The Brock Talk

Friday, August 26, 2011

Travers Winner Will Join Ghosts and Greats

Take every winner of a major 3-year-old race since the second leg of the Triple Crown and throw in the winners of Monmouth Park’s Long Branch and Woodbine’s Victoria Park Stakes, some long shots, and you have the recipe for the 142nd running of the grade 1 Travers Stakes Saturday at historic Saratoga Race Course.

Winners of the Preakness (gr. 1), Belmont (gr. 1), Resorts Casino & Hotel Casino Invitational (gr. 1) and Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. 2) have entered the 1-1/4 mile “Mid-Summer” Derby and the million dollar purse has attracted four non-stakes winners hoping to capitalize on Saratoga’s historic moniker as the “graveyard of favorites.” It was after all, Saratoga that added “upset” to the sports vernacular when a horse by the same name defeated Man o’War in the 1919 Sanford Memorial at Saratoga.

But the Travers is also known for producing champions. In 2009, Summer Bird was the most recent Travers winner to be named champion 3-year-old colt. The first Travers winner to be so honored was Baden-Baden in 1877 with 24 Travers winning champions in between.

Whirlaway (photo) is the only Triple Winner to win the Travers – having done so in 1941 – but eight others have won two legs of the Triple Crown before winning the Travers some 3 months later in their respective years. Point Given (2001), Man o’War (1920), Damascus (’67), Native Dancer (’53) and Duke of Magenta won the Preakness, Belmont and Travers. Thunder Gulch (1995), Shut Out (’42) and Twenty Grand (’31) won the Derby, Belmont and Travers while.

Since no single horse won two legs of the Triple Crown this year, nobody has a chance to join the likes of Whirlaway, Point Given, Man o’War and Damascus on those lists, but there are plenty other historical clubs to join coming out of the Travers winner's circle.

Favorite Stay Thirsty comes into the Travers after winning the Jim Dandy over the same Saratoga track July 30. Arts and Letters was the first horse to win the Travers after winning the 1969 Jim Dandy with seven others having done so since. Since 1964, the Jim Dandy has been the main local prep race for the Travers and was the same path Bernardini, (sire of Stay Thirsty), used to win the 2006 Travers and later, title as champion 3-year-old colt or gelding that year.

Stay Thirsty also broke his maiden last year at Saratoga, while the only other Travers runner with a win over the track is Malibu Glow. At 20-1 in the morning line, Malibu Glow defeated older allowance horses in a 1-1/8 mile allowance race in late July and is among those with upset aspirations.

Stay Thirsty is trained by Todd Pletcher, who is the current leading trainer at this Saratoga meeting and in search of his seventh title at the Spa. Pletcher is also trying for his second Travers victory after winning in 2005 with Flower Ally.

Another nationally prominent trainer trying for his second Travers win is Bob Baffert, trainer of Haskell winner Coil. Baffert won the 2001 Travers with Point Given, who like his son after him, also won the Haskell Invitational. In fact, Point Given was the last of seven horses to win both the Haskell and Travers. Others who have won the two races include Coranado's Quest (1998), Holy Bull ('94), Forty Niner ('88), Wise Times ('86), Wajima ('75) and Holding Pattern in 1974.

So both Stay Thirsty and Coil hope to follow in the footsteps of their sires, both of whom won a graded race before the Travers, the Travers, and the division championship later.

Belmont Stakes winners have had the most success in the Travers with 27 of them coming back to win the Mid-Summer Derby, of which 14 were also named champion 3-year-old colt or gelding. Summer Bird was the last take the Belmont, Travers and championship, having done so in 2009. The first horse to list those three titles among their accomplishments was Duke of Magenta in 1878. The list also includes legends such as Man o’War (1920), Whirlaway (‘41), Native Dancer (’53), Damacus (’67) and Thunder Gulch (’95).

This year, Belmont winner Ruler On Ice (photo winning the Belmont) is hoping to join that list, but he won’t have the genetic history or trainer accomplishments of Stay Thirsty or Coil. Neither Roman Ruler (sire of Ruler On Ice) nor trainer Kelly Breen have a Travers win on their record, but Ruler On Ice remains among the probable winners at 6-1 odds as one of three grade 1 stakes winners in the Travers. Coil and Shackleford are the others.

Shackleford attained his grade 1 status the classic way, taking the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown. But also like Ruler On Ice, Shackleford’s close bloodlines are not speckled with winners of such races as the Travers, Haskell and Belmont – both have worked for their respect this year. Shackleford has been second in the Florida Derby at 68-1, fourth in Kentucky at 23-1 and won the Preakness at 12-1. His only race as the favorite was the Haskell last month when he was second by a neck behind Coil at 3-2 odds.

Shackleford also fights a futile history of Preakness winners in the Travers. Since Duke of Magenta won the Preakness and Travers in 1878, only six others have pulled off the same double. However, every one of them were champions including Man o’War, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Damascus, Point Given and Bernardini.

It has been a much maligned group, these 3-year-old colts that make up the sophomore class of 2011. Early season long shots dotted the pre-Kentucky Derby landscape among this crop and different horses have won nearly every major race in this division this year.

But after all of that, some survivors still have a chance to step into the company of legends. Others may be looking for the edge brought on in the company of Saratoga ghosts that haunt race favorites at the upstate New York track.

But whether by grade one or grave yard, the winner of this Travers should have a say in the voting for the coveted Eclipse Award for the champion of this division and perhaps more.

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