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It's Travers Stakes Day, and in the liturgy of the rail, it's one of American horse racing's holiest days.
Want tradition? This 142nd running keeps it America's oldest stakes race, continually run since 1864, when civil war still raged and John Hunter and W. R. Travers sent out the winner, nicely named Kentucky.
Since then, it's only not run five times, 1896 and 1898-1900 because of economic downturn and 1911 and 1912 because of a moral climate that eventually led to Prohibition. The Kentucky Derby follows with 137 runnings, continuous since 1875.
The earliest Travers Stakes rosters are etched in the bedrock of the game. Horses like D'Artagnan, Hindoo, Baden-Baden and Azra. Jockeys including Jim McLaughlin, still tied for the record with four Travers wins, Gilbert Patrick, twice a winner, including the first one, and, in a day when owners and trainers were able to look past color to get the top riders, African-Americans Alonzo Clayton and the legendary Isaac Burns Murphy, arguably the greatest jockey who ever lived.
You had August Belmont, the Dwyer Brothers, William Astor and the Bashford Manor gang filling the owners' boxes.
Man o' War won it in 1920, and today's trophy cup is named after him. The great Gallant Fox was so shockingly upset by a 100-1 longshot in 1930 that they named a key Travers prep race after him. The horse: Jim Dandy.
Eddie Arcaro began his climb to the Travers jockey summit in 1938 aboard Thanksgiving. Braulio Baeza and Pat Day each won their four later in the century.
Calumet Farm's great Whirlaway added the Travers to his Triple Crown in 1941. Native Dancer, one of the top sires of all time, won in 1953.
In what is considered the greatest Travers ever, Jaipur eked out the win over Ridan by a short nose after a slugfest that went gate-to-wire in 1962.
Later, all-stars such as Buckpasser (1966), Damascus (1967), Arts and Letters (1969), Alydar (1978), Lemon Drop Kid (1999), Point Given (2001) and Bernardini (2006) all reached the winner's circle. Secretariat did not run in the Travers in 1973, but his jockey, Ron Turcotte, did, completing his own jockey Triple Crown/Travers parlay aboard Annihilate 'Em. Afleet Express, the son of Afleet Alex, won it last year.
Saratoga's even got a Travers canoe tethered in the infield pond painted in the colors of the winning stable.
Today, it's a snowball down the hill toward the November Breeders' Cup, when the modern world seems to seek closure on all things, and a horse may be crowned king off the one BC victory, sometimes without enough regard to what he did or didn't do the previous 10 months.
I would bet there was a day when you were forced to look at the whole of a horse's year, using a summer pinnacle like the Travers as a milepost and taking in the Triple Crown races and the Whitney and Haskell, even the Washington Park Handicap, and later in the year, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Clark Handicap. Now? The Breeders' Cup is a fine day of racing, but it's not a whole season.
A win, or even a run, in the Travers Stakes? Boy, it's big. You have to earn it and if you win, it will always be: "Yeah, he won the Travers."
The 2011 edition of the Travers has all the intrigue you want, as the current three-year-old crop, opportunistic all year, should offer a very good race and challenging wagering. The undercard, the Ballston Spa (GII), Victory Ride (GIII), Ballerina (GI), and the King's Bishop (GI), has its own hooks, none larger than Uncle Mo's return in the King's Bishop.
From the inside post out, the 2011 Travers Stakes, 1-1/4 miles (10 furlongs) on the dirt:
1. Bowman's Causeway (12-1 morning line) is a Canadian import with a tough beat in the Prince of Wales at Fort Erie to next-out stakes winner Pender Harbour. A fourth in the prestigious Queen's Plate before that gives Bowman's his two best races in his last two. That's always good. I'm not going to say Ramon Dominguez in the saddle is an upgrade, as I did not like at all the ride he gave Gio Ponti in the Arlington Million, but he is a top jock. This Giant's Causeway colt has all the distance DNA he needs. With his Queen's beat on the synthetic at this distance and a top effort at just a sixteenth less last time out, and if you believe in continued improvement on the dirt switch . . . I'm talking myself into it. And by the way, trainer Chad Brown is sunspot-hot at Saratoga this summer with 31-percent of his runners basking in the winners circle and 61 percent in-the-money.
