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Fearless Leader has always said that if you're doing the same things journalistically in years two through nine as you did in year one, you don't really have 10 years' experience.
It's easy to feel that way in Thoroughbred horse racing, as you annually go through the same races on nearly identical dates at the same tracks across the land.
But one difference between racing and, say, the Super Bowl is that the horses and competitive complexions and resultant wagering possibilities are so varied year to year in a particular big race. It's not no stinkin' New England Patriots every year. Even Super Bowl betting is monotonous.
But once again, August 26, 2017, I've got great news and good news. It's Travers Stakes Day! It's going to be as memorable a Travers card as we've seen. Or is it that we can remember? That's the great news. The good news is that I'm not going to repeat today the history or the many reasons I love this big summer day from Saratoga. But if you're interested, it's all here, so I'll save you the search.
With one helluva race day looming, this is a good time to reflect on the racing season so far. One reason, as you'll see, is that it's all sorta coming together in this Travers.
With the BozoPuter going down in late June, I was shut out of the Grand Prize Game, watching the races more as a fan than a bettor, some wagering opportunities missed and others thankfully missed. The Triple Crown season itself, including the preps, was lackluster. Yet, on Saturday, we might see who really was the best of the three.
Horseplayers will argue all day about who they believe will win, but deep down, we always know the start, the pace, jockey judgement, the all-important trip and the unknowable feelings of the horse always demand the addendum: "I think."
Unlike the ballteam writers in every town, you don't usually see the turf scribes telling the horse owners or trainers what to do and nobody can tell the horse what to do. I hope any orchestrations I've ever attempted here have been strictly to improve the fan experience.
The inability of the horses to relate at all with the fans provides a comforting detachment, a forced objectivity. For wagering purposes, we believe we know what a horse will do, but we understand that we can't know. Add to the "I think" the big "We'll see."
There is no greater example than Arrogate, the son of Unbridled's Song.
Unraced at two, he climbed the ladder as a three-year-old last year. Just 364 days ago, he stunned the world in this Travers, smashing the race record, track record and the magical two-minute mark by clocking 1:59.36, a nearly 13-length winner and besting General Assembly's two minutes flat in 1979. His 122 Beyer Speed Figure in that race put him in the rarified air of a Ghostzapper or even Secretariat on a slow day.
Marching on, he topped California Chrome half a length in the Breeders' Cup Classic, as good a race as 'Chrome ever ran. He dominated the Pegasus World Cup Invitational in January, and then hopped a plane and won the Dubai World Cup in March by nearly five. What have we here?
Well, horses and races. In the San Diego Handicap on July 22nd, Arrogate threw in the worst race since his debut, looked disinterested and finished a bad fourth, more than 15 back. There could be a thousand reasons, but none has been found, trainer Bob Baffert saying he came out of the race just fine.
Forward to last Saturday, the prestigious Pacific Classic, where Arrogate would surely get rid of the big hiccup. Nope. Showing the guts and class he surely has, Arrogate was still strained and pained as he first went three wide, tried to keep up further in, and wheeled outside way too late to catch his stablemate Collected.
Race caller Trevor Denman said it: "He's doing better than last time, but he's still not comfortable." Arrogate's the only horse to win both the Travers and the Breeders' Cup Classic, but it seems long ago.
See what I mean? They all get beat. Unlike the overpaids at the large metropolitan dailies and wattage cottages, I can't sit here and tell the horses or, also you, why. He seemed tired, seemed like something was wrong with him, seemed like he didn't like the track, seemed anxious. Know it, there's no pontification hook there.
The only "whys" I have for you are the many reasons to dive into tomorrow's Saratoga card.
In the 148th (the first Civil War was still raging) Travers Stakes (Grade I, three year olds, 12 furlongs, dirt, $1,250,000), we will have, for the first time since 1982, the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes squaring off in New York State's version of the North Woods.
