In racing, like most everything in life, people like clearly defined lines. For handicappers reading the past performances or their preferred speed figures, they want those lines sharp enough where they can see a race unfold before their eyes. Who is going to set the pace? Who is going to lay off the pace? Who is going to come with a late run? And, most important, who is going to win...and finish second...and finish third?
Although those who have invested a good amount of money wagering on this year's crop of 3-year-olds probably are ready to pull their hair out, you have to admit there is something deliciously inconsistent about this group that brings an element of fun, intrigue, and bewilderment into the equation.
Starting way back in the early days of the Derby trail, just when you think you have things figured out, the class of '17 finds a way of confusing you even further.
But on the other hand, looking back to my Derby Dozen on April 4, my five top-ranked horses – Always Dreaming, Gunnevera, McCraken, Girvin, and Tapwrit – are all pointing for the Travers Stakes on Aug. 26, so we have had a great deal of stability to go with all the craziness. Maybe that's your trifecta box.
On the whole, however, this has been one big surprise party that actually started one year ago in the Travers when some allowance horse from California invaded Saratoga and crushed what looked to be a solid crop of 3-year-olds into smithereens and not only vaulted to the top of the division, but had racing fans on their hands and knees as they worshipped the sport's newest superstar. Our perception of that 3-year-old crop changed dramatically in one race due to Arrogate. Will the same happen this year?
Here we are one year later, and you can throw out the Derby preps, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont, the Haskell, and all stakes in between. All the fragments that make up this year's 3-year-old crop will come together, and hopefully when all is said and done, a leader of the pack will emerge to claim the championship. But who knows? Unlike last year, this may turn out to be just another turn of the Rubik's Cube, and we won't see a definitive pattern until the Pennsylvania Derby or even the Breeders' Cup Classic...or never.
But for now, the Travers is the big one – the race that finally will define what has been one wild and wacky and unpredictable year.
With the carrot that is the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old male dangling in front of their faces, look for trainers to have their steeds fully cranked in a no-holds-barred battle for supremacy.
Will one of the Triple Crown heroes finally establish himself as a worthy champion? Will one of the stars of the summer continue his roll? And lastly, will West Coast journey to the Spa from the Bob Baffert barn in an attempt to become this year's Arrogate and again make the Triple Crown irrelevant in determining the 3-year-old championship?
The cards are on the table. If Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming or Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit or Preakness Stakes winner Cloud Computing can add the “Midsummer Derby” to a classic victory, it's going be near impossible to deny them the Eclipse Award unless someone else does the unthinkable and knocks off Arrogate and Gun Runner in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
If emerging dirt star Good Samaritan can add the Travers to his stunning Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets score, his rise to the top will be meteoric following a grass career in which he's been futilely trying to close into dawdling paces this year.
Two of the early 3-year-old stars who emerged virtually from nowhere – Girvin (from a small grass stakes at Fair Grounds in his second career start) and Irap (who was still a maiden after seven starts) – ironically are the only two 3-year-olds who have won three stakes this year. Girvin won the Risen Star Stakes, Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, and betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes, and Irap took the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, Ohio Derby (defeating Girvin by a nose), and Indiana Derby.
The aforementioned West Coast was always high on Baffert's radar, but didn't make his presence felt until he ran off with the Easy Goer Stakes at Belmont Park in brilliant fashion and then the Los Alamitos Derby. Could he be the next budding Baffert star?
McCraken, one of the early leaders, is still looking for that big breakout race, and following victories in the Sam F. Davis Stakes and Matt Winn Stakes, he almost got it, but was nosed right on the wire by Girvin in the Haskell after hitting the front too soon.
And what to make of top-class horses Classic Empire and Irish War Cry, respective winners of the Arkansas Derby and Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets? Classic Empire, who has had his share of setbacks this year, will pass on the Travers and be aimed instead for the Pennsylvania Derby. Irish War Cry has been inconsistent all year and is heading to Parx Racing as well.
Here then is a look at the pros and cons of 11 prospective Travers horses as they head into the all-important race that could nail down an Eclipse Award.
