by Jeremy Plonk
August 20, 2018
Saturday’s Travers Stakes will go on without Justify, and that’s no doubt a blow to the attendance and eyeballs on television. Handle-wise, we’ll have to see. It’s definitely a better betting race, but will fewer punters put down more dough to make up the difference?
Regardless if we have racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner or not, it’s not like the mile and one-quarter at Saratoga has been a parade of spring stars in recent years anyway. No Triple Crown race winner has captured the Travers since Belmont champ Summer Bird in 2009. The last Derby winner to double down at the Spa was Street Sense in 2007, and the last Preakness victor to score in the Midsummer Derby was Bernardini in 2006.
We’ve had our share of Triple Crown success stories come here and fail to float their canoes. None sticks out more than American Pharoah, upset by Keen Ice in 2015. Last year, the troika of Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing and Tapwrit all showed up at the Spa and couldn’t even light the trifecta. Creator and Exaggerator were up the track in 2016, too.
Other recent classic-race winners to flop in the Travers include Tonalist (2014), Orb and Palace Malice (2013), Shackleford and Ruler On Ice (2011) and Super Saver (2010). That means this year will mark the first Travers since 2012 that will not have any of the Triple Crown race winners. That year I’ll Have Another was retired before the Belmont, and Union Rags after it. Neither raced again – similar to what we have with Justify.
This long has been called the Midsummer Derby, but all of the facts laid out above conspire for a new push on the nameplate. Modern Thoroughbreds are not campaigned for a season that includes the spring haul with any plans for summer and fall succession. It’s about getting to the classics and then see what you have left from there. Right, wrong or debatably different, there’s no turning back anytime soon.
The current decade shows that the best of the spring either wind up at the Travers as a squeezed lemon or they’re not getting here at all. The Midsummer Derby actually has become the Classic Kickoff - Classic with a capital C, that is. Travers winners West Coast, Arrogate and Will Take Charge in recent years have gone on to top-3 Breeders’ Cup Classic efforts. American Pharoah righted the ship in the Classic after his Travers regression.
So while we justifiably lament what’s not here (pun intended), perhaps the 2018 Travers will do what many of the recent editions have done – springboard us toward the Breeders’ Cup with someone fresh and new. In some form or fashion, the last 4 BC Classic winners were alumni of the Travers. Last year, Gun Runner succeeded at the close of his 4-year-old campaign, joining Arrogate, American Pharoah and Bayern from Bob Baffert’s posse.
Catholic Boy and King Zachary could be on audition as the rising players who weren’t in the Triple Crown series. Gronkowski joined the party late in the Belmont and is lightly raced enough to think there’s more in the tank. Recent history worries about Bravazo, Tenfold, Vino Rosso and Good Magic doing too much already. The filly Wonder Gadot and the international raiders Seahenge and Mendelssohn are relative mysteries despite being well-known.
This Travers may not have any classics influence, but there's still a glimmer of hope it could be a launching pad to the Classic.