The 150th running of the $1.25 million, Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course once again appears to be the crown jewel of summer racing. Nicknamed the "Midsummer Derby," this year's Travers features Tax and Tacitus, the one-two finishers in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes run last month at Saratoga. Also entered is Grade 1 Haskell Invitational Stakes runner-up Mucho Gusto, Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes winner Code of Honor and Grade 3 Ohio Derby winner Owendale. All five of these top quality 3-year-olds proved themselves in top company earlier in the season as well. Both Code of Honor and Tacitus originally finished third and fourth, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby before being moved up one place when Maximum Security was disqualified, and Owendale finished third in the Preakness.
Another who was competitive in a major 3-year-old stakes this season is Everfast, a fast closing second in the Preakness before poorer efforts in the Belmont Stakes and Haskell. Then there are some potential up-and-comers in the division, led by recent the one-two finishers in the Curlin Stakes run last month at Saratoga – Highest Honors and Endorsed, with Looking at Bikinis another five lengths back in third in that race. Chess Chief was second, though beaten six lengths, in the Grade 3 West Virginia Derby three weeks ago and is not without a chance to get a piece of the action, while Laughing Fox hopes to improve off his fourth-place effort in the Jim Dandy. Recent maiden winner Scars are Cool rounds out the field.
We've been lucky enough to catch a couple of upset winners in the Travers Stakes in two of the past five years in Catholic Boy and V. E. Day and I'm hopeful to have the same success with Tax or Mucho Gusto this year, as the pair look to have the bulk of the probability to succeed even in this deep and talented field.
I'll give Tax the slightest preference of the two, given that he won the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga last month. Earning a career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure in that race, Tax showed excellent tactical speed while stalking the pacesetter in second during the early stages. Taking the lead with about a quarter mile to run, Tax then dug in to hold off Tacitus by three-quarters of a length in very good fashion. Earlier this year, Tax proved himself at the level with a win in the Withers Stakes before finishing second behind Tacitus in the Wood Memorial. After a no-excuse 15th place effort (moved up one spot via disqualification) in the Kentucky Derby, Tax stalked the pacesetter in second in the Belmont Stakes from the start before tiring to fourth. Since the Jim Dandy, Tax has shown he is in even better physical condition, with a sensational half-mile workout at Saratoga eight days ago which was the best of 64 that day at the distance. The mile and one-quarter distance is of no concern either as Tax is a son of Arch, whose sons and daughters (according to a STATS Race Lens query) have won or placed in three of six races at the classic distance to date, including 2019 Suburban Stakes winner Preservationist. As such, and with the second leading jockey at the Saratoga meet, Irad Ortiz, Jr. in the saddle, I think we will see Tax running the best race of his career to win the Travers.
Mucho Gusto shipped cross-country from trainer Bob Baffert's base at Del Mar following a strong five-furlong workout on Aug. 19 in 59.2 which was the best of 46 on the day and impressed Baffert enough to make the trip. Having won the Travers back-to-back in 2016 with Arrogate and 2017 with West Coast, Baffert certainly knows when a horse in his care is good enough for this race. Mucho Gusto has never finished worse than third in eight races. His most recent effort, when second in the Haskell Invitational on July 20, was his best yet as he earned a 107 figure and was eight lengths clear of the third horse while beaten a length and one-quarter by Maximum Security. That being his fourth straight race in which he improved his figure, Mucho Gusto also appears likely to run even better in the Travers than he did in the Haskell, setting up what could be a memorable battle with Tax in the stretch.
Tacitus has run very consistently all year, with 105, 106, 107, 103 and 105 figures. In two of those races, the Jim Dandy and the Wood Memorial, Tacitus had significant trouble at the start. He overcame the trouble to win the Wood Memorial but only managed second in the Jim Dandy and some people feel he might have won without stumbling at the start in that race. Blinkers go on for the Travers and although Bill Mott is undoubtedly one of the best trainers around, I have concerns about an equipment change for a big race such as this one, particularly as a STATS Race Lens query tells us Mott's record with adding blinkers for the first time is 4-for-78 in the past two years. As such, I will consider Tacitus a contender to finish second or third but not as a win contender in this race.
Similarly, Code of Honor appears to be a cut below Tax and Mucho Gusto in that he earned a 101 figure winning the Dwyer Stakes in early July. Prior to that, Code of Honor finished third in the Derby then was moved up to second via the disqualification of Maximum Security, earning a 108 figure. He's certainly proven competitive at the top level in the division but even a repeat of his effort in the Dwyer doesn't appear good enough to beat either Tax or Mucho Gusto if they repeat their most recent efforts, and certainly not if they improve upon them.
Owendale earned a 114 figure winning the Ohio Derby in June, which is the best figure earned by any horse in the Travers field. However, the time off between that race and the Travers is a concern in that physical condition is a key to running well at this mile and one-quarter distance. However, with his late running style, Owendale is likely to be last or nearly so in the early stages of the Travers and could pass many tired horses in the last quarter mile to get in the money.
Highest Honors is one more who may have a say in the minor awards. He has finished first or second in all three races including winning the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga last month. The 102, 96 and 101 figures he has earned are decent enough but there's no pattern suggesting improvement and no suggestion he can jump up to the level needed to win the race.
The rest of the Travers Stakes field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures: Chess Chief (102), Endorsed (100), Everfast (105), Laughing Fox (101), Lookin At Bikinis (102) and Scars are Cool (95).
Horses to consider for exotic wagers:
Code of Honor