Pros: He has strung together three races this year in which he showed he can beat you going slow and beat you going fast; beat you on a fast track, beat you on a slow track, and beat you on a sloppy track. In his return race in the Jim Dandy, he did fight back for the first time when looked in the eye, something he failed to do in the Preakness. So at least we found out he won't cave in to pressure when things don't go his way. And even though he worked well for the Jim Dandy, you have to believe he wasn't fully cranked for the prep race with the Travers four weeks later. So it would make sense that we will see a tighter horse with this race under him. Having won the Kentucky Derby tracking a :46 2/5 half and 1:11 three-quarters, and capturing the Florida Derby tracking fractions of :47 and 1:10 3/5, he should be more effective trying to run his pursuers off their feet rather than dawdle along and let them close in for the kill early and then try to out-close them. He seems best when he uses his tactical speed, puts separation between himself and the others, and then defies them to come get him. If he breaks as sharply in the Travers as he did in the Jim Dandy, he should be able to dictate the race again, with no other speed horse to push him, but this time he should be able to go faster early and still keep going as he did in the Kentucky Derby.
Cons: Even though he did battle back when Cloud Computing pulled on even terms along with Pavel, the fact is he looked as if he had been handed the race on the proverbial silver platter when allowed to coast along on a four-length lead in :48 2/5 and 1:13 1/5. But he gave up that lead quickly before mustering up the courage to battle back and barely salvage third. Although, as mentioned earlier, he might be better off running faster early, he still was given a gift and failed to take advantage of it. And let's not forget that Cloud Computing was unable to sustain his run and was shortening stride at the three-sixteenths pole, while Pavel, who amazingly looked like a winner at the quarter pole and in the end was beaten only a half-length and a head for second, was coming off only one 6 ½-furlong maiden sprint in his life. And let's definitely not forget that Good Samaritan, who had never run on dirt, just blew by them all and won in hand with his ears pricked, while the longest price on the board, Giuseppe the Great, rallied for second. So the bottom line is that the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners were beaten by the two longest priced horses in the race and were involved in a photo with a horse coming off only one lifetime start in a sprint. That either does not bode well for them or makes Pavel look like something extraordinary.
Pros: You still cannot forget what this colt accomplished in the Preakness, coming off only three career starts and running down a top-class colt and a champion in Classic Empire. He is a powerful moving horse with a long, sweeping stride who made a magnificent physical appearance going into the Jim Dandy. And, like Always Dreaming, he likely wasn't fully cranked for this race and should fare much better in the Travers. I know those close to this horse have always believed he is something special and I feel they truly were convinced he was going to win the Jim Dandy, whether he was at or near 100 percent or not. Yes, it was a bit of shock to see him finish last of five, but he was beaten only a half-length and a two heads for second and clearly wasn't moving with the same authority he was in the Preakness. Look for him to wait longer before unleashing his run in the Travers and just hope someone does the dirty work for him and takes on Always Dreaming. But as of now, that doesn't look like it's going to happen. He also possesses excellent cruising speed and just may dog Always Dreaming the entire way in much the same manner Classic Empire did in the Preakness. To put it simply, he ran like a short horse, coming off two half-mile breezes since his bullet five-furlong work back on July 9. Once again, he got his prep, and you can expect to see the real Cloud Computing with the big money on the line.
Cons: To be honest, he looked like a lock when he quickly made up a four-length deficit and pulled on even terms with Always Dreaming, but just couldn't put him away. And when Pavel moved up alongside, he seemed to shorten stride. He never quit, but this clearly was not the same horse we saw in the Preakness, and, again, there is no way a horse with only one lifetime sprint under him should have finished ahead of him. He obviously had much a better setup in the Preakness with Always Dreaming and Classic Empire locking horns, and he doesn't seem as effective sitting behind a lone speed horse who is having everything his own way and then having to go after him early. But he may face that scenario again in the Travers with no other speed horse in there to press Always Dreaming. Like Always Dreaming, he has to now make up over five lengths on Good Samaritan, who should only get better going 1 ¼ miles. He has questions to answer off the Jim Dandy, but it would not be wise to ignore him in the Travers.
