will indeed be wickedly strong.

Kid Cruz (12-1)— Trainer Linda Rice keeps reaching for the golden ring…and why not, even if she has to settle for the bronze one. It is certainly credible to argue that this son of Lemon Drop Kid is good enough to be a threat to get his share vs this kind while not quite up to getting beyond them all. But it is once again going to be difficult to leave him off the vertical tickets as in his last 8 races he has won 5 times, finished second once and third behind Wicked Strong and Tonalist in the Jim Dandy. What is additionally in his favor in this 10 furlong “Mid-Summer Derby” is a running style that has seen him close considerable ground in all but a troubled trip in the Preakness Stakes and all at shorter distances. Based on his resume there can be little doubt he will be chewing up yardage in the lane and again, if some of the shorter priced Grade I Stakes winners run out of their comfort zones moving with the expected pace setting antics of Bayern, his late run could have an impact on inflating the exotic payoffs. Regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr. returns to get a leg up and a pair of sharp breezes over the Saratoga main track in the last 12 days have kept him sharp.

Ulanbator (30-1)—The son of Offlee Wild has definitely earned his longest ML price as he enters the Travers following a distant fifth place finish in the Jim Dandy in which he saved ground along the rail throughout and could do little with that edge. One of the two uncoupled Wilkes runners one has to wonder if this guy will be sent early as a pace setter for Wilkes’ other runner, the Mary Lou Whitney owned Viva Majorca. Brian Hernandez, who is 0-27 at the meet, takes over for Leparoux, who stays aboard Viva Majorca, so all things being equal it is difficult to see this guy as anything other than a rabbit…intended or not.

Mr. Speaker (10-1)—If to the best of their evidence, the other nine runners can at least be approximately known contenders; this guy has to be the unknown suspect. The son of Pulpit out of the Unbridled mare Salute ran the best race of his career when he rallied from last of 10 over the turf course to win the inaugural running of the Grade I Belmont Derby. Considered a turf horse it might be germane to think outside the box a bit and consider the recent Grade I 2win a product of the 10 furlong distance as much as the surface. As is usually the case, trainer Shug McGaughey has quietly gone about filling out another high level report card with a 31-6-3-6 performance at the current meet and jockey Jose Lezcano, who has a solid R.O.I. at the Spa this summer has chosen this guy over V.E. Day. If there is any question as to whether or not the colt will handle moving back to the main track and traditional dirt (many will look to his pop and stop effort the last time he raced on traditional dirt when buried in the Holy Bull Stakes at GP) they only need look to the works over the Saratoga main oval since his victory 7/5 in the Belmont Derby. He has been out 5 times since that triumph, including a very sharp 5 furlongs in :59 3/5 breezing (second best of forty-six) on 8/2. Five furlongs breezing in 1:01 2/5 August 10 and a third best of sixty-nine half mile breezing in :48 flat six days ago. He might be an unknown commodity now. It will be interesting to see how we revisit what kind of a commodity he is after his early evening run on Saturday.

Don’t forget: you can get the best of Travers’ Day with my Saratoga Service!

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