One of the oldest stakes races run in North America, the “Midsummer Derby” will be contested for the 147th time on Saturday. Aside from Nyquist, all of the principal three-year-olds—as well as a few intriguing upstarts—are slated to take their spots in the starting gate. The stage is set for this Travers to serve as the coda to a tumultuous Triple Crown season, and to finally provide some resolution in this three-year-old division.
There is plenty of speed among this full field of 14 runners, and the Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace. American Freedom (#2), who wrested the lead from Nyquist through the opening stages of the Haskell, and Laoban (#13), the wire-to-wire winner of the Jim Dandy, are expected to hook up in the early going. Also forecasted to be involved in the pace are the lightly-raced duo of Arrogate (#1) and Connect (#10), as well as Gun Runner (#14), who will be forced to show some initiative from his outside post position.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, Arrogate (10/1): I’m taking a stand against this lightly-raced West Coast shipper. I admit that it’s natural to like what you see when watching his replays. You would be hard-pressed to find a horse with a more fluid, balanced stride, and he always gives you the impression that he’s finishing with more left in the tank. On the other hand, he has beaten a grand total of 10 horses in his three wins, and now must defeat 13 rivals while breaking from the rail in his stakes debut against Grade 1 company. Additionally, the Pace Projector is predicting that others are faster than he early, so he’ll likely to have to deal with plenty of kickback through the opening furlongs. I’ll pass.
#2, American Freedom (6/1):
Bob Baffert’s other runner is more of a proven commodity against top level competition, having finished second to Exaggerator most recently in the Haskell. However, like that colt, he’s a horse that has excelled over wet tracks in the past, so it seems possible that the poor conditions on Haskell day may have given him an edge over those that did not handle the track as proficiently. Additionally, he’s drawn down towards the inside and is going to have to be used early if Rafael Bejarano wants to avoid getting trapped in behind horses as the outside speeds like Laoban and Connect cross over towards the rail. Finally, the mile and a quarter distance remains an unknown. He definitely has ability, but there are some things working against him today, so I’d require double-digits before pushing this one’s number.
#3, My Man Sam (20/1): He was one of the few horses (Creator was another) that actually had significant trouble in the Kentucky Derby, as he was bumped hard when Exaggerator was angling out at the top of the stretch. As his colt was one of the least experienced members of that field, Chad Brown wisely gave him some time off after that trying effort. He returned as the heavy favorite against older allowance horses earlier this meet, but just failed to get the job done. While that performance seemed disappointing at first glance, the horse that defeated him was Grade 1-placed in last year’s Preakness and may be rounding back into form. I don’t view My Man Sam as a win candidate, but he does feel like the type of horse that could pick up pieces late, especially if the Pace Projector is correct and the early fractions are taxing.
#4, Governor Malibu (12/1):
This horse has improved markedly in recent starts, quietly developing into one of the best three-year-olds in the country while flying under the radar. He’s yet to win a major race, but his performances in the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy suggest that he possesses the ability to beat the elite three-year-olds. He was twice sawed off when attempting to move inside of horses in the Belmont Stakes, and then he was taken out of his game when forced to make an early advance down the backstretch in the Jim Dandy. He still might have won that race had Joel Rosario been able to get him outside earlier, but his game runner-up finish was encouraging enough considering the circumstances. Joel Rosario and Christophe Clement are due for some luck with this New York-bred, who will try to avenge Tonalist’s loss in this race two years ago.
#5, Forever d’Oro (30/1): He’s definitely progressed since the spring, but I still think his connections are biting off more than they can chew at this stage in his development. He does figure to get a more favorable pace scenario ahead of him today. That was not the case in the Curlin, when he actually did fairly well to get up for third in a race that was dominated on the front end. He’s a superfecta player at best.
#6, Anaximandros (50/1): He was soundly defeated by second-tier three-year-olds in the West Virgina Derby last time and appears to be overmatched.
#7, Exaggerator (3/1):
The favorite for this centerpiece of the Saratoga season is the Preakness winner. He once again got the best of Nyquist and Gun Runner in the Haskell, cementing his status as the most accomplished three-year-old male in his class. Some might argue that he hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves as a three-time Grade 1 winner. That’s fair. However, it’s also fair to say that he’s been one very fortunate colt. All three of his Grade 1 victories have come over wet, sealed tracks in races that fell apart in the late states after the leaders set extremely fast paces (color-coded in red). It’s true that the Pace Projector is predicting another fast pace here, but this time there is no rain in the forecast. Does Exaggerator still hold a significant edge over the best three-year-olds in the country on a dry surface? I have my doubts.
