Although, on paper, the $1.25 million Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course appears to be a three-horse race among the runaway Haskell Invitational (gr. I) winner Bayern , Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Tonalist , and Twinspires.com Wood Memorial (gr. I) and Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) winner Wicked Strong , there are several improving 3-year-olds who could be potential upsetters.
We are all aware that Saratoga has always been known the "Graveyard of Favorites," and, with a number of intriguing unknown quantities in the field of 10, nothing should be taken for granted, despite the impressive credentials of the leading contenders.
At stake for Bayern, Tonalist, and Wicked Strong is the 3-year-old title, and it would take a victory on Aug. 23 to catapult any of the three high enough up the ladder to threaten the vacationing California Chrome and possibly Shared Belief, who faces older horses in the following day's Pacific Classic (gr. I), come Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) time.
But standing in their way are Belmont Derby (gr. IT) winner Mr Speaker , who must atone for his lackluster performance in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) in his one and only start on the dirt; Commanding Curve, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I); the stretch-running Kid Cruz, winner of the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II) and third in the Jim Dandy; and late bloomers V. E. Day , Charge Now, and Viva Majorca, the first, second, and fourth-place finishers of the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga. Rounding out the field is the consistent Ulanbator.
As for the three top choices in the 1 1/4-mile Travers, we pretty much know what we have in Tonalist and Wicked Strong, although the latter showed marked improvement in the Jim Dandy with the addition of blinkers. But we really have no gauge on Bayern, whose last two starts, at seven furlongs and 1 1/8 miles, were blowout victories, in which he toyed with his opposition, winning wire-to-wire under a hand ride by more than seven lengths each time. A brilliant horse from day one, the son of Offlee Wild did not make his career debut until Jan. 4 of this year, and trainer Bob Baffert admitted he rushed him to try to make the Kentucky Derby. After a disastrous trip in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), in which he finished ninth, he finally put it all together, romping in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II) in a blistering 1:20.75.
With another spectacular score in the Haskell, run in a swift 1:47.82, Bayern is now ready to see if he can stretch his speed out to 1 1/4 miles and stamp himself as a serious threat to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner California Chrome for the 3-year-old title.
But it wasn't until the colt turned in a sharp half-mile work in :47 2/5 at Del Mar Aug. 19 that Baffert gave the green light to ship to Saratoga.
"He galloped out in 1:00 and looked good and went over the ground well," Baffert said on a national teleconference later that day. "Everything looks positive to send him. I'm always looking for an excuse not to get on a plane, but he hasn't given me one yet. I'll see how he comes out of the work. We always want to ship to win, not to just be part of the race. We want to feel he's going to fire."
Following the Haskell, Baffert pretty much eliminated the possibility of shortening back up for the seven-furlong King's Bishop Stakes (gr. I). He did toy with the idea of waiting for the nine-furlong Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) at Parx Racing Sept. 20, but decided to see just how far he can carry his speed and point for the Travers.
"I'm not totally convinced he can get a mile and a quarter, but he's so fast, and what I've seen so far looks pretty good. After the way he won the Haskell I saw no reason not to try him a little farther. He's always been a good shipper, and if anything should go wrong we can always wait for the next one.
"This horse won big early in his career and looked like a superstar. I had a little setback with bruised quarters and was trying to play catch-up. When we went to the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), I waited for him to open up, but he got a little tired. I ran him back in Derby Trial (gr. III), but he couldn't get away from those horses. That track was playing of kind of funny. In the Preakness, he got destroyed leaving the gate. We got him back to Churchill Downs and he started to work well; he just wasn't caught up with those horses."
Then came his breakout race in the Woody Stephens. "I told Gary Stevens to just go from the inside post, and when he exploded, that was what we were waiting for. I was cautious stretching him out, but what he did in Haskell gave me a lot of encouragement. I'm just happy that (owner) Kaleem Shah finally has a horse like this."
But Baffert is well aware of Saratoga's reputation.
"I just don't want to come with a graveyard horse," he said.
The post position draw should not have a great deal of bearing on strategy, with Bayern pretty much committed to the lead from post 2. To his inside is late closer Commanding Curve, so Bayern should have complete control of the pace.
Tonalist, in post 6, and Wicked Strong, in post 7, both drew perfect posts. The stretch-running Kid Cruz, winner of the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II) and third in the Jim Dandy, also drew well in post 8, with Mr Speaker on the far outside in post 10.
As mentioned earlier, horses such as V. E. Day and Charge Now are just now finding their best stride and no one really knows how good they are. But the huge longshot to keep a close eye on is Marylou Whitney's Viva Majorca, whose race in the Curlin was much better than looked on paper, as he was striding out beautifully at the wire in a fourth-place finish. And his earlier races indicate he could be something special, especially stretching out to 1 1/4 miles. Trainer Ian Wilkes, who also trains Ulanbator, is extremely high on the son of Tiago, who boasts Whitney-breds in five of his first six generations.
Saratoga Race Course, Saturday, August 23, 2014, Race 12
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Commanding Curve (KY) Shaun Bridgmohan 126 Dallas Stewart - 2 2Bayern (KY) Martin Garcia 126 Bob Baffert - 3 3Charge Now (KY) Junior Alvarado 126 William I. Mott - 4 4V. E. Day (KY) Javier Castellano 126 James A. Jerkens - 5 5Viva Majorca (KY) Julien R. Leparoux 126 Ian R. Wilkes - 6 6Tonalist (KY) Joel Rosario 126 Christophe Clement - 7 7Wicked Strong (KY) Rajiv Maragh 126 James A. Jerkens - 8 8Kid Cruz (KY) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 126 Linda Rice - 9 9Ulanbator (KY) Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr. 126 Ian R. Wilkes - 10 10Mr Speaker (KY) Jose Lezcano 126 Claude R. McGaughey III -
Saratoga Race Course, Saturday, August 23, 2014, Race 12