Some of the most heated debates that spring up around the racetrack could be resolved by one relatively simple concept: gather all the stars in the same place and let them determine who the brightest of the bunch is. It's an idea rooted in ease, but one that is often challenging to execute, as attrition, training techniques, and varied goals can make the task of getting all of a division's best performers together akin to herding cats.
Leave it to one of the most maligned groups of runners this year to be one of the most sporting in their actions. Over and over the 3-year-old dirt males have shown up to face one another on every meaningful stage and, while some have criticized their penchant for sharing the wealth, they have nonetheless succeeded in creating a depth-laden division full of accomplished members.
They have also made the 148th running of the Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 26 one that will have implications to match the race's prestige.
"A lot of people are saying the 3-year-old championship will be decided or should be decided in the Travers, and I think that's a great thing for the sport and a great thing for the industry," said Aron Wellman of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, which co-owns 7-2 morning-line Travers favorite Tapwrit. "All too often championships and Eclipse Awards are decided without the ability to assess head-to-head matchups and voters are left to their subjective views without ... a defining moment in a division. And the Travers should be—or I think deserves to be—considered a true championship-making race."
With all three individual classic winners set to start, along with six other graded stakes winners in the field of 12, the $1.25 million Travers could provide that long-awaited moment, when the balance of power among the 3-year-old males shifts decidedly in someone's favor. Aside from champion Classic Empire, who is trying get his training right in time to make the Sept. 23 Pennsylvania Derby (G1), pretty much every other sophomore capable of making a significant case for divisional supremacy has shown up at the Spa for the 10-furlong race.
When Always Dreaming backed up his Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) win with his Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) victory, it appeared the aspirations of others would have to go through the Todd Pletcher-trained son of Bodemeister . His peers had other ideas, however, as Cloud Computing jumped up to take the Preakness Stakes (G1), while the Derby hero faded to eighth, and then Tapwrit took advantage of both of their absences to win the June 10 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) by two lengths.
The fact that Good Samaritan bested both Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing to win the July 29 Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2) in his first try on dirt was viewed by some as further evidence that this bunch just doesn't have one capable of being a clear standout. While that may be true, there are those who warn against mistaking the parity of this class for weakness.
"Just because there hasn't been an absolute superstar that has dominated the division doesn't mean that there aren't some really, really good horses in the crop," Wellman said. "From top to bottom in the Travers alone, you have some serious horses that have done some serious things. You look at McCraken, Girvin, Good Samaritan. I mean, forget about Cloud Computing, Always Dreaming, and Tapwrit. You've got incredible depth in this division. I think it really actually speaks to how good this class is and how many really good horses are in this class."
If he can duplicate the form that he showcased in the final leg of the Triple Crown, Tapwrit could emerge Saturday evening with as firm a stranglehold as any has had on the 3-year-old ranks this season. After he opened his season with a runner-up finish to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3), the son of Tapit captured the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) before he finished a disappointing fifth to race winner and fellow Travers entrant Irap in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2).
His sixth-place effort in the Kentucky Derby was better than it looked, considering he was involved in the chain-reaction bumping incident at the break, a notion he validated when he surged by Irish War Cry in the Belmont stretch to earn his classic triumph. With seven starts in seven months prior to getting a breather after the Belmont, it remains to be seen if Tapwrit is as sharp off a bit of a layoff.
"We felt like, if we ran in either the Jim Dandy or the Haskell, we'd leave a little something on the table that we wanted to save for the Travers," Pletcher said.
Pletcher said after the Travers draw he felt they may have left Always Dreaming a little short on form heading into the Jim Dandy, which was the colt's first start since his Preakness defeat. As was the case in the Jim Dandy, the dark bay colt is expected to be the main speed in the Travers and Pletcher believes his charge could be aided by a Saratoga main track that is playing faster than it was earlier in the meet.
"We'll let him run to the first turn and see where that lands him. He's a horse who doesn't have to be on the lead, but if he were to get there the right way, we wouldn't take it away," Pletcher said. "We've done a better job with him coming into this race. I wasn't anticipating quite as demanding of a racetrack that it turned out to be at that time. It was a combination of a lot of things. ... Anytime horses of that quality run 1:51 and change, it indicates the track is pretty demanding. I think since then it's tightened up."
Among those who could be sitting in that first flight are betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) winner Girvin and multiple graded stakes winner Irap, who bested the former by a nose in the June 24 Ohio Derby (G3) and followed up with a win in the July 15 Indiana Derby (G3).
Aside from his 13th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, when his preparation was hindered by a quarter crack, Brad Grady's Girvin hasn't done much wrong for trainer Joe Sharp. The son of Tale of Ekati took the Risen Star Stakes (G2) and Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds in his first two tries against graded stakes company and showed he could rally with the best of them when he came from last to edge McCraken in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell.
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"I think that, if he wins another grade 1, it definitely moves him to the top of the list as far as the 3-year-old division, especially with all the graded stakes wins he has," Sharp said. "He's always been very talented, and I think our biggest concerns are behind us as far as anything physical. He's doing everything the way you want to see a horse do it coming up to a race like this. He's going in great and is a bit cocky and full of himself."
There stands to be several references this weekend to the California-based invader trainer Bob Baffert brought to the Travers a year ago. West Coast is a long way from being champion Arrogate, but the Baffert-trained son of Flatter is very much one who could throw another wrench into the 3-year-old picture.
Gary and Mary West's colt has won four of his six starts, all this year, with his most recent victory a 2 3/4-length win in the Los Alamitos Derby (G3) July 15. West Coast can race close to the early fractions if needed, as he did during his maiden victory, but is equally effective coming from off the pace.
"I think this horse really wants the distance," said longtime Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes. "He really doesn't have a lot of early speed, so (jockey) Mike (Smith) is going to have to just play the break and put him in a comfortable position."
Added Bill Mott, trainer of Good Samaritan, "You got horses from everywhere—all the best. You got the Derby winner, the Preakness winner, the Belmont—you've got everybody. It shaped up to be a really good field. So now we've got to go out there and run our race."
Saratoga Race Course, Saturday, August 26, 2017, Race 11
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Cloud Computing (KY) Javier Castellano 126 Chad C. Brown 8/1 2 2Giuseppe the Great (KY) Tyler Gaffalione 126 Nicholas P. Zito 20/1 3 3West Coast (KY) Mike E. Smith 126 Bob Baffert 4/1 4 4Tapwrit (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 126 Todd A. Pletcher 7/2 5 5Good Samaritan (KY) Joel Rosario 126 William I. Mott 5/1 6 6Girvin (KY) Robby Albarado 126 Joe Sharp 10/1 7 7Always Dreaming (KY) John R. Velazquez 126 Todd A. Pletcher 6/1 8 8Lookin At Lee (KY) Ricardo Santana, Jr. 126 Steven M. Asmussen 30/1 9 9McCraken (KY) Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr. 126 Ian R. Wilkes 12/1 10 10Irap (KY) Mario Gutierrez 126 Doug F. O'Neill 8/1 11 11Gunnevera (KY) Edgard J. Zayas 126 Antonio Sano 20/1 12 12Fayeq (KY) Luis Saez 126 Kiaran P. McLaughlin 30/1
Saratoga Race Course, Saturday, August 26, 2017, Race 11