by Jon White
August 3, 2017
Annually, during the first few months of the year, there is no shortage of Kentucky Derby lists. Indeed, for the past several years, this column has participated in the exercise by offering a Kentucky Derby Top 10 list in the weeks leading up to the first Saturday in May. Of course, following the Run for the Roses, all the Kentucky Derby lists go bye-bye.
With that in mind, considering the wackiness in the higher echelon of the nation’s 3-year-old male division this year up to this point, I have decided to put together a Travers Top 10 list. The Grade I Travers Stakes no doubt will go a long way toward determining who ends up being voted the 2017 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.
The 1 1/4-mile Travers, a race rich in history that also is rich in terms of cash with its $1.25 million purse, will be decided at Saratoga on Aug. 26.
Here is my Travers Top 10:
1. West Coast
2. Good Samaritan
6. Always Dreaming
8. Cloud Computing
10. Giuseppe the Great
Here now is a closer look at each of those 10 horses:
1. WEST COAST. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert sent both Arrogate and American Freedom to the 2016 Travers. Arrogate, making his stakes debut, won by 13 1/2 lengths in a sensational performance. He completed 1 1/4 miles in 1:59 1/5 (or 1:59.36) to obliterate General Assembly’s track record of 2:00 that had stood since 1979. American Freedom finished second.
Arrogate did not race as a 2-year-old. Baffert then allowed Arrogate to develop during the first half of 2016 rather than push him in order to run him in the Kentucky Derby. Such a patient approach paid off big-time. After Arrogate trounced his Travers foes, he won the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic (over California Chrome) and was voted the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male of 2016.
West Coast, like Arrogate, did not race as a 2-year-old. In West Coast’s career debut, he finished second in a mile maiden race at Santa Anita on Feb. 18. The Kentucky-bred son of Flatter then won a 1 1/16-mile maiden affair with authority by 3 1/4 lengths at the Great Race Place on March 12.
After West Coast’s maiden win, I took a shot and bet $50 on him at odds of 125-1 in the Kentucky Derby future book at the Wynn Race Book. However, as Baffert did with Arrogate, the trainer did not push West Coast in order to run him in the Kentucky Derby. Such a patient approach might enable West Coast to be a major player in the 3-year-old male division during the second half of the year.
In early April, Baffert told me that he was thinking of the Belmont Stakes for West Coast. Baffert indicated he felt that the colt might relish 1 1/2 miles. Not long after that, West Coast got beat, albeit by only a head, in Keeneland’s Grade III Lexington Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on April 15.
On May 20, West Coast rebounded from his defeat at Keeneland to win a 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claiming race at Santa Anita. After that, Baffert thought it would be better for West Coast to run in the 1 1/16-mile Easy Goer Stakes at Belmont Park on June 10 instead of in the Belmont Stakes the same day. West Coast looked terrific in the Easy Goer, winning by 3 3/4 widening lengths and recording a career-best 99 Beyer Speed Figure.
West Coast’s Easy Goer triumph now looks even better after what happened in the 1 1/8-mile Curlin Stakes at Saratoga last Friday. Outplay won the Curlin by 5 3/4 lengths. Outplay’s only defeat in his last four starts was when he finished third, 5 3/4 lengths behind West Coast, in the Easy Goer.
After West Coast’s Easy Goer victory, he won the Grade III Los Alamitos Derby as a 2-5 favorite at 1 1/8 miles on July 15. I think that race is going to set him up beautifully for the longer Travers.
In the Los Al Derby, when West Coast was fifth on the far turn, he appeared to be struggling. It looked like he might not hit the board. But once he got into the stretch, he gobbled up ground with long strides, sweeping past his rivals to win going away by 2 3/4 lengths. His final time for 1 1/8 miles was 1:48.65. But he ran much farther than 1 1/8 miles because of his wide trip. He was assigned a career-best 100 Beyer Speed Figure, but his performance actually is better than that because Beyers do not take a wide trip into account.
Consider what two recent Los Al Derby winners went on to do. After Shared Belief won the 2014 renewal, he won Del Mar’s Grade I Pacific Classic over older opponents in his next start. Accelerate won the 2016 Los Al Derby. Yes, that’s the same Accelerate who won this year’s Grade II San Diego Handicap at Del Mar on July 22, a race in which mighty Arrogate finished fourth as a 1-20 favorite.
West Coast’s 100 Beyer Speed Figure in the Los Al Derby stacks up quite well with the other Travers candidates. Tapwrit will go into the Travers off a 103 Beyer for his victory in the Grade I Belmont Stakes. Good Samaritan will go into the Travers off a 100 Beyer for his win in the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes. Irap will go into the Travers off a 98 Beyer for his victory in the Grade III Indiana Derby. Girvin will go into the Travers off a 95 Beyer for his win in the Grade I Haskell Invitational.
