The Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes, also known as “The Mid-Summer Derby,” brings together a field of eight, most with top credentials in what shapes up to be a phenomenal race.
Let’s start with upset Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Rich Strike, who attempts to rebound off a noncompetitive sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets in his only start since the Derby upset at odds of 80.80-1. Epicenter improved off his runner-up finishes in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes to win the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course four weeks ago and hopes to win his second big stakes for 3-year-olds at the meeting. Zandon finished second in the Jim Dandy to Epicenter and third behind that foe and Rich Strike in the Kentucky Derby. Preakness winner Early Voting could only manage a fourth-place finish in the Jim Dandy in his comeback race. Then there’s Cyberknife, winner of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in April before an 18th-place Kentucky Derby effort. Since then, he’s reeled off two big wins, first in the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes then in the Grade 1 TVG.com Haskell Stakes. Ain’t Life Grand may also fit with these, having won both the Iowa Derby and Iowa Stallion Stakes in July. On top of that, there may be an up-and-coming star in Artorius, making only the fourth start of his career and following an easy 4 ¾-length win in the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga. Gilded Age rounds out the field, having put in a nice rally from seventh to second in the Curlin and on a pattern for more improvement making his second start following 3 ½ months off.
Top win contenders:
Cyberknife, who is named for a treatment his owner received for prostate cancer, has now won five of seven races at one mile or longer. The two most recent of those efforts are the ones that make him one of the top contenders in this year’s Travers Stakes. Following a disappointing 18th-place effort in this year’s Kentucky Derby after racing in sixth through the opening three-quarters of a mile, Cyberknife returned to Churchill Downs five weeks later to win the Matt Winn Stakes by a nose gamely after battling head-and-head for the final quarter of a mile. That effort earned the colt a career-best 104 Equibase Speed Figure, which he then duplicated in the Haskell Stakes five weeks ago. In that race, Cyberknife rallied from sixth of eight in the early stages to take the lead in the stretch after having to wait for room to run, once again prevailing by a narrow margin. There’s no doubt the colt can run as well at this 1 ¼-mile distance as he did so at 1 1/8 miles and he’s a son of Gun Runner, winner of the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic at the distance. Gun Runner also is the sire of Early Voting, who won the 1 3/16-mile Preakness in May. Having avoided the other horses that ran in the Derby until now and getting the ground-saving rail, Cyberknife appears more than capable of adding a win in this historic race to his resume.
Artorius is the most lightly raced horse in the field, having run just three times, but he is the perfect candidate as a fresh face in the top of the division to post the upset. He’s trained by Chad Brown, who also trains Early Voting and Zandon. Artorius debuted in a sprint in April, quite late to get onto the Triple Crown trail, running on nicely from eighth to second. Stretched out to a mile (around one turn) in June at Belmont Park, the colt notched his first win and earned a 97 Equibase Speed Figure then improved markedly to 102 when winning the Curlin Stakes four weeks ago at the end of July. In that eight-horse field, Artorius made a quick move from fourth on the turn to be in front by two lengths early in the stretch, extending his margin to nearly five lengths at the finish line with speed to spare. It is well known Brown strategizes months ahead which races his horses may run in and points to those, as he did with Early Voting by targeting the Preakness and skipping the Derby after missing by a neck in the Wood Memorial Stakes. That plan paid off handsomely, as I believe the plan for Artorius has been in place ever since he broke his maiden in June, which is to run in the Curlin and then the Travers. Considering the improvement the colt showed between his second and third start when going from a 97 speed figure effort to 102, with similar improvement, particularly with North American leading jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. in the saddle, Artorius could reward Brown’s confidence and planning once again.
Epicenter could just as easily be the top contender here as the third contender and there’s very little, if anything, separating him and the other two in terms of probability to win this race. Discounting his debut last September in a sprint, Epicenter has run an “A” race in all eight races since then by winning five times and finishing second in the other three. He owns the top Equibase Speed Figure in the field earned by any horse in any race to date, 111 last month when winning the Jim Dandy, which also proved he likes the surface at Saratoga. He led at the 1 1/8-mile mark in the Kentucky Derby and ran gamely to the finish line, even after passed by Rich Strike. He then lost by 1 ¼ lengths to Early Voting in the Preakness, very likely because he had run just two weeks earlier in the Derby while Early Voting had the benefit of six weeks between races. There’s not much more to add about how Epicenter is going to be at the top of his game both physically and mentally for this race, and so he has every right to run well enough to win and to push his earnings to nearly $3 million if he succeeds.
Honorable mention goes to Zandon, who also has shown up in each one of his races to date, six to be exact. He won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in April with a 107 speed figure and was battling with Epicenter in the stretch run of the Derby before both were passed by Rich Strike, settling for third with a 104 figure. In the Jim Dandy, Zandon stalked pacesetter Early Voting from the start then was making a move to pass that one when Epicenter got the better of him on the turn, and so Zandon settled for second. The 109 Equibase Speed Figure he earned is a career-best and, as this will be his second start following 12 weeks off, Zandon has potential to peak at just the right time to give the top contenders all they can handle in the Travers stretch.
About Rich Strike, there’s no taking away from the accomplishment of winning the Kentucky Derby in one of the biggest upsets in history. The 106 speed figure was legitimate on the day, but his best effort before that yielded a 96 Equibase Speed Figure and, considering that in the Belmont Stakes the colt finished sixth, beaten by more than 13 lengths with a 90 figure, it’s very difficult to believe he can get back to the level of the main contenders in this field and be competitive.
The rest of the field (with best Equibase Speed Figure): Ain’t Life Grand (106), Gilded Age (97), and Early Voting (106).
Win Contenders in preference/probability order: