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TrackNotes: Touting The Travers

You know that forest and trees thing?

TrackNotes will wax, but how many are really watching these races?

Just imagine how many people hang on every word a Carmelo Anthony spews when, in the end, it doesn't amount to a hill of unsoaked and unsalted beans.

It can be lonely on the Thoroughbred beat, with reminders every Monday morning. "Did you see California Chrome?" While that name rings a faint bell, it's always no, they wide-eyed with the Cubs. Pavlovian preparation for the Bears. "Nine wins and no playoffs, again," they say. I say four wins, tops, and think to myself how programmed Chicagoans are to the Bears, and why Las Vegas makes so much money off of them.

Millions of people missed what American Pharoah did last year. But Week Nine of the Atlanta Falcons' season was analyzed into an autopsy.

I was downtown Friday when a horse carriage went by ferrying a happy couple with the biggest smiles on their faces I think I have ever seen. They were in their own world.

In my typical smart-ass manner, I shouted "It's American Pharoah!" to the chestnut horse and his driver. The man on the reins let out a hearty laugh. Even though he sure as hell should know who American Pharoah is, it was still gratifying to have an in, a wink, a fellow traveler. But I still would love for more people to see the greatness in these horses and jockeys that I see.

Three bright young ladies hopped on the bar chairs and one said, "I really love hockey." "Me too." "Me too!" There is hope. I said to them that it seems to me that young ladies who watch a little hockey really do seem to enjoy it, get into it, and become knowledgeable about it. But I would have been tossed out if I had started preaching about the 'Chromes, or the Songbirds or Frosteds or 'Pharoahs.

So if you are at all interested, today is Travers Day at The Spa, wonderful Saratoga.

The stakes is named after William Travers who was, simply and deeply, involved in racing. He was a pioneer in establishing a race track at Saratoga, where rich people and folks not so rich came to vacation or seek the healing of its clean springs.

Oh, and his horse, Kentucky, won the first Travers Stakes, when the Civil War was still raging, in 1864. Nothing, not even horse racing, is religion to me. That wasn't the first horse racing in America, but I'll agree if you want to start the book of Genesis there.

As is the democracy of any track or racebook or OTB I've ever been to, back then, the eyes were always on the prize and assembling the best trainers, horses and jockeys was the ultimate priority. In the Travers, African-American riders like Isaac Burns Murphy won with Falsetto in 1879 and Alonzo Clayton rode Azra in 1892. Horse, jockey, trip. It's all that matters, then and now.

Man o' War (1920), Jim Dandy (1930), Granville (1936), Triple Crown winner Whirlaway (1941), Native Dancer (1953), Alydar (1978), Forty Niner (1988), Easy Goer (1989). In my time, Medaglia d'Oro (2002), Flower Alley (2005), Bernardini (2006). Alpha and Golden Ticket dead-heated in 2012.

This is such a singular race, you win it and they pull out the old cliche: They can't ever take it away from you.

In fact, you "win" a boat! Hit the wire first, and they paint a canoe with your stable colors and moor it in the infield lake. Holy Song of Hiawatha!

Saratoga has been dubbed the Graveyard of Champions. Many other fine horses have been beaten here, but the notables are Man o' War, by Upset. It was so monumental, the word upset became part of the sporting lexicon1. Jim Dandy pulled off the 100-1 over Gallant Fox. Secretariat got beat by Onion here. H. Allen Jerkens earned a reputation for such upsets, although winning five straight Belmont Stakes' was pretty cool too. Rachel Alexandra lost here. In an overlooked gesture of sportsmanship, Ahmed Zayat brought American Pharoah here last year and was . . . beaten in a funky pace in the Travers.

It's not like you need a backstory, it's the Travers, the 147th, after all, but there always seems to be one.

This year, on an ultimate stage, we will find out just how good Exaggerator is. Why? Because he will be running one of the biggest races of his life on a dry track.

OTB Red would say "don't matter." But you have to contemplate as the son of Curlin has won his biggest races only on mud or in slop. Delta Jackpot, Santa Anita Derby, Preakness Stakes. Haskell last out.

But looky here. He won his first two on the dry loam, including the Saratoga Special, 53 weeks ago. Three-to-one morning line: if you get that, take it all day.

If you've been hibernating since the first Sunday in May, you'll wonder if this is a spinoff, a Good Times, of this year's Kentucky Derby.

Besides Exaggerator, you've got Destin, touted today by some, who finished sixth in Louisville. Creator, winner of the Belmont, ran into a mugging for 13th in the Derby. Gun Runner was third. Tellingly, he contended, but couldn't control the Derby, losing to Nyquist and Exaggerator.