Pros: I've loved this horse since his Risen Star victory, so much so that I ranked him No. 4 on the Derby Dozen off that race. He looked to be one of the most determined young horses I've seen in a long time with a tenacious competitive spirit, as witnessed by the way he pins his ears throughout a race and even pins them galloping out, defying any horse to try to pass him after the wire. He even does that in his workouts. He possesses a big, powerful stride, and for a horse who went into the Risen Star with only two career starts – one of those on grass – he seemed extremely mature for a horse with so little experience. He had some issues with his lead changes and drifting but has gotten over that and is much more professional. Watching him win the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby with so little experience, he looked like one of those kids who is so far advanced he starts high school at age 12. In the Ohio Derby, he hit the front too soon and was just nipped on the wire by Irap, who came back and romped in the Indiana Derby. In the Haskell, he came from dead last and this time it was he who did the catching, nailing McCraken in the final stride with a relentless stretch run. If he handles the stretch-out to 1 ¼ miles he should be right there once again.
Cons: Although his 13th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby was a total throwout considering he had only four career starts, was battling a quarter crack, and missed a good deal of training leading up the race, he still has to show he can handle Triple Crown heroes Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing, and Tapwrit at a classic distance, although they certainly have not struck fear in anybody. His sire Tale of Ekati is not known for stamina, having more of a nine-furlong feel to him, but he runs like a horse who wants to keep going. He really doesn't have many cons, but I wouldn't want to see him as far back in the Travers as he was in the Haskell. He seems best when he lays about five to six lengths off the lead.
Pros: There is no doubt this colt is on the improve, and Nick Zito certainly has been a presence in the Travers, finishing 1-2 with Birdstone and The Cliff's Edge, getting beat in photos with Albert the Great, Fly Down, and Fast Falcon, and finishing third with Helsinki. He has shown good form in graded stakes sprinting and going two turns and did finish ahead of the Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness winner in the Jim Dandy. He has shown he wants to lay back and make one run, and even when he was too close to the pace in the one-mile Dwyer Stakes, he still ran well, finishing fourth, beaten only 3 ¼ lengths. He has to show significant improvement in the Travers, but never count out Zito with a 3-year-old, especially going a mile and a quarter.
Cons: The main drawback is that he hasn't shown he's capable of beating this caliber of horses and there are still question marks whether he wants to go a mile and a quarter. Zito sure knows how to get it done, specializing in the classics, but we'll see if his pedigree can help out. Considering Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing are likely to improve in the Travers, he still has quite an uphill climb.
Pros: If he is as good as he looked in the Jim Dandy and can duplicate that effort in the Travers, we could very well be looking at the next leader of the division. That's how explosive he was and how much he dominated the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners. To come from a dozen lengths back off such a slow pace and blow the doors off his opponents was extremely impressive, especially coming home in :23 flat and :12 2/5 for a sensational :35 2/5 final three-eighths. He is bred for the dirt and should have no problem getting the mile and a quarter. In fact, he should improve at the longer distance having closed his last quarter in the 10-furlong Belmont Derby on turf in a blazing :22 flat. He is a handsome horse with a terrific disposition and most definitely has found his calling on the dirt, although don't count him out if he ever returns to the grass. He's just a good horse, period.
Cons: I thought they would train him up to the Travers off the Belmont Derby in the hope that if he takes to the dirt that would be his explosive breakout performance, especially having already run at a mile and a quarter. Now that he has thrown in that explosive performance in the Jim Dandy, the question is whether he can come back and duplicate it four weeks later. But I can understand trying the Jim Dandy trying to catch Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing a bit short and not fully cranked, and getting four pounds from them. But the surprise element is gone and the other jocks now are aware that he is one of the main contenders they have to keep an eye on. And he'll have to beat a full field of sharp, fit horses who are more formidable than Giuseppe the Great. The bottom line is if runs another bang-up race, we're looking at a star in the making.
