Using History to Handicap the 2021 Travers Stakes

Gambling
The field leaves the starting gate at the beginning of the 2012 Travers Stakes, which was won by Alpha and Golden Ticket in an unforgettable dead heat at Saratoga Race Course. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The stage is set. The horses are ready. On Saturday at Saratoga Race Course, the $1.25 million, Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes will be contested for the 152nd time, pitting some of North America’s fastest 3-year-old Thoroughbreds against each other in an event nicknamed the “Mid-Summer Derby.”

Held at 1 1/4 miles on a dirt main track — the same conditions as the coveted Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve — the Travers is typically a tough race to handicap. The race’s rich purse and great prestige combine to attract a wide variety of horses from around the country, ranging from established Grade 1 stars to exciting up-and-comers.

If you’re wondering which types of horses are more likely than others to visit the Travers winner’s circle, you’ve come to the right place. A deep dive into the recent history of the Travers reveals trends and tendencies uniting past winners, and we can use these data-driven gems to our advantage when handicapping the race.

Without further ado, let’s crunch the numbers and review our findings:

Any running style can win the Travers

No single running style has a clear-cut advantage in the Travers. The race often attracts a large field, which can — depending on the year — favor pacesetters, deep closers, or any runner in between.

Like most North American dirt races, speed certainly isn’t a disadvantage in the Travers. We’ve seen two gate-to-wire winners since 2010, with another four winners rallying from second or third after the opening half-mile. We’ve also seen horses like Code of Honor, V. E. Day, Will Take Charge, and Afleet Express rally from mid-pack or even farther behind to reach the winner’s circle, suggesting the right horse can prevail with any running style.

Year

Winner

Position after 1/2-mile

½-mile, ¾-mile time

2020

Tiz the Law

3rd by 0.5 lengths (7 starters)

48.36, 1:11.95 (fast)

2019

Code of Honor

9th by 4.75 lengths (12 starters)

47.26, 1:11.21 (fast)

2018

Catholic Boy

2nd by 0.5 lengths (10 starters)

47.81, 1:11.97 (fast)

2017

West Coast

1st by 1 length (12 starters)

48.12, 1:12.23 (fast)

2016

Arrogate

1st by 1 length (13 starters)

46.84, 1:10.85 (fast)

2015

Keen Ice

5th by 5 lengths (10 starters)

48.30, 1:11.48 (fast)

2014

V. E. Day

7th by 14.5 lengths (10 starters)

47.31, 1:11.27 (fast)

2013

Will Take Charge

5th by 4.25 lengths (9 starters)

48.88, 1:13.43 (fast)

2012

Golden Ticket (dead heat)

4th by 3 lengths (11 starters)

48.06, 1:12.62 (fast)

2012

Alpha (dead heat)

3rd by 2 lengths (11 starters)

48.06, 1:12.62 (fast)

2011

Stay Thirsty

2nd by 1 length (10 starters)

47.63, 1:11.91 (fast)

2010

Afleet Express

6th by 5 lengths (11 starters)

47.25, 1:11.39 (fast)

Triple Crown alumni fare well, but they aren’t unbeatable

Keen Ice, left, upsets Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Travers typically draws a strong group of alumni from Triple Crown races — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. But horses with Triple Crown experience aren’t unbeatable in the “Mid-Summer Derby.” Six of the last 12 winners started in a Triple Crown race, while the remaining six did not. That’s a 50-50 split, suggesting up-and-comers are just as likely as established spring stars to claim victory in the Travers.

Avoid the Haskell winner (and even Haskell starters)

The prestigious Grade 1 TVG.com Haskell Stakes, held one month prior to the Travers, seems like a perfect steppingstone toward the Travers. But among the last dozen Travers winners, only Keen Ice prepped in the Haskell, finishing second. And the last horse to win both races was Point Given in 2001, indicating the Haskell typically isn’t a productive prep for the Travers.

Favor horses who last raced in New York

New York has long been an epicenter of high-class summer racing, and since the Travers takes place in New York, it’s not surprising to see local runners dominate the proceedings on a regular basis. Eight of the last 12 Travers winners (67%) prepped for the race in New York, as did 18 of the last 33 trifecta finishers (55%). On three occasions in the last decade, New York runners ran 1-2-3 in the Travers.

Respect horses entering off victories

Did you know eight of the past 12 Travers winners (including the last five in a row) entered the race off a victory? Horses in hot form tend to excel in the Travers. Even the four exceptions could be described as entering the Travers in encouraging form; all had finished second or third in their prep run, with three of them placing in a graded stakes.

Upgrade sons of Grade 1-winning routers

With few exceptions, Travers winners tend to be sons of stallions who achieved Grade 1 success running 1 1/8 miles or farther. No fewer than 10 of the last 12 Travers winners were sired by stallions who matched this criterion, and the two rule-breaking stallions both placed in graded stakes running 1 1/8 miles or longer.

Don’t rely too heavily on favorites

Since 2010, only three betting favorites have prevailed in the Travers, and one of those (Tiz the Law in 2020) did so during an unusual year when the Travers was held prior to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes due to COVID-19.

Instead, longshots have largely dominated the Travers. Arrogate (11.70-1), Keen Ice (16-1), V. E. Day (19.50-1), Golden Ticket (33.50-1) all prevailed at double-digit odds, while four other winners since 2010 started at 6-1 or higher. If you fancy a non-favored runner in the Travers, don’t hesitate to give them a try.

Conclusions

A small but high-quality field is expected to compete in the 2021 Travers, led by reigning champion 2-year-old male Essential Quality. A determined winner of the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets during the spring, Essential Quality enters the Travers off a gritty victory in Saratoga’s Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes and generally matches the profile of a typical Travers winner.

But Essential Quality will be a heavy favorite in the Travers, which isn’t the most appealing from a historical or betting standpoint. So, if you want to think outside the box with a horse offering better odds, why not take a shot with the improving Dynamic One?

A son of Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, Dynamic One could only finish 18th in the Kentucky Derby but bounced back nicely to win Saratoga’s Curlin Stakes in convincing fashion last month. Rallying strongly from dead last, Dynamic One pulled clear down the lane to beat a solid field by 1 3/4 lengths.

In short, Dynamic One is a perfect fit for the historical profile of a Travers winner, stamping the Todd Pletcher trainee as an appealing alternative to Essential Quality.

Good luck with your handicapping, and enjoy the race!

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