by Jon White
August 5, 2020
Tiz the Law, who won the 1 1/8-mile Belmont Stakes with authority last time out, tiz the one to beat in the 1 1/4-mile Runhappy Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Saturday. There is no doubt about that.
The Travers has attracted a field of eight. Tiz the Law drew post 6. Saratoga oddsmaker David Aragona established Tiz the Law as the morning-line favorite at even money. Uncle Chuck, the 5-2 second choice, breaks from post 3.
In all three starts this year, Tiz the Law has looked terrific. He won the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 1, Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 28, then the Grade I Belmont at Belmont Park on June 20.
Not one of Tiz the Law’s three victories this year has been in a photo finish. He won the Holy Bull by three lengths, the Florida Derby by 4 1/2 lengths and the Belmont by nearly four lengths.
Nobody has ever defeated Tiz the Law on a fast track. He’s five for five when racing on dry land. His lone loss in six career starts came when he had a troubled trip and finished third on a sloppy track in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last Nov. 30.
Tiz the Law appears to have trained splendidly up to the Travers. He has looked like poetry in motion in his workout videos.
So I’m picking Tiz the Law to win the Travers, right? Nope. I am looking for two-for-two California shipper Uncle Chuck to make Tiz the Law “say uncle” in Saturday’s 151st running of the Grade I Travers.
If Uncle Chuck does get the job done Saturday, it will be Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s fourth Travers victory.
These are my Travers selections:
1. Uncle Chuck (5-2 morning line)
2. Tiz the Law (even money)
3. Max Player (6-1)
4. Caracaro (10-1)
After Uncle Chuck kicked off his racing career on June 12 at Santa Anita, I wrote: “Baffert unveiled yet another promising 3-year-old colt last Friday at Santa Anita when $250,000 auction buy Uncle Chuck won a one-mile maiden race by seven lengths as the even-money favorite.
“I was quite impressed by Uncle Chuck. Away a step slow from the inside post, he moved up to engage for the lead not too long after the start. But I think it’s to his credit that he did not get headstrong or rank. He moved up smoothly early. I thought he bowled along as gracefully as a ballerina on the far turn and all the way down the lane. After boasting a four-length advantage at the quarter pole, he won by seven lengths in 1:36.78.
“Uncle Chuck was credited with a 95 Beyer Speed Figure. Making his performance all the more impressive is he won a one-mile race around two turns at first asking. It’s not easy to win a two-turn race at first asking.”
In his next start, Uncle Chuck won the Grade III, 1 1/8-mile Los Alamitos Derby by four lengths on July 4. That victory looks even better now. Thousand Words, who finished second in the Los Al Derby while no match for Uncle Chuck, subsequently won the 1 1/16-mile Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar last Saturday.
Uncle Chuck raced close up early in the Los Al Derby. He was in front by a length or so in the upper part of the long Los Alamitos stretch, then raced a bit greenly while coming down the lane. After leading by two lengths with a furlong to go, he came home strongly to prevail by four lengths. His exceedingly long stride was on display in the final furlong, though he did switch to his left lead for the final sixteenth.
After the finish, Uncle Chuck galloped out impressively. He widened the gap on his foes to be about 10 lengths in front by the time he began to round the clubhouse turn.
Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman did a fine job of putting what Uncle Chuck has done so far into perspective.
“It takes a pretty special horse to win going two turns in his debut with a Beyer Speed Figure of 95, then follow that up with a second-start victory in a graded stakes race going 1 1/8 miles with a Beyer Figure of similar value,” Privman wrote. “Uncle Chuck is special. Whether he’s special enough to go from an unstarted maiden in early June to a Kentucky Derby winner on Sept. 5 is the question he’ll be asked to answer in coming weeks, but he’s obviously shown he deserves the opportunity. He will have one more prep, and if he passes that test like he’s passed his tests so far, it’s on to Louisville” for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby.
After Uncle Chuck’s first race, his jockey, Hall of Famer Mike Smith, compared the colt’s stride to Arrogate’s. Baffert made the same comparison after Uncle Chuck’s four-furlong workout at Del Mar on July 13.
Concerning that July 13 drill, Privman wrote that Uncle Chuck “glided around the Del Mar main track Monday morning with an effortless half-mile in :47.60, after which he galloped out an additional furlong. The work was faster than planned, but not because he was being asked.”
Privman quoted Baffert as saying, “He looked like Arrogate, didn’t he? He jumps a long ways. Arrogate was like that.”
Baffert again referenced Uncle Chuck’s stride following the draw for Travers post positions.
“He’s quick,” Baffert said. “He’s a big, tall horse, but he’s really quick on his feet. He’s got a tremendous stride. That’s why I thought the mile and a quarter would suit him well.”
ARROGATE’S TRAVERS WAS JAW-DROPPING
The 2015 Travers proved to be a huge disappointment for Baffert.
After American Pharoah swept the Triple Crown and won the Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, he found out why Saratoga sometimes is called the “graveyard of favorites” or “graveyard of champions.”
Favored at 35 cents to a dollar, American Pharoah finished second to 16-1 Keen Ice.
At Saratoga after Man o’ War had his Upset, Gallant Fox had his Jim Dandy and Secretariat had his Onion, American Pharoah had his Keen Ice.