Pros: Well, we sure know what he's capable of on those short stretches, where he explodes on the turn and draws off in the stretch. He returned from his layoff with another dominating score, this time in a small stakes at Gulfstream Park against an overmatched field, which should give his connections reasons to consider the Travers. He certainly has the pedigree to get the mile and a quarter and he's one-for-one at Saratoga, having won the Saratoga Special last year. He's a real pro and when he gets in his rhythm he is as smooth and professional down the stretch as any 3-year-old in the country. He didn't beat much at Gulfstream, but he certainly looked good visually, at least indicating he is back to the form he showed earlier in the year. And considering they crawled the first three-quarters in 1:14 3/5, you still had to be impressed with his closing fractions of :23 1/5, :23 1/5, and cruising home his last sixteenth in :06 1/5 under wraps. Now if only he can match those clockings on a longer stretch.
Cons: So far, whether due to circumstance or not, he has not shown that same explosiveness in longer races with longer stretches, which you would think would help him. While the Kentucky Derby was a throw-out race as he didn't have the best of trips, he just didn't show that same turn of foot in the Florida Derby and Preakness. Perhaps he just moved too late in those races, but he still has to show he can put in that big move on the turn and sustain his run down a longer stretch than those short stretches at Gulfstream and Delta Downs. The other big question is whether his "workout" against weak competition going 1 1/16 miles will have him ready to step up in class and distance.
Pros: He probably has come farther than anyone in the past four months, especially since he seems to have finally gotten over his nagging foot problems. Considered more of joke going into the Blue Grass while still maiden after seven races, he pulled off a stunning upset at 31.30-1 before finishing far back in the Kentucky Derby in the slop. But since then he has turned into a different horse, rallying from off the pace the nip Girvin in the Ohio Derby and then romping in the Indiana Derby, which was a very important win for him because he finally mastered his lead changes and was on his right lead the entire length of the stretch, indicating he may just be putting it all together now and has emerged as a major force in the 3-year-old division. Further indication of that was Colonelsdarktemper, who he handled easily in the Indiana Derby, coming back and winning the West Virginia Derby a week after Girvin captured the Haskell. In the Haskell was the impressive Dwyer Stakes winner Practical Joke, who was beaten only a half-length. So the last three horses who have run second to him – Practical Joke, Girvin, and Colonelsdarktemper – all have come back to win major stakes, with two of them finishing almost together in a Grade 1. That is what you call form holding up. As a son of Tiznow, out of a Storm Cat mare, he is a colt who should continue to improve, especially if his changing leads in the Indiana Derby is an indication he is finally maturing into a professional racehorse, who is much more versatile now than he's ever been. And the mile and a quarter definitely should not be a problem. Although he's never run at Saratoga, he's run at seven different racetracks and finished on the board at six of them, and with 11 starts under him, he certainly is experienced and well traveled. You can bet no one is ever going to take him lightly again.
Cons: Believe it or not, there are not many cons, other than he still has to step it up one more time against the proven classic horses. He has not run well in both his races on a sloppy track, so you would think he'll need a fast track to be at his best. But that is not a certainty, because the Kentucky Derby was a throw-out for so many horses, and in his other race in the slop he tired but still was fourth. Now that he finally has shown he can switch leads smoothly and stay on his right head, he must continue to do that. And with his foot problems straightened out, that shouldn't be a problem.
Pros: He has one major pro; a strong second in the Kentucky Derby in the slop. And he is a horse that trainer Steve Asmussen has always loved and felt would excel at a mile and a quarter. We all know plodders usually don't win the Belmont Stakes, so his poor effort in the "Test of the Champion should" not have come as a surprise. You can never really love his chances because he is so pace-dependent, but the bottom line is that after winning the Ellis Park Juvenile he has finished in the money in six graded stakes and fourth in two Grade 1 stakes, giving him an on-the-board finish in nine stakes, with earnings of over $1 million. And he's finished in the money in three major Derbys – Kentucky, Arkansas, and West Virginia. People may forget he did finish five lengths ahead of the third horse in the Kentucky Derby. So although he hasn't won in a long time, you can never tell when there will be a pace meltdown that will set it up for his big late run. He's one of those horses you would love to have in the barn. No strategy, no second-guessing how to run him and train him. You just put a saddle on him and wait for the stretch run to see how many horses he will pass.