2. Rattlesnake Bridge (8-1) is a Tapit colt stepping up big-time here. His 91-90-91 Beyer Speed Figures in his last three do not inspire. Nor do his only two wins, first-out in a maiden special weight at Gulfstream in February and a tight win in the Long Branch at Monmouth last out. His biggest stakes race was a fourth in the slop in the Grade II Jerome in April. This closer showed heart in the Long Branch, stumbling at the start and still winning. His only angle will be to jump up about 10 in the Beyers, get a great trip, and hope the pace up front destroys the race. Ask Professor Marvel how it's going to go.
3. Moonshine Mullin (20-1) has wiseguy written all over him. That's because of the 15-point Beyer improvement (99) he made in getting pounded by Stay Thirsty in the July 30 Jim Dandy. That was his first dirt race after three on synthetic and four on turf and he was impressive to get second in a race where nobody was going to beat 'Thirsty. He's shown good tactical speed, especially under jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson, who gets the ride here, but he's in some pretty deep company. The Beyer fits, he seems fine with the track at the Spa and has a good last workout. I'm thinkin' you gotta at least include him deeper underneath.
4. Ruler On Ice (6-1) is the first of the three-year-old all-stars. With no clear dominator, this crop has taken turns winning the top three-year-old races and they're all here, except probably the best one, Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, who is out with an injury. Ruler won the Belmont Stakes at 24-1, just hanging on over Stay Thirsty. Except for the Belmont, at it's anomaly of 12 furlongs, he hasn't beaten much this year and the Belmont was on a sloppy track. On the other hand, while he and Jose Valdivia mysteriously shuffled to the back in the Haskell, Ruler showed a nice closing ability after Valdivia veered him to the rail and made their bid there. It wasn't the kind of ride that will win this race, but coming in here in his second race off the Belmont with an extra panel than the Haskell, hitting the board is a can-do at a nice price. And I mean, get a nice price: 6-1 minimum.
5. Malibu Glow (20-1) seems the tossout. Daily Racing Form's Dave Litfin makes the case that Malibu ran just as fast as the Jim Dandy leaders the same day - for the first six furlongs - but then closed slowly. Two of the hotshot Form pickers are taking him, although I haven't seen the reasoning. His comparable Beyers are nice, but that's kind of like smoothing out the icing on a bad cake. He hasn't beaten anybody (well except perhaps Raison d'Etat who also goes here) and has shown no stakes moxie. Nope.
6. Raison d'Etat (10-1) is a very lightly-raced (4-1-1-1) A.P. Indy colt who shows a ton of potential but at this point is held back by his inexperience. Kind of like Starlin Castro, except Raison d'Etat runs real hard every time out - big difference. But while some young horses can be intimidated into obscurity in a race like this, trainer Bill Mott is confident and that's good enough for me. He posted a very nice 97 Beyer as the favorite in the two-turn Curlin Stakes at Saratoga on July 29th, so he's got that going for him, but he shied from the whip and ran greenly to compromise his chances of winning. He's got as much raw talent as any of these, but he's behind some of his other classmates in his grade. He's been working great in August. Hard to say on his price, as the savvy horseplayers have already spotted him. I don't see how you can't include him at what could be his last good price.
7. Coil (3-1) is Bob Baffert's California kid who brought his 3-for-5 Hollywood synthetic record to the Jersey Shore, stumbled slightly out of the gate, bided his time well in last place, turned some foot to stay with the pack and then roared very wide down the middle of the track to nip Shackleford by an impressive neck in the Haskell Invitational. The son of Point Given has won four of six races and has been consistent with 96 Beyers in each of his last three. But just because he's a now horse with the Haskell win, I don't think he's the "it" horse. He's not as fast as he used to be and I think the rest and relaxation he was able to get in the first half of the Haskell allowed him to catch and beat what was a deceptively deteriorating pace. The same Beyer on the dirt as opposed to synthetic tells me he's not jumping up on dirt. I don't think he'll be a good price at all. But that's fine, as I'll look at a couple of the other veterans and a few of the young guns.