American Pharoah rebounded from his Travers setback on Aug. 29 to trounce older foes when he won the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic by 6 1/2 lengths at Keeneland in his career finale on Oct. 31.
A year after Keen Ice ambushed American Pharoah at Saratoga, Baffert sent Arrogate there for the Travers.
In what I called “a Secretariat-like performance,” Arrogate won the Travers by 13 1/2 lengths at odds of 11-1. His final time of 1:59.36, or 1:59 1/5 in fifths, shattered the track record. I ranked it as the top 2016 performance by a Thoroughbred in the United States.
There were several similarities between Arrogate’s performance in the Travers and Secretariat’s when he won the 1973 Kentucky Derby at the same distance at Churchill Downs, such as:
--Secretariat’s final time was 1:59 and change (1:59 2/5). So was Arrogate’s (1:59 1/5).
--Secretariat broke the track record. So did Arrogate.
--Secretariat ran his final quarter-mile in :23 and change. So did Arrogate.
--Secretariat defeated 12 foes. So did Arrogate.
In the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat broke Northern Dancer’s record that had been set nine years earlier by three-fifths of a second.
In the Travers, Arrogate broke a track record that had stood for 37 years. Arrogate’s final time in fifths of 1:59 1/5 shaved four-fifths of a second off the track record set by General Assembly (a son of Secretariat) when he splashed his way to a 15-length victory in the 1979 Travers on a sloppy track.
BIG FINAL QUARTER DESPITE SETTING SWIFT PACE
The early pace set by Arrogate in the Travers was faster than that established in the 1973 Kentucky Derby by Shecky Greene (that year’s Eclipse Award-winning sprinter). Yet Arrogate still was able to run his final quarter in the Travers in a strong :23 4/5.
A sense of just how fantastic Arrogate’s Travers performance was can be gleaned by comparing his individual splits in that race to Secretariat’s in the 1973 Kentucky Derby.
First quarter: Secretariat :25 1/5, Arrogate :23 1/5. Arrogate ran the first quarter approximately 10 lengths faster.
First half: Secretariat :49 1/5, Arrogate :46 4/5. Arrogate ran the first half approximately 12 lengths faster.
Final time: Secretariat 1:59 2/5, Arrogate 1:59 1/5. Arrogate completed the 1 1/4 miles approximately one length faster.
There is another reason Arrogate’s Travers performance probably was better than Secretariat’s in the Kentucky Derby. Secretariat had much more experience.
When Secretariat ran in the Kentucky Derby, he was making his 13th career start and 10th start in a stakes race. When Arrogate ran in the Travers, he was making only his fifth career start and stakes debut.
Arrogate was credited with a 122 Beyer Speed Figure for his Travers performance. The Beyers listed in the American Racing Manual for the Travers go back to 1990. Arrogate’s 122 is the highest ever recorded by a Travers winner. Indeed, it is the highest by quite a bit.
The best Beyer by a Travers winner prior to 2016 had been Point Given’s 117 in 2001. Also trained by Baffert, Point Given won the Travers by 3 1/2 lengths in what turned out to be the final start of his career.
Arrogate was voted a 2016 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.
Point Given was voted 2001 Eclipse Awards as champion 3-year-old male and, more significantly, Horse of the Year.
A year after Baffert won the Travers with Arrogate, the trainer returned for the 2017 renewal with West Coast, who was coming off a 2 3/4-length win in the Los Alamitos Derby.
These were my selections for the 2017 Travers:
1. West Coast
2. Good Samaritan
3. Cloud Computing
Sent off at 6-1, West Coast led past every pole and won the Travers by 3 1/4 lengths.
West Coast was voted a 2017 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.
HONOR A.P. STILL NO. 1 ON MY TOP 10 DESPITE LOSS
Immediately after Honor A.P. finished second as a 1-5 favorite in last Saturday’s Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar, I planned to drop him from the top spot on my Kentucky Derby Top 10.
But the more I thought about it, I decided to keep him at No. 1, at least for now. I thought Daily Racing Form’s Brad Free put it well in last Sunday’s Del Mar stable notes.
“If you liked Honor A.P as your [Kentucky] Derby horse before, it didn’t change anything,” Free said of the Shared Belief.
Inasmuch as I did like Honor A.P. as my Kentucky Derby horse before the Shared Belief, he is still No. 1 on my Top 10.
I also like it that Honor A.P.’s Shared Belief defeat does not figure to hurt his odds any in the Kentucky Derby. For instance, his price has risen to 6-1 from 4-1 on Marty McGee’s current Daily Racing Form odds for the Kentucky Derby. Tiz the Law is the 2-1 favorite. Art Collector now is the second choice on McGee’s line at 5-1.
Here is my current Kentucky Derby Top 10:
1. Honor A.P.
2. Tiz the Law
3. Art Collector
4. Uncle Chuck
5. Thousand Words
7. Dr Post
8. Max Player
9. King Guillermo
10. Country Grammer
The rejuvenated Baffert-trained Thousand Words won the Shared Belief by three-quarters of a length. The Florida-bred Pioneerof the Nile colt moves back onto my Top 10 this week at No. 5.
Thousand Words won both starts last year, including