Cons: As mentioned above, he hasn't won a race in a year and his late run from so far back always makes him vulnerable to pace. There is nothing you can do to change his running style, so you just let him run his race and hope he picks up a piece of it. Any victory that comes his way during the rest of his career will be come as a pleasant surprise. Although you can't count on him to win the Travers, you sure hate to leave him out of your exotics.
Pros: He ran a winning race in the Haskell, but probably took the lead too soon, and we have seen in his past races he needs to have his move timed where he doesn't hit the front that early in the race because he has a tendency to hang around once he gets the lead. But there is no way anyone should blame the jockey’s ride in the Haskell, because the truth is he just got nailed on the wire by a very good horse who has shown he can be relentless in the stretch. And he was game holding off Practical Joke for the place. His Haskell defeat actually moves him way up and makes him a major threat in the Travers, where he should appreciate the added distance. He has won a listed stakes, a Grade 2 stakes, and a pair of Grade 3 stakes, and came oh so close to getting that all-important Grade 1. In his victory in the Matt Winn Stakes, he did beat Colonelsdarktemper, so that race looks even better now. He is a horse you have to respect wherever he shows up, and trainer Ian Wilkes has been a major part of two Travers victories already with Unshaded and Street Sense, – and as exemplified by Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, he knows how to get a horse ready for a mile and a quarter race.
Cons: As mentioned already, he does need to have his move timed perfectly so that he is at his strongest in the final furlong. You really don't want to see him with the lead turning for home. He is yet another who ran poorly in the Kentucky Derby, but that race has produced more big wins by horses who finished up the track. Like Irap, there aren't a lot of cons other than he just has to show he can step up in the big races. He should be tough in the Travers.
Pros: His victory in the Belmont Stakes, in which he ran down a top-class horse in Irish War Cry, showed just what a professional racehorse he has developed into. If you add that to his big efforts at Tampa Bay Downs earlier in the year, including an impressive score in the Tampa Bay Derby, you have a very solid horse with a ton of class who should only continue to improve. Like so many others, his Kentucky Derby was a toss, although he actually ran a good race to finish sixth after a troubled start. He's a beautiful moving horse with enough tactical speed to stay within striking range and still run you down with a strong stretch kick. Todd Pletcher seems happy with training him up to the Travers, so we'll see if he's right to go in that direction.
Cons: This con is strictly a matter of opinion, but I'm not crazy about his going into the Travers off the Belmont without a prep race, mainly because it's been tough to do. Birdstone is the only horse I can recall accomplishing that feat, and he had a ton of foundation under him, having won the Champagne Stakes at 2. That's not to say Tapwrit can't do it, but it's going to be tough going into such a deep competitive race cold. Yes, the Belmont puts a lot of bottom in a horse, but it also dulls them, and we'll see if he can drop back to 1 ¼ miles and run with these horses without a sharpener. We'll also see just how sharply he trains up to the race. We all know this has been a year for inexplicable clunkers and no one has been able to explain the dull effort he turned in at Keeneland in the Blue Grass Stakes, in which he finished fifth, beaten more than 11 lengths as the 2.20-1 second choice. All we can do is see if Pletcher can pull this off.
