Five Questions to be Answered in the Travers Stakes

Four horses from the July 29 Jim Dandy Stakes – winner Good Samaritan (outside), Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing, and Giuseppe the Great – return for Saturday’s Travers Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets at Saratoga Race Course is restricted to 3-year-olds and run over 1 ¼ miles on dirt.

Three-year-olds have won the Breeders’ Cup Classic 12 times, including the last three, but in 2016 Arrogate became the first horse to complete the Travers/Classic double. If healthy, the winner will most certainly run in the Classic, but the Travers is not a Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race.

Javier Castellano (Cloud Computing) has won the Travers five times overall and four of the last seven, including the 2015 upset of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah with Keen Ice

The Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Always Dreaming), Preakness Stakes (Cloud Computing) and Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (Tapwrit) winners are all entered in the Travers. The last time the winner of each of the Triple Crown races left the Travers starting gate was 1982 and none of them won it – the longshot Runaway Groom did.

Here are five questions that must be answered…

1. Who is the leader for 3-year-old Eclipse champion?

I know, I know. I’ve been asking this question since the Belmont, and the picture hasn’t gotten any clearer.

There was no dominant individual this spring, and a different horse won all three Triple Crown races, the Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and the Haskell Invitational. Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming has looked like a shell of the horse who splashed home in Louisville in his two starts since.

Last year, Arrogate was barely a blip on the radar screen before he romped to a Travers victory and in a year similar to this one, he secured his championship with a memorable win over the legendary California Chrome and others in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Joe’s answer: What happens the rest of the year will determine the championship, and the Travers result will be a key component.

There are only three horses entered in the Travers with at least two Grade 2 wins on their 3-year-old résumé …

Irap has three graded stakes wins, but none of them higher than a Grade 2 – Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, Grade 3 Ohio Derby and Grade 3 Indiana Derby.

A win by any of those four horses would move them to the front of the line. A triumph in the Kentucky Derby always counts for more, so if Always Dreaming were to bounce back and score in the Travers, he’d create some Eclipse separation between himself and the rest of the field.

One could argue that if the season ended today, with wins in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge Stakes, Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational and Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes, the credentials of  lawnmower Oscar Performance stack up quite well.

Always Dreaming (Eclipse Sportswire)

2. Will Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and/or Preakness champ Cloud Computing bounce back with a big effort?

Joe’s answer: I picked Always Dreaming to win the Kentucky Derby and he didn’t disappoint, but his two efforts since have been puzzling to say the least. I know he got pressed by Classic Empire off of short rest in the Preakness, but he should have run better, and his distant third in the Jim Dandy was an equal disappointment…or was it?

The Jim Dandy was Always Dreaming’s first start in ten weeks and the Travers was always the target. With a race under his belt, he should take a solid step forward. 

Cloud Computing is a nice horse, but he was rested going into the Preakness, and got a perfect set-up and ride by Javier Castellano. His run in the Jim Dandy was comparable to Always Dreaming. He could perform better, but pound for pound I don’t think he’s as good as A.D. or some of the other top Travers contenders.

3. Given the way he won the Jim Dandy, why didn’t Good Samaritan run on dirt sooner?

Joe’s answer: Good question. Going into the Breeders’ Cup last year, there was serious talk in the camp about running him in the Sentient Jet Juvenile instead of the Juvenile Turf, where he would eventually finish third behind Oscar Performance.

Good Samaritan’s sire Harlan’s Holiday earned over $3 million on dirt. His dam’s sire (mother’s father) Pulpit won the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Blue Grass Stakes on dirt. His dam Pull Dancer ran 11 races in her career, but only twice on the main track, finishing second in her career debut sprinting and fourth in the Tempted Stakes at Aqueduct. That’s certainly not a fair sample size.

Bill Mott is not one to push his 3-year-olds, and Good Samaritan didn’t even make his seasonal debut until Kentucky Derby day, finishing a good second to the longshot Arklow in the Grade 2 American Turf Stakes Presented by Ram Trucks. With the lucrative Belmont Derby targeted, Mott stayed the course, and after finishing fourth in that race, the timing seemed right for a dirt experiment.

Mott has enjoyed a little success converting useful turf horses into dirt superstars – Cigar, for example, and to a much lesser extent Lea.

4. If you had to pick one 3-year-old to buy stock in right now, who would it be?

Joe’s answer:  Tough call. A strong case could be made for several, including West Coast, Good Samaritan, Girvin and McCraken, but I would have to say Irap.

Many, including myself, thought his Blue Grass Stakes score as a maiden was a fluke, and his 18th place finish in the Kentucky Derby did nothing to dispute that, but his two races since then have been borderline spectacular.

Irap overcame adversity to edge Girvin, the eventual Haskell winner, by a nose in the Ohio Derby, and then returned to smoke Colonelsdarktemper, who later won the West Virginia Derby, in the Indiana Derby. His arrow is pointing up.

5. Who wins the Travers and why?

Joe’s answer: Chances are the track will be sizzling fast on Travers Day, and much like the Jim Dandy, it appears Always Dreaming will have a chance to set a comfortable pace. If he’s the horse we saw in Florida and Kentucky, anywhere close to the 6-1 morning line price would be a gift, but that’s a big IF.

Way back in March when I asked Bob Baffert which horse in his barn had a chance to be the Arrogate of 2017, West Coast was his answer without hesitation. He enters the toughest assignment of his career off three straight wins and does things the right way.

I’ve already expressed my recent crush on Irap, and stamina shouldn’t be an issue for Tapwrit and Good Samaritan, who will do their running late.

McCraken may have moved a little too soon in the Haskell. He wants to run at a target, not be one. That being said, I’m not sure 1 ¼ miles is what he wants to do. I believe he can be an explosive miler and would be my future book favorite for the 2018 Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park.

Joe’s Travers Stakes picks: 1) Always Dreaming 2) Irap 3) West Coast 4) McCraken

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