The Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes, also known as the “Mid-summer Derby,” will be contested Aug. 24 at Saratoga Race Course.
This week we head back to Saratoga and into a division that is seemingly wide open, especially with Game Winner and Maximum Security defecting from this race with minor setbacks. Even with those two big names out of the Travers, this race drew a field of 12 3-year-olds and credit to those participating for making this already exciting race even more so.
The large field creates a challenging handicapping puzzle, one featuring a good mix of established runners and some lightly raced “new shooter” types. There were some great questions floating around Twitter this week, and I look forward to answering them here.
1. “Can Tacitus take advantage of the Travers field, or will we see an upset?” — @TwinSpires
Thinking in terms of upset, the 1 ¼-mile Travers reminds us why we’re here, not just as racing fans but also as horseplayers looking to make a score. Tacitus (#6) is listed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite and could be an even shorter price come race day, which leads to the question of whether or not he is a good bet in relation to his chances to win. Coming up in the game, my current partner at OptixEQ, NHC champion John Doyle, was a big influence in helping me develop my skills as a horse player and his experience provided insight to the game from the perspective of a player. He realized early on that I landed on closers often, and to this day I still like closers. He taught me a good lesson — one that applies in this case with Tacitus —about the associated risks of gambling on closers at a short price. There is a lot that needs to go right for closers with trip and pace being two major elements. It is clear to anyone following this division that Tacitus is one that often finds trouble in his races and sometimes creates those troubled trips himself, such as the stumble out of the gate in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. In terms of class, speed figures, and form, all of those are established to make him logical in this spot. But as a horseplayer, sometimes you have to be willing to take certain horses on at short prices and try to beat them.
2. “I really, really hope Code of Honor wins the Travers.” — @remysmom44
Trainer Shug McGaughey has been pointing Code of Honor (#2) to the Travers since his runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, and the Hall of Fame trainer figures to saddle a live horse on Saturday. There is a lot of class to this colt that has been apparent since day one. The barn is not one to often win on debut, and Code of Honor did just that last summer for McGaughey on this Saratoga main track. He went on to run a strong second in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes and has continued to be a major player in four graded stakes races this year. The training pattern is noted here as Code of Honor comes into the Travers using a similar pattern to the one McGaughey used earlier in the year. Code of Honor had his “breakthrough” race when he won the Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. He was a bit dismissed in that race coming off a fourth-place finish in the one-mile Mucho Macho Man Stakes that was better than it looked on paper. McGaughey is one of the best trainers in the game; he knows his horses and how to prepare them for a target race. Freshened out of the Kentucky Derby, he was brought back in another one-mile race, the Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes, and showed his class to win that afternoon by 3 ¼ lengths. It was the right race for him to return and the type of effort that was encouraging as his connections pushed forward with the Travers plan. McGaughey is on record stating he prefers to run this horse fresh and chose to skip the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets for that very reason.
There is some chatter with regard to his ability to excel at this 1 ¼-mile distance, and some of that stems from the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby (third by 6 ¾ lengths) as well as the Kentucky Derby (finished third, placed second via disqualification). While he is a classy sort, he does have one quirk to him and not a totally obvious one. He showed the same behavior in both of those races, and that behavior was in reaction to the whip. He tends to be distracted by the whip and it can cause him to lose focus, switch leads, and even drift in. It is interesting that in the Dwyer, jockey John Velazquez dramatically dropped the whip as Code of Honor took the lead. If you were watching that race wearing a tin-foil hat, you had to wonder whether that was by design.
3. “Will there be a soft pace in the Travers?” — @ThruTheBridle
The pace scenario is an interesting component to this race, and while it may not impact some horses in the field, there are others who could be compromised. Mucho Gusto (#7) and Tax (#12) are the main two that could be vulnerable in a fast-pace scenario based on their preferred running style and expected trip.
Mucho Gusto comes into this race off a second-place finish behind Maximum Security last month in the Grade 1 TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes at Monmouth Park. That afternoon he received a favorable trip for the race shape and profile but still came up short late. On OptixFig, he ran his career-top speed figure in that race. While the number seems valid, there are concerns he can run back to that career-best race. Going into the Haskell, Mucho Gusto’s speed figures were a concern as he had not really ran a “fast” race, especially for that Grade 1 level. He projects to be forwardly placed in this race from a pressing early position, and that could come into play when factoring in class, speed, and the additional distance of this race. Tax, without a doubt, took the worst of it at the post-position draw considering his forwardly-placed running style. Trainer Danny Gargan is on record stating they will send Tax right to the front from that outside post. While that could be the intention, he has not shown to be the quickest to the first call. Should Tax and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. try to set the pace, it could waste significant energy in the process and ground loss should be expected. If other runners like Mucho Gusto, Looking At Bikinis (#9), Scars Are Cool (#10), and Endorsed (#11) — ones that are proven quicker to the first call — take on that pacesetting role, the ground loss for Tax could become even more exaggerated.
4. “What kind of pace scenario are we going to get in the Travers?” — @DaVille32
With the probability that several runners could be dueling for the early lead, which was discussed in the previous question, the Travers pace scenario and which horses are expected to find a favorable trip becomes more open. Outside of the pair of Tax and Mucho Gusto, pace and trip do not look to be major limiting factors in terms of being able to win the race. There are other factors, such as lack of class and speed figures on the lower end of par, for horses like Laughing Fox (#4) and Chess Chief (#8) that indicate underneath spots would seem to be the ceiling. You could make a similar argument with more-proven types in these graded stakes, as is the case with Owendale (#1) and Everfast (#5). Coming off the win in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby, Owendale will step up to face arguably his toughest test to date. The Preakness Stakes third-place finisher has shown a level of consistency in his graded stakes races that makes him useful in exotics. Consistency is not the word to describe Everfast as he can often be a tough read, and when he pops it has been at a big price. That said, this could be his time to get back into mix. His running style is pace and trip dependent, similar to Tacitus, but he figures to be a much bigger price on the board as he is less likely to be considered a serious contender. Everfast could, however, rebound to hit the board coming off a fourth-place finish in the Haskell at Monmouth, a main track that does not cater to horses with his off-the-pace style. Everfast will receive a rider change with jockey Martin Chuan taking over for the Travers. The rider change is logical based on the connection with trainer Dale Romans and his son Jake, the jockey agent for Chuan.
5. “Who is your pick for Saturday’s $1.25 million, Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga? — @_CourtneySnow_
At the end of the day, my prediction is for that canoe sitting in the pond in the Saratoga infield to be painted in the green-and-gold colors of William S. Farish with his two horses, Code of Honor (#2) and Highest Honors (#3), looking like very strong contenders. Much has been discussed regarding Code of Honor in previous questions, while Highest Honors is a lightly raced colt making his graded stakes debut in the Travers for Chad Brown. The question of class will be addressed as he takes on 11 opponents in the Travers. That said, he has shown a lot of class up until this point from his second-place finish in a muddy debut at Keeneland to his impressive maiden win (rare A- OptixGrade) at Belmont Park back in June. He enters this race off a win in the 1 1/8-mile Curlin Stakes, a race in which he did have a favorable trip overall on the preferred part of the Saratoga main track. While that did not hurt him in his stakes debut, visually it did not seem to overly carry him either with the win being an honest effort. He has a lot of stamina and a favorable running style that should benefit him this afternoon.
There will be a little break with Five Questions, but it will return late next month for the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup and continue into the key Breeders’ Cup prep races. Thank you as always for reading, and good luck Saturday and in the final weeks of the summer racing season! Follow me on Twitter at @EmilyOptixEQ.