#8, Destin (10/1): Javier Castellano was the one that facilitated Laoban’s Jim Dandy upset as he failed to push the eventual winner in the early stages of that race. However, I still feel that Destin should have had more of a late response considering his proximity to the slow pace. That said, I still can’t completely dismiss a colt who ran well in two legs of the Triple Crown. My main knock against him is that he has benefitted from perfect trips in many of his better efforts, and he may have to come from farther back in the pack today, as he did in the Kentucky Derby. I can envision a scenario in which he’s competitive against this group, but I still feel that there are more exciting options than this Todd Pletcher trainee.
#9, Gift Box (12/1): In some ways, he’s the forgotten horse in this Travers. Considered to be one of the most exciting three-year-olds in the country after a visually impressive allowance score at Belmont earlier this summer, it feels as if many have abandoned his bandwagon after a loss as the favorite in the Curlin. In fairness, his stablemate Connect did have a slight tactical advantage that day as he was able to control the pace while Gift Box had to chase along the inside. That said, Gift Box had his chance in the stretch and just could not go with Connect late. While I believe that the Curlin winner is the slightly better racehorse, I don’t want to totally leave Gift Box off my tickets. After all, he’s probably going to be a fair price, and his running style should be more adaptable to the predicted pace scenario. I’ll definitely be including this one in exacta and trifecta wagers.
#10, Connect (4/1):
Like Arrogate, this colt is quite the physical specimen—a bull of a thoroughbred who barrels along in a manner suggesting that this 10-furlong distance should pose no issues. While he won the Curlin under a perfect set of circumstances, as the controlling speed in a race that featured a moderate early pace, he had previously shown more versatility. He rallied from off the pace in his maiden win sprinting, and then demonstrated the ability to sustain a faster pace next time out when wearing down the talented older horse Wake Up in Malibu from a stalking position. John Velazquez should have plenty of options from this outside post position, and I believe that Connect is the most likely of the Chad Brown trio to give the meet’s leading trainer his first Travers score.
#11, Majesto (30/1): A wide trip in the Curlin was his undoing, but he probably was not going to make much of an impact in that race anyway. He’s never run fast enough to be competitive in a race at this level and would be a major surprise if he were to even crack the superfecta.
#12, Creator (15/1): The horse that was most hindered by the race flow of the Jim Dandy was Destin’s Belmont Stakes vanquisher. This grey son of Tapit never had a chance to make his late run last time after Laoban was allowed to set such slow (color-coded in blue) early fractions. He figures to get a more favorable setup today, but is that enough? He won the Belmont Stakes because of an absolutely perfect ride from Irad Ortiz, doing so at a distance that many of his rivals (such as Exaggerator) just did not handle. I’m not quite sure that he can pull off the same feat at a mile and a quarter against what appears to be an even deeper field than the one he defeated in June. Like other closers, he’s one to use underneath, but I think the top prize may be just out of reach.
#13, Laoban (15/1): The Jim Dandy winner proved that he’s no slouch in his upset victory over a few of today’s rivals earlier this month. However, that triumph was more a product of tactical error on the parts of the other riders than a testament to his rise in the ranks of this three-year-old division. He now faces a difficult task in a race that is predicted to feature a much faster pace, and some questions still remain about his stamina to get the 10 furlongs of this race. Last time was the time to have this one.
#14, Gun Runner (10/1): Perhaps he’s a horse that just does not care for wet tracks. The only two poor performances in his career have come in his two races over less-than-fast footing. However, even if I can forgive his Haskell effort, I’m not convinced that he’s up to this challenge. The way he faded in the final furlong of the Kentucky Derby makes me question his stamina at this distance, and the outside post position in this fully subscribed field does not help his cause. I will use him defensively, but I think others will offer better value.
My top pick is GOVERNOR MALIBU (#4). I’ll focus on him and Connect (#10) in the top spot, though I expect Governor Malibu to offer better value. Betting Strategies for the Travers will be included exclusively in Saturday’s Saratoga Package: