Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist headlines a stellar field for Saturday’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes, the marquee event of the 40-day Saratoga meeting.
Known as the Mid-Summer Derby, the Travers is missing Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, who is in California preparing for a fall campaign, but a strong field of 10 will line up in the Travers, led by the Belmont Stakes winner.
Tonalist is looking to turn the tables on his rival Wicked Strong, who got the best of him in their last meeting in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy over the Saratoga main track on July 28.
Tonalist breezed well on the Oklahoma track this morning. All systems go for the Travers. pic.twitter.com/DQ9bUQ89kR— Harry Eustace (@H_Eustace) August 16, 2014
Wicked Strong had finished a troubled fourth in the Run for the Roses and was no match for Tonalist after a wide trip in a fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes. However, his trainer Jimmy Jerkens added blinkers and the colt raced closer to the front and got the jump on Tonalist in the Jim Dandy, winning by 2 1/4 lengths.
The budding rivalry will have a twist with the speedy Bayern looking to take the field gate to wire for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. The colt wired the field in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on July 27, drawing away to win by 7 1/4 lengths.
The question for Bayern is whether he can handle the extra furlong. The Haskell was at 1 1/8 miles and the Travers will be contested at 1 1/4 miles.
Baffert said via Phil Janack of the NYRA:
The Haskell was pretty impressive. Will he take a step backward? I don't know, but he looks good. He's not a really big horse, but he's fast. He's a handy horse, and he's got a lot of speed. I'm not totally convinced he can go a mile and a quarter, but he's pretty fast. You just have to let him go and what happens, happens.
The Travers highlights a 14-race card that kicks off with a post time of 11:35 a.m. ET. The supporting stakes are the Grade 1, $500,000 Ketel One King's Bishop for three-year-old sprinters, the Grade 1, $500,000 Ballerina for female sprinters and the Grade 2, $250,000 Ballston Spa for females turf horses.
The Ballerina and Travers will be part of NBC's national telecast from 4:30 to 6 p.m. ET. The Travers has a scheduled post time of 5:46 pm.
With the Breeders’ Cup just over two months away, there are plenty of key preps coming up, including three other “Win and You’re In” races this weekend. In addition to the Ballerina at Saratoga, the Grade 2, $200,000 Del Mar Handicap winner will earn a starting berth for the Grade 1, $3 million Breeders’ Cup Turf.
On Sunday, a field of 11 that includes the undefeated Shared Belief and defending champion Game on Dude will square off in the Grade 1, $1 million TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar. The race is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Grade 1, $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita. The race will be televised live on NBC Sports Network at 8 p.m. ET.
In addition, the Grade 2, $250,000 Pat O’Brien winner will stamp a ticket to the Grade 1, $1 million Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
Here are my top three picks for the Travers Stakes:
Tonalist came up 2 1/4 lengths short of getting to Wicked Strong last out in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga, going nine furlongs as the 4-5 chalk, but may be able to turn the tables with the extra ground. The Christophe Clement trainee missed out on the Kentucky Derby when he developed a lung infection earlier this year, but a week after the Derby ran big, winning the Grade 2 Peter Pan and followed that up by running down our long shot top pick Commissioner in the Belmont Stakes.
The colt just did not look fully cranked in the Jim Dandy and he looks capable of moving forward off that effort. Wicked Strong may get some action on the tote and our top pick could possibly go off as the third choice here.
Place: Wicked Strong
Wicked Strong was up on the pace last out with the addition of blinkers and the hood seemed to have kept him better focused in the stretch and he safely held off our top pick. The colt made a mild late run while very wide to finish fourth in the Belmont and did not have the best of trips in the Kentucky Derby in a fourth-place finish.
The colt used a late running style in his earlier races, but with the blinkers added he figures to be a bit closer to the front here again. His trainer Jimmy Jerkens won the 2010 Travers with Afleet Express.
Show: Mr Speaker
Mr Speaker made a good late run to get up late and win the Grade 1 Belmont Derby last out on turf at the 1 1/4 mile distance. His lone start on conventional dirt was a seventh in the Grade 2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in January.
The colt does have a win on polytrack, taking the Grade 3 Lexington at Keeneland in April. We know this colt can handle the distance, at least on turf. The Shug McGaughey trainee has two solid looking works over the main track here since his last win and his 10-1 morning line looks more than fair.
Morning line odds courtesy of Equibase
Follow Michael Dempsey on Twitter @turfnsport