Nearly eight full months into the season the 3-year-old division is still seeking a definitive leader. It could finally come Aug. 27 when a field of 10 lines up for the $1 million Travers (gr. I) at Saratoga.
Jim Dandy (gr. I) winner Stay Thirsty was selected as the 5-2 morning-line favorite in the 1 1/4-mile Travers, which headlines Saratoga’s Saturday program that includes four other graded stakes. The “Mid-Summer Classic” will be broadcast live on NBC, which has coverage from 5-6 p.m. EDT.
Four of the top-ranked sophomores in training are lined up for the Travers, including Stay Thirsty, who seeks his third win in four starts over the track. Haskell Invitational (gr. I) winner Coil , the 3-1 second choice, will make his first start at the Spa, as will Preakness (gr. I) winner Shackleford , and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) titleholder Ruler On Ice. A win by any of the four would bump them to the top of the division.
Owned by Mike Repole and trained by Todd Pletcher, Stay Thirsty has really come into his own in his past two starts, missing by less than a length in the June 11 Belmont and then coming back seven weeks later to romp by four lengths in the Jim Dandy. It was the second win at Saratoga for Stay Thirsty, who broke his maiden there last summer and was runner-up in the Three Chimneys Hopeful (gr. I).
Overall, Stay Thirsty is 3-3-0 from nine starts and has earned $800,000. His other graded win came in the March 5 Gotham (gr. III) at Aqueduct.
The dark bay/brown colt is by Bernardini , who pulled off the Jim Dandy-Travers double in 2006. Pletcher thinks Stay Thirsty’s pedigree will be to his advantage on Saturday.
"He’s gradually improved; he’s a horse who’s bred to get better as he gets older and he’s a horse who’s bred to get better as the distances stretch out," Pletcher said. "Everything’s gone really well (since the Jim Dandy). I thought his work here on Sunday was the perfect, textbook 1:01-type work with a strong and great gallop-out, almost identical to his work prior to the Jim Dandy."
Pletcher won his only Travers in 2005 with Flower Alley.
Javier Castellano, aboard for the last two starts, will have the mount once again and they will break from post 9.
Coil will make his second start on dirt after five tries on the Hollywood Park synthetic to begin his career. The chestnut colt, trained by Bob Baffert, shipped to Saratoga after running down Shackleford by a neck in the July 31 Haskell at Monmouth Park for his first grade I victory. He has turned in three sharp works at Saratoga including a bullet four furlongs in :46.12 Aug. 23, giving Baffert confidence that he will be right in the mix.
Baffert said Coil has apparently recovered from an eye scratch that he suffered last week.
“It seems like we have it under control, he worked very well yesterday," said Baffert, who won the Travers in 2001 with Coil’s sire, Point Given . "When he works like that he usually runs well. He came out of the race great, he seems pretty happy after the work and today."
Coil, owned by Karl Watson, Mike Pegram, and Paul Weitman, also counts the June 11 Affirmed Handicap (gr. III) at Hollywood among his three wins in four starts this year. His only setback was by a neck in the July 9 Swaps (gr. II). Martin Garcia will ride and they will break from post 7.
Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge’s Shackleford has been front and center in the 3-year-old division for most of the year, missing by a head in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and was in contention for all three Triple Crown races, including his half-length Preakness score. He led into the stretch in the Haskell before being run down by Coil in the late going.
Shackleford (9-2) prefers to run on the front end anyway, but after drawing outside in the Travers there is little doubt that he will have to use that speed to get position early.
"I don’t think there is anybody quick enough to get in front of us if they want the lead. From the 10-hole, we may have to go, open up a couple (lengths) and see what happens.” said trainer Dale Romans.
Shackleford, with a record of 3-2-0 from nine starts and earnings of more than $1.7 million, has worked twice at Saratoga and Romans believes he is as sharp as he was when his long campaign began. Regular rider Jesus Castanon will be in the irons.
George and Lori Hall’s Ruler On Ice (6-1) was a solid third in the Haskell, one start after pulling a 24-1 upset in the Belmont. The Roman Ruler gelding has done his Travers training for Kelly Breen at Monmouth and will likely ship up to Saratoga the day before the race. Jose Valdivia Jr. will be the pilot once again on the consistent Ruler On Ice, who has hit the board in all six tries this year, including three wins. They will break from post 4.
Of the six Travers entrants considered outsiders, Mill House’s Rattlesnake Bridge may have the best chance at pulling the upset. The son of Tapit has gradually improved for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin since breaking his maiden in February at Gulfstream Park. He finished runner-up to Uncle Mo in the Timely Writer Stakes, fourth in the Jerome (gr. II) in the Aqueduct slop, second in an allowance race in the Belmont mud, and last out won the July 9 Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth.
"Obviously he didn’t get to run in any of the Triple Crown races, but he’s improving all the time and we feel like he wants the mile and quarter," McLaughlin said.
John Velasquez, who won the Travers aboard Flower Alley, will have the mount on Rattlesnake Bridge (8-1).
A win by any of the others would be a surprise. Bowman's Causeway, who will be saddled by the red-hot Chad Brown, enters off a narrow miss in the July 17 Prince of Wales at Fort Erie; Moonshine Mullin was second in the Jim Dandy in his graded stakes debut; Malibu Glow scored a nine-furlong allowance contest July 30 at Saratoga; Raison d'Etat was second in the Curlin Stakes last month; and J W Blue was second in the Barbaro Stakes at Delaware Park July 9.
Horse Racing Radio Network will also have live audio coverage of the Travers, as well as the Foxwoods King’s Bishop (gr. I), Ballerina (gr. I), and Ballston Spa (gr. IIT) during its two-hour broadcast beginning at 4 p.m.
$1 million Travers (gr. I, Race 12, 5:45 p.m.), 3-Year-Olds, 1 1/4 Miles (Dirt)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Trainer, Odds
1. Bowman’s Causeway, R Dominguez, C Brown, 12-1
2. Rattlesnake Bridge, J Velazquez, K McLaughlin, 8-1
3. Moonshine Mullin, E-J Wilson, Reade Baker, 20-1
4. Ruler On Ice, J Valdivia Jr., K Breen, 6-1
5. Malibu Glow, R Maragh, George Weaver, 20-1
6. Raison d’Etat, E Castro, Bill Mott, 10-1
7. Coil, M Garcia, B Baffert, 3-1
8. J W Blue, C Velasquez, Tony Dutrow 20-1
9. Stay Thirsty, J Castellano, T Pletcher, 5-2
10. Shackleford, J Castanon, D Romans, 9-2