8. J W Blue (20-1) is one of those cut-below horses who is in very deep in this Travers. His only two wins came in his early races, he couldn't seem to get up for the wins in his last two at Delaware, including the Barbaro Stakes, and has shown before he's not a Grade I horse. In the Arkansas Derby, he was a so-so sixth to Archarcharch, Nehro and Dance City, very nice horses back in that day, but well off the three-year-old main stage now. The only thing he might have going for him is that Tony Dutrow is bringing him off a short vacation, one of Dutrow's go-to angles. That, along with removing his blinkers, shows Dutrow is reaching into his hat and trying to pull out a rabbit. I don't think he's even going to get Rocket J. Squirrel.
9. Stay Thirsty (5-2 favorite), formerly known as Uncle Mo's stablemate, comes in off an impressive, professionally run Jim Dandy where he downshifted just after the eighth pole and romped by four over Moonshine Mullin. He rebounded off a disappointing Kentucky Derby to nearly win the Belmont. The Travers is his second race off a 45-day break. I see two instances in his form cycles where he's bounced badly off of good races and in the third similar cycle opportunity, ran very well in the sloppy Belmont. I don't think he's any cinch to get this distance against these horses on a fast track. Conversely, he seems to love Saratoga, just like his pappy, Bernardini. I'm not a big fan of this horse but you have to respect him and include him in your exacta or trifecta. If he stays at 5-2, I've seen worse things. Like having to sit through another feature on his cartoonish, my-money-in-your-face Brooklyn-wiseguy owner, Mike Repole.
10. Shackleford (9-2) is your Preakness Stakes winner who is always in the thick of things. His m.o. is that he's a pace participant who can set it, be a part of it or even control it. Ostensibly, he can just run away if you let him, but what happens in the stretch of those 1-1/4 miles of the Travers? He had chances in both the Florida and Kentucky Derbies, but was unable to seal the deal and his lone win in six graded stakes, including five Grade I's feeds the furnace of my doubt. And it was shown after he beat Animal Kingdom in the Preakness that 'Kingdom hurt himself in that race. It sure didn't seem like he was too able get the distance and hold off Coil in the Haskell, something that doesn't bode well here. Shackleford will have to contend with Stay Thirsty just inside of him as they battle to the first turn and assuming J W Blue won't keep up, Coil and Raison d'Etat in the next two slots. He's had a very active campaign with a nearly identical schedule as Stay Thirsty. But Shackleford ran in all three legs of the Triple Crown, the only Travers runner to do so. You have to include him on class, at least for place or show, but you might just be able to toss him if you're a gutsy wiseguy. 2-1? No way.
NBC will provide coverage of the King's Bishop and the Travers in beautiful hi-def with the capable analysis of Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens.
Uncle Mo will make his long-anticipated return in the 27th running of the King's Bishop, seven furlongs on the dirt.
Trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole have extolled 'Mo's virtues since he returned to training and tell us he's on the muscle and ready to go. He's turned in two great five-furlong works in the past couple of weeks.
While the Repole Stable's Mutt and Jeff have yet to explain why they waited until the day before the Derby to scratch 'Mo when it was clear he was not right from what was later diagnosed as a liver disease, it's still nice to see the big colt back.
If Uncle Mo is right as rain, he certainly has the talent to win this race. But it's a tall order after being seriously ill and off since April. The Two-Year-Old Horse of the Year was going great guns all the way through the Timely Writer in March at Gulfstream until it became clear something was wrong when he finished a trying but lackluster third in the Wood Memorial.
He'll be facing horses such as Flashpoint, Caleb's Posse, Dominus and even Runflatout. I can't agree that 'Mo was made the 9-5 favorite, but when he was on, he was a visually spectacular horse.
It will be worth tuning in just to see Uncle Mo.
Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.