Pros: You can be sure this horse is going to be bet heavily with the memory of Arrogate's Travers demolition still fresh in everyone's mind. No one is comparing him to Baffert's big star, but his last two victories have been brilliant enough to suggest that this could be another star in the making. And those victories have come on both coasts, with his 3 ¾-length Easy Goer score in a sprightly 1:41 2/5 making a big impression on the Belmont Stakes crowd with his explosive run from sixth, blowing the race apart in the upper stretch. Also, the third-place finisher, Outplay, came back to win the Curlin Stakes impressively. He then returned home to easily defeat a lesser bunch in the Los Alamitos Derby, but did it the right way, and you had to love the way he was striding out in the stretch. He has never finished worse than second in six career stakes, all of them at a mile or longer. He is the unknown factor in the Travers, and with Baffert's record shipping horses East, you have to take him very seriously. If Always Dreaming gets loose on the lead, he could be the first to go after him. It will be interesting to see if Baffert goes back to Mike Smith, who rode him in the Easy Goer. Ironically, when Baffert came to the Travers last year with two horses, the one most felt was his best shot was American Freedom, coming off a second in the Haskell and an impressive win in the Iowa Derby. American Freedom is owned Gary and Mary West, the owners of West Coast. So perhaps this is their year after finishing a distant second to Arrogate in track record time.
Cons: As good as he's looked, he still hasn't faced anything close to this kind of competition. There isn't a horse he has run against who wouldn't be a huge longshot in the Travers. So he really has not been tested for class. Because of last year and with Baffert training, he could be overbet, so don't expect anything like the 11.70-1 you got with Arrogate. He has some big shoes to fill.
As for some of the other top 3-year-olds, Mark Casse just disclosed that Classic Empire is headed to the Pennsylvania Derby. He just hasn't been as sharp as Casse would like, so with only three weeks to the Travers it would have been a real stretch to think he can get there fit and tight off a long layoff. What he does have going for him is his trainer's belief he is the best 3-year-old in the country, which he very well may be. Hopefully, one day he'll no longer have all these interruptions and we'll find out for sure. Graham Motion said that Irish War Cry will point for the Pennsylvania Derby after his disappointing effort in the Haskell, in which he seemed to have a perfect trip. Practical Joke continues to run well and give his all in the longer distance races, but he hasn't been able win any of them, just coming up a bit short, and just seems to be a better horse going one turn, which could mean a cutback to the seven-furlong H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes on the Travers undercard, formerly the King's Bishop Stakes. And his connections do have Cloud Computing in the Travers. But I still wouldn't rule him out completely, although the Allen Jerkens does seem the more logical spot for him or even the Pennsylvania Derby. I haven't seen any plans mentioned yet for West Virginia Derby winner Colonelsdarktemper, but his wire-to-wire victory over a lightly-raced Game Over and a late-closing Lookin At Lee, in which he opened up a three-length lead at the eighth pole and then hung on to win by a length, is a far cry from facing the kinds of horses he would in the Travers. He is bred to go longer, but we'll just have to see what his connections decide to do.
What Pavel did in the Jim Dandy was pretty remarkable, and with Irap in the Travers, Doug O'Neill and Paul Reddam will run him in the Smarty Jones Stakes as a prep for the Pennsylvania Derby. I thought Patch would be a Travers dark horse, and he didn't run badly in the West Virginia Derby, considering the inside post and not having the smoothest of trips, but I would have thought he needed to run better than fourth to move forward to the Travers, especially with Todd Pletcher already having Always Dreaming and Tapwrit pointed to the race. Pletcher said no plans have been discussed, but I wouldn't count on him for the Travers. He will win one of these big ones one day. The same goes for Curlin Stakes winner Outplay, who looks to be a notch below right now and whose early speed could compromise Always Dreaming. And the horse would lose John Velazquez as his jockey if he was entered in the Travers. Pletcher said they'll see how he works before making a decision. He does have a bright future. You would think Game Over, as well as he ran to finish second in the West Virginia Derby, is just not ready to tackle the best 3-year-olds going a mile and a quarter after only four career starts, but his owner likes running in big races, whether they are huge longshots or not, so it certainly would not come as a surprise if he ran him back. The horse, however, is a former claimer and starter allowance horse, who, typical of his owner, has had four trainers in four races. That means I am not about to predict anything when it comes to this horse. We'll just see what they decide to do. Curlin runner-up Small Bear is getting better and looks to have a bright future, but he is another who probably is not be quite ready for such an arduous assignment.