SARATOGA SPRINGS — Give credit to the 148th Travers Stakes for making fans feel like a dog who can’t decide between playing with the bone or the ball ... ooh, squirrel!
In a field of 12, the only sure thing is that the connections of all the entrants feel they have a legitimate chance to win the Grade I, $1.25 million “Mid-Summer Derby,” and it’s hard to argue with them.
Start with the fact that it’s the first time since 1982 that the winners of the Kentucky Derby (Always Dreaming), Preakness (Cloud Computing) and Belmont Stakes (Tapwrit) are competing in the Travers. But Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing finished third and fifth, respectively, in the Grade II Jim Dandy, and Tapwrit hasn’t raced since winning the Belmont, which gives hope to the large number of improving horses set to line up for the mile-and-a-quarter race.
Trainer Todd Pletcher said balancing having Always Dreaming ready for the Jim Dandy and having something left for the Travers was difficult. Since the Jim Dandy, Always Dreaming has had two solid works over the Oklahoma Training Track.
“We’ve done a better job with him coming up to this race,” Pletcher said. “Obviously, I think we left him a little bit short for the Jim Dandy. I wasn’t anticipating quite as demanding a racetrack as it turned out to be at that time. The track has tightened up since then.”
As for Tapwrit, whom Pletcher also trains, the horse has had five works at Saratoga since the Belmont. His one on Aug. 11 was the second-fastest of 18 at the distance, while his one Aug. 18 was a maintenance work.
“We felt like if we ran in the Haskell or the Jim Dandy, we might leave a little something on the table there,” Pletcher said. “We wanted to save it for the Travers.
“I feel good that we have him fit enough and fresh enough,” he added.
Cloud Computing was second for much of the Jim Dandy, but faded to fifth of five late. He, too, has had two workouts since, over the main track. The first was solid, while the second was the slowest of 11 works at the distance that day (Aug. 19). Still, trainer Chad Brown said he’s completely satisfied.
“I agree the track was very demanding that day (Jim Dandy), and this horse has never let us down in a workout or race except that one day,” Brown said. “Very tired, and just didn’t come out of that race like the horse we’d seen.
“Since the race, I thought about the Travers and figured he needs to earn his way in there, and he worked great twice over this track, and the track has since tightened up nicely.”
Brown, born in Mechanicville, admits the Travers is the race he wants to win more than any other. Considering that, one would assume he’s bringing a horse ready to run.
“Since I’ve begun training, if someone asks the race I really want to win, it’s this one,” Brown said.
There are those who tangled with the aforementioned trio in the Triple Crown races and didn’t fare so well, but they meet again buoyed by more recent performances. At the top of the list is Girvin, who was 13th in the Kentucky Derby, but a solid second to Irap in the Ohio Derby and a nose winner of the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth Park on July 30. Girvin comes off a bullet 5-furlong workout on Aug. 19 at the training track.
“Coming to New York, you’re always worried adapting to a different surface from Kentucky or New Orleans, typically fast surfaces, but he’s really done well over the Oklahoma track and carried himself well over the main track, so we’re looking forward to it,” Girvin’s trainer, Joe Sharp said.
Irap was bumped at the start and steadied late in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 18th, but he has since romped through the Midwest in a way that would make any Presidential candidate envious. The son of Tiznow won both the Grade III Ohio Derby and Grade III Indiana Derby.
Lookin At Lee, Gunnevera and McCraken all ran in the Kentucky Derby, with Lookin At Lee finishing the best, in second. Gunnevera — who won the Saratoga Special as a 2-year-old — also was fifth in the Preakness, but it’s been McCraken who seems to have found his best stride since, winning the Grade III Matt Winn and losing to Girvin by just a nose in the Haskell.
“I don’t think the distance is a problem for him,” McCraken trainer Ian Wilkes said. “The horse has got such an electrifying turn of foot. I just think the way the race set up in the Haskell, he had to make a great, long, half-mile move.”
Finally, there is the group that didn’t run in the Triple Crown races, but have a puncher’s chance in this race. Leading that list is Jim Dandy winner Good Samaritan, who raced well six times on turf before victoriously switching to dirt in the Travers’ traditional prep. He won by 4 3/4 lengths, but picks up seven pounds here.
“It’s always a factor,” Mott said of the weight. Still, the horse has been 1 1/4 miles before, on turf, so Mott sees no reason why his horse can’t do it again.
Giuseppe the Great, the horse who finished second to Good Samaritan in the Jim Dandy, only has a maiden win to his name, but has been very consistent while running in graded stakes and is trained by Hall of Famer Nick Zito, who won the 2004 Travers with Birdstone.
West Coast is another rapidly improving horse, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. He is coming off two consecutive wins in the Easy Goer and Grade III Los Alamitos Derby.
Rounding out the field is Fayeq, a 3 1/2-length allowance winner at a mile and an eighth here on July 26.