By Richard Rosenblatt
After a crazy first half of the season, a dozen 3-year-olds will be looking to make a name for themselves in Saturday’s $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1) at Saratoga Race Course.
The field for the 1 ¼-mile race includes a bunch of Triple Crown race runners-up and a few up-and-coming horses, with Belmont Stakes (G1) second-place finisher Tacitus the 5-2 morning line favorite.
Code of Honor, who ran third in the Kentucky Derby (G1) but was moved up to second after Maximum Security finished first but was disqualified for interference, is the second choice at 4-1 after an impressive victory in the Dwyer (G3) at Belmont Park in his previous start on July 6.
“This is probably the deepest field (of 3-year-olds) since the Derby,’’ said Brad Cox, who trains 6-1 co-third choice Owendale (third in the Preakness and winner of the Ohio Derby in his last start). “This is Saratoga’s derby.”
Indeed it is. Also known as the Mid-Summer Derby, the Travers will be run for the 150th time, with an undercard that features five more Grade 1 races – the Personal Ensign (Midnight Bisou, 6-5 favorite); the Ballerina (Come Dancing, 6-5 favorite), the Forego (Mitole, 4-5 favorite), the Sword Dancer (Annal of Time, 5-2 favorite), and the Allen Jerkens (Shancelot, 1-2 favorite).
Those who used the Travers as a springboard to championships include recent winners such as West Coast (2017), Arrogate (2016) and Will Take Charge (2013).
Speaking of champions, two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert has a chance at his fourth Travers victory when he sends out Mucho Gusto, runner-up in the Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park on July 20.
With none of the Triple Crown race winners in the field – Country House, War of Will and Sir Winston – and Maximum Security skipping the Travers, the winner could be in position to go on to a 3-year-old championship.
“It’ll be an exciting race, with a lot of good horses,’’ said Baffert, who won the Travers with Point Given in 2001, Arrogate and West Coast. “It’s always great to be a part of the Travers. It’s an event.”
Leading up to the draw for post positions on Tuesday, one of the big issues involved a pace scenario, as In which horse would set the early pace since there appeared to be no clear cut speed horse.
That is until Jim Dandy (G2) winner Tax drew the outside No. 12 post, and trainer Danny Gargan threw down the gauntlet: “From the 12-hole, we have no choice, so we’ve got to go.
“It’ll be a strong race, so if we just run them off their feet he’ll win,’’ he added. “I think it’s a strong crop. It’s a bunch of good horses and they’re all about the same horse. I think whoever gets the best trip and controls the race wins it. I think whoever has the lead at the eighth pole wins it. I think if I have the lead at the eighth pole, I’ll win the race.”
Tacitus, a son of top sire Tapit, has been a hard-luck horse for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. After winning the Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct on April 6, he was a closing fourth in the Derby, and was moved up to third after Maximum Security was DQ’d. Sent off as the favorite in the Belmont and the Jim Dandy, he finished second both times, a length behind Sir Winston in the Belmont and three-quarters of a length behind Tax in the Jim Dandy.
“I think we’re just looking for that breakout race and for him to have his day in the sun,’’ said Mott.
Code of Honor, trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, was superb in the Dwyer, and will be ridden again by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.
“He needs to be ridden right, and he will be ridden right,’’ said McGaughey. “He’s a one-run horse, and you’ve just got to be patient with him and get him a trip.”
Another rising 3-year-old is Owendale, who has been training well since his win in the Ohio Derby.
“His work two weeks ago at Churchill was phenomenal and he galloped out huge and he’s coming into this race in good shape, very similar to the Preakness,’’ said Cox. [The distance] is a little bit of a question but he’s a big horse with a big stride, so hopefully as long as he takes to the track he’ll be all right.
“It is a step up for him. I don’t think he’s faced horses quite like this. The Preakness was a solid race but not quite as deep as this one.”
Everfast, the Preakness runner-up at 29-1, ran seventh in the Belmont and fourth in the Haskell for trainer Dale Romans. The Calumet Farm-owned colt has just a maiden win in 13 career starts, but Romans figures he has a chance at 30-1 – and with a new jockey in Martin Chuan. After all, there have quite a few surprising results in the Travers.
“This time of year, there’s only a few races of this magnitude,’’ said Romans, whose Keen Ice upset Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers. “He deserves a chance to compete. He’s a live long shot and this is the Graveyard of Champions.”
Chad Brown, the nation’s leading trainer who’s been winning Grade 1’s all over the country these past few weeks, is sending out two horses – Highest Honors and Looking At Bikinis, both 10-1. Highest Honors has been stretching out in each of his three races, most recently winning the 1 1/8-mile Curlin at Saratoga on July 26. Another son of Tapit, Highest Honors is owned by William S. Farish, who also owns Code of Honor.
Looking At Bikinis also is lightly raced, and will be making his fourth start. The bay colt, a son of Lookin At Lucky, was third in the Curlin.
Chess Chief may be another one of the four 30-1 shots in the field, but the Dallas Stewart-trained colt gets a new rider in Hall of Famer Mike Smith, a four-time Travers winner with a knack for winning top-level races. Chess Chief comes into the race with just a maiden win in 10 starts, but finished second in the West Virginia Derby (G3), six lengths behind Mr. Money.
And let’s not count out another Hall of Fame trainer in Steve Asmussen, who saddles 30-1 long shot Laughing Fox. Fourth in the Jim Dandy, Laughing Fox, a closer like many others in the field, could be in the mix if Tax ends up going for the lead and setting a fast pace.
“It’s a very interesting group of 3-year-olds, unique,’’ said Asmussen. “I think the conditions in which the race is run under will be most important. Most of these 3-year-olds last races there was weather here or the heat in the Haskell, and some haven’t run since Belmont, so it will be very interesting. Whatever the weather conditions were in their last race they weren’t favorable for all.”
As for the way the Travers shapes up on what is supposed to be a warm, sunny day, Asmussen says that it appears to lack pace.
“Saratoga speeds seems to be so effective,’’ he added, “and that will be a huge concern.”
The field, from the rail out is Owendale, Code of Honor, Highest Honors, Laughing Fox, Everfast, Tacitus, Mucho Gusto, Chess Chief, Looking At Bikinis, Scars Are Cool, Endorsed and Tax.
Post time for the Travers is 5:44 p.m. ET. The race will be broadcast by FOX Sports from 5-6 p.m.