I am predicting West Coast will return to the East Coast and win the Travers.
2. GOOD SAMARITAN. After racing on the grass for his first six career starts, Good Samaritan made a dandy dirt debut with his 4 3/4-length win in Saratoga’s 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy Stakes last Saturday. His final time was 1:50.69. He was assigned a career-best 100 Beyer Speed Figure.
In my view, NYRA’s “Saratoga Live” telecasts have been very good. Last Saturday, though, commentator Paul Lo Duca said this regarding Good Samaritan and the Jim Dandy: “This is the first time he’s ever run on the dirt surface for Hall of Famer Bill Mott. Oh, remember a horse named Cigar? I’m not saying Good Samaritan is Cigar. But the first time Cigar was on the dirt, he won. And then he won a Grade I his second time on dirt.”
Oops. The former major league baseball player gets an E (for error) for that statement.
Cigar did not win the first time he raced on the dirt. In his career debut, which was on the dirt, he finished seventh in a six-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita on Feb. 21, 1993. In his next start, in a six-furlong maiden race on the dirt at Hollywood Park on May 9, Cigar won by 2 1/4 lengths. Alex Hassinger trained Cigar at that time.
After Cigar graduated from the maiden ranks, he was switched to the grass. Racing him on the grass was perfectly understandable due to the fact his sire, Palace Music, was an exceptional performer on the grass.
Cigar’s next seven starts for Hassinger were all on the grass, but produced just one win. Owner Allen Paulsen then decided to send Cigar to trainer Bill Mott in New York.
Cigar lost his first four starts for Mott, all on the grass. After that, in the fall of 1994, Cigar was switched back to the dirt. His form reversal on dirt was dramatic. In Cigar’s first New York start on the dirt, he won a one-mile allowance race by eight lengths while recording a career-best 104 Beyer Speed Figure. In his final 1994 start, he won the NYRA (now Cigar) Mile on the dirt by seven lengths while posting a big 115 Beyer.
After switching back to the dirt, Cigar put together a memorable 16-race winning streak. His skein finally was snapped when he ran second to Dare and Go in the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar in 1996.
When Good Samaritan walloped his Jim Dandy rivals in his initial start on the dirt, I, like Lo Duca, was reminded of Cigar’s rise to superstardom after Mott switched him from the grass to the dirt in 1994. In light of Good Samaritan’s dynamite effort in the Jim Dandy, perhaps he will become a win machine on the dirt. I believe he merits considerable respect in the Travers.
3. GIRVIN. Seventh when trailing early in the field of seven, Girvin rallied strongly to win Monmouth Park’s Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park last Sunday for trainer Joe Sharp. It was the trainer’s first Grade I victory. Girvin won the 1/8-mile affair by a nose in 1:48.35.
Earlier this year, Girvin captured the Grade II Risen Star Stakes and Grade II Louisiana Derby in New Orleans. After finishing a troubled 13th in the Kentucky Derby, he lost the Grade III Ohio Derby at Thistledown by a nose before winning the Haskell.
I believe Girvin definitely belongs on the list of contenders for the Travers.
4. IRAP. I am beginning to wonder if perhaps this year’s Grade III Ohio Derby was a stronger race than this year’s Grade I Kentucky Derby. The first two finishers in the Ohio Derby certainly have subsequently done better than the first two finishers in the Run for the Roses.
Always Dreaming and Lookin At Lee ran one-two in the Kentucky Derby. Since then, Always Dreaming is zero for two, as is Lookin At Lee. (Lookin At Lee is one of 11 entrants in this Saturday’s Grade III, $750,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer.)
Irap and Girvin ran one-two in the Ohio Derby. Since then, Irap won the Grade III Indiana Derby by five lengths on July 15 and Girvin won the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth Park last Sunday by a nose while defeating a strong group.
With his victories in the Ohio Derby and Indiana Derby for trainer Doug O’Neill, Irap has proved that his win at 31-1 in the Grade II Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in April was not a fluke. Irap also has proved that he should be viewed as a contender in the Travers.
5. MCCRAKEN. Talk about a tough beat. That certainly was the case with McCraken in last Sunday’s Haskell.
When McCraken surged to the front coming into the stretch, it looked like he was on his way to his first Grade I victory. But he got nailed in the last jump to lose by a nose.
The only time McCraken has finished worse than third in eight career starts was when he finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby. He emerged from the Run for the Roses with a puncture wound to his left hind ankle that likely was sustained in the roughly run opening strides of that race.
The main reason I do not have McCraken ranked higher for the Travers is I have some qualms about him at 1 1/4 miles.
6. ALWAYS DREAMING. He is the only 3-year-old male to have won more than one Grade I race on the dirt this year, with victories in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.
Many are of the opinion that Always Dreaming benefitted from an inside-track bias on a wet surface when he won the Kentucky Derby for trainer Todd Pletcher. It appears there also was a so-called “golden rail” at Saratoga last Saturday when Always Dreaming ran in the Jim Dandy as an even-money favorite. But this time Always Dreaming did not win.
Always Dreaming looked like he was going to be difficult to catch in the Jim Dandy when he easily rolled along on a clear lead though the early stages. He clicked off preliminary fractions of :24.13, :48.53 and 1:13.27. On the backstretch, with Always Dreaming sailing along on an uncontested lead, Good Samaritan was as much as 12 lengths off the pace at one point. Mott, the trainer of Good Samaritan, became concerned when nobody was pressuring the early leader.
Good Samaritan swung to the outside coming into the stretch while on the move, charged to the front leaving the furlong pole and quickly pulled away. Always Dreaming weakened in the stretch and finished third, 5 1/4 lengths behind Good Samaritan.
It is not good that Always Dreaming got beat by a little more than five lengths after being left alone on the front end early while racing on a track that seemed to have an inside bias. He obviously needs to improve on that performance in his next start. Perhaps he will be able to do just that in the Travers inasmuch as the Jim Dandy was his first race in 10 weeks. And even though Always Dreaming weakened when the real test came in the Jim Dandy, it was rather surprising and rather encouraging that he did gallop out well after the finish. Plus it should be remembered that one thing he would have going for him in the Travers is he is a Grade I winner at 1 1/4 miles.
7. OUTPLAY. This colt, like Always Dreaming, is conditioned by Pletcher. The next race for Outplay most likely will be the Travers on Aug. 6, the Grade III Smarty Jones Stakes at Parx on Sept. 4 or the Grade I Pennsylvania Derby at Parx on Sept. 23.
If Outplay does run in the Travers, I think he will be worthy of consideration. After finishing third in the Easy Goer on June 10 at Belmont (when no match for West Coast), Outplay won the 1 1/8-mile Curlin Stakes at Saratoga last Friday by 5 3/4 emphatic lengths. He recorded a career-best 96 Beyer Speed Figure for his Curlin triumph.
If Outplay does start in the Travers, he probably will be a pace factor at the very least. And the way the Bernardini colt seems to be improving, it is possible he could make his presence felt all the way to the finish.
8. CLOUD COMPUTING. He finished fifth as the 6-5 second favorite in last Saturday’s Jim Dandy while making his first start since winning the Grade I Preakness Stakes on May 20 for trainer Chad Brown.
At the top of the stretch in the Jim Dandy, Cloud Computing was in a perfect spot to win. But not only did he lack the needed punch during the stretch run, he weakened and finished fifth, 5 1/2 lengths behind the victorious Good Samaritan.
Cloud Computing’s disappointing effort in the Jim Dandy has clouded his status for the Travers.
“I’m not one to run horses off a bad race in a big race,” Brown said to Daily Racing Form’s David Grening. “For him to run the worst race of his life, it’s hard to think about the Travers right now. Won’t rule it out. We’ll just see how the horse is doing and go from there.”
The Cloud Computing we saw in the Preakness would be quite capable of winning the Travers. But will he run in the Travers?
9. TAPWRIT. He is the third Pletcher-trained colt on this list. The Travers will be Tapwrit’s first start since his two-length win in the Grade I Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles on June 10.
Earlier this year, Tapwrit was impressive when he won the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby at 1 1/16 miles on March 11. Between the Tampa Bay Derby and Belmont, he finished fifth in Irap’s Blue Grass and sixth in Always Dreaming’s Kentucky Derby.
I do not have Tapwrit ranked higher mainly because it is not easy for a horse to try and win the Travers while making his first start in 11 weeks. Also, the Belmont Stakes form was not flattered by what occurred in the Haskell. Irish War Cry, runner-up in the Belmont, finished fourth in the Haskell when he lost by 5 1/4 lengths.
10. GIUSEPPE THE GREAT. He ran second at 14-1 in the Jim Dandy for Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito. I gave Giuseppe the Great the nod over Fayeq for No. 10 on my Travers list. Fayeq, conditioned by Kiaran McLaughlin, earned his maiden diploma at Belmont on June 11 in his third lifetime start, then won a 1 1/8-mile allowance race by 3 1/2 lengths at Saratoga on July 26.
Giuseppe the Great recorded a 92 Beyer Speed Figure going 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga in the Jim Dandy. Fayeq also posted a 92 Beyer going 1 1/8 miles at the Spa in his July 25 allowance score.
A good performance by Gunnevera in this Sunday’s Tangelo Stakes at Gulfstream Park could earn him a spot on my Travers Top 10 list down the line. He won the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 4 before finishing third in the Florida Derby, seventh in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Preakness.