Gun Runner won the Matt Winn over nobody at Churchill Downs in between, and then finished fifth in the Haskell last out. A lot of people really want to like him, but I don't need the disappointment.

I will declare this right now. Laoban, who crafted and exploited a totally verklempt pace and race in the Jim Dandy, will not get my backing and won't win. Risky business, I know, but I don't like him and he won't get the 10 furlongs.

Bob Baffert's American Freedom? Needs another step up after a fine second in the Haskell, to Exaggerator, but he's been training lights out. Working at Del Mar, he jumped in the Little Deuce Coupe, throwing away his blinkers somewhere along the way and rolled into a 6-1 morning line. At that price, I'll have fun fun fun.

Everybody's waiting for Governor Malibu to bust out, and after the Jim Dandy debacle, why not? 12-1 Morning line. Everybody's waiting for Destin to bust out, winning last in the Tampa Bay Derby. This is the Globe Theater of summer stock, so now's the time, big boy.

Trainer Chad Brown is hotter than the hot springs at this meet, becoming a really hot act on our racing shew. So you have to look at Gift Box, two off the layoff, an angle he's already won at, and who finished a good second in the Curlin last out.

And Connect, son of Curlin, won the Curlin in wire fashion and graduated into triple digit Beyer Speed Figure territory. Trainer? Chad Brown.

Dandruff? No, just scratching my head over Creator. Bobby Flay's only a minority owner, but he gets all the heat lamps, and Creator did win the Belmont, after all. But other than the Arkansas Derby, over others who are off the map, what have we got here? He threw in a non-competitive sixth clunker in the Jim Dandy, enough so that you wonder if there is something wrong.

Who does TrackNotes (notice the third-person thing there?) like?

I'll, oops, have to include Exaggerator. Because with the way this season is going, it's shaping up to be the Day the Earth Stood Still at the Breeders' Cup, and this would be precious. And at 3-1? Yo.

I may do a big exacta and a bit smaller trifecta with American Freedom, Exaggerator, Gift Box, Connect, Governor Malibu and Arrogate (Bob Baffert, Mike Smith, three in a row, Unbridled and Distorted Humor at the Sunday table, 10-1 or more).

NBC, 3:30. You'll also see other races, imagine that. It's a huge stakes day at The Spa. Watch today, and you'll have legit street cred on Breeders' Cup Day.


1. This might not be true.


Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.



Those darned three-year-olds!

But that's part of the bargain, the magilla. The way.

Arrogate, with many American lower jaws on the floor, turned in a performance to be talked about forever in winning the 147th Travers Stakes, perhaps the colonies' most prestigious race. It was scintillating. The Bob Baffert trainee just powered it.

How much scint? At 1:59.36, Arrogate topped the 2:00 flat record of 1979's General Assembly. Doesn't seem like much, but that is a lot.

With Mike Smith aboard - how good is this Hall of Famer? - Arrogate ran :23.23 and :46.84 in the first two fractions. That's very fast, but not suicidal. It was a very fast, sustained effort and that's how you break the record at one of America's oldest tracks.

Laoban and another Baffert trainee, American Freedom, led early, very early and not for long. Exaggerator "broke" dead last, a tellingly dead last. Stay there, there will be another day.

As fast as you please, Arrogate used the final turn, he in the tight two lane, to slingshot to a blink-of-the-eye five-length lead. Then, he piled on, in a nice way, because these horses don't think the way we do.

In the post-race saddle interview, Mike Smith, wearing those same silks as with Zenyatta, said, "He reminds me of his father. Just like his father (Unbridled's Song [Unbridled]). I had trouble getting him stopped."

Smith said the rep on the horse was immaturity, talented but green.

As is it's wont, the racing press portrayed this Travers as some sort of redemption for Baffert, whose American Pharoah lost this race a year ago. But Baffert did not shy away from talking about it.

"Last year, you could have poured me out of a shot glass," Baffert said. "We were dejected."

You say Baffert should know better, but he knows. He's all in. Baffert loves these horses, emotional commitments be damned.

"I think the fans (now there's a concept!) will remember watching a horse like this, because I know, when I see performances like this, they're very rare."

Read the chart. This the throwback to when race results, or details, were not instantaneous. And the chart writer had to nail it, with few words.

Arrogate paid $25.40, $12.60 and $8.40. American Freedom (keep an eye on him) placed and Gun Runner showed. The exacta paid $134.50. If you must know, I had the winner and the exacta. Baffert, Smith, a horse foaled running, great works? Yeah.

Reinvention not welcome, it is one of the oldest races in the land, history intact, the people in the game honor it. The only thing new about it is the horse and the jockey adding important layers to the tradition.

Just like Arrogate and Mike Smith did, just yesterday.

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