In order, Always Dreaming (6-1 morning line), Cloud Computing (8-1) and Tapwrit (7-2 favorite), 7-1-4 post positions, respectively, will see if they can settle the Crown debate and not look back on the way to the Breeders' Cup.
'Dreaming finished eighth in the Preakness and was third in the Jim Dandy, the local prep for this. If you believe he needed that first back race for foundation . . .
Cloud Computing also went from the Preakness to the Dandy, where he finished fifth. The same "if" goes here. Tapwrit ran by far the best race of his life in the Belmont, but hasn't raced since. That takes him out of favoritism, at least for me, but the touts like that he's "well rested."
Another great part of this race is all the others, too. Look out for Baffert's West Coast (4-1) and Mike Smith. A lot of the forum wiseguys like Irap (8-1), and while you can question his class, he did win the Blue Grass and comes in off two straight wins in the Ohio and Indiana Derbies. Fayeq (30-1) steps way up in class, but the son of Malibu Moon is making the progress you like to see. Gunnevara (20-1) doesn't seem to belong, but he did win the Saratoga Special here a long time ago. Good Samaritan (5-1) is your Jim Dandy winner. Girvin (10-1) comes in off a Haskell Invitational win and a tough beat in said Ohio Derby. His only bad race was the Kentucky Derby, so hope his odds hold.
Look, I don't know how good these horses would even do in the Great Oklahoma Land Rush, when this race was already 25 years old. But this is an evenly matched field of 12. There is a smattering of triple-digit Beyers in here, but the contenders are all mainly mid- to upper-90s. This spells one thing: eyes glued to the tote board and wagering fun.
At 1:23 Central, zone in on Songbird (2-5) in the 70th running of The Personal Ensign (Grade I, fillies and mares three and up, nine furlongs, dirt, $700,000) as she tries to win her 14th out of 15 starts.
Our darling's connections, when asked why Songbird did not win as convincingly as she usually does, blamed the heat and a deep track in the Delaware Handicap and promised that race has made her fit as a fiddle. The four-year-old daughter of Medaglia d'Oro won by an identical one length in the Ogden Phipps on the Belmont undercard in June, her first race of the year.
She'll have a tough foe in five-year-old Forever Unbridled who, in my unpatented up-and-down angle should be up here, coming in off a pedestrian win in the Fleur de Lis in June. On paper, she's class-challenged, but they're running the race on dirt. Songbird, second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, beat Forever' that day.
Probably pointed to the BC Filly and Mare Turf, this grande dame of the turf makes her last appearance at The Spa after her connections said she will be sold for broodmare service at the end of the year.
Her greatness interrupted for more than a year with a bout of laminitis, she'll want to win this race for the first time after a tough beat last year. She overcame a bobbled start but won the Diana here July 22nd and won the Gamely at Santa Anita in May. The five-time Grade I winner Lady Eli is destination race watching.
She'll have tough competition in the Irish mare Roca Rojo (9-2), Antonoe (3-1) and Dickinson (10-1).
Bob Baffert's American Anthem (2-1) will battle Coal Front (4-1), the Stay Thirsty colt out of a Mineshaft mare, in the H. Allen Jerkens (Grade I, three year olds, seven furlongs, dirt, $500,000), formerly the King's Bishop.
American Anthem comes in off two straight Grade I wins, including the Woody Stephens last out on Belmont Day. Coal Front won the Grade II Amsterdam here a month ago. Practical Joke (5-2) last won in the Grade III Dwyer at a mile, so these seven furlongs should be right in his wheel house, but please don't tell anyone.
These are just the star horses. The racing will be the real star and will also include the Grade I Ballerina, Grade I Forego, and the Grade I Sword Dancer on the turf.
For your television navigation, FS2 FoxSportsNet is scheduled to open at 1 p.m. and will hand off to the big NBC5 at 3:30 for the main events. If you're jonesing before that, MSG+HD is always a good way to go. MSG is professional race analysis and Fox is starting to make some pretty good bones on its telecasts.
Not that I would ever tell you what to do.
Tom Chambers is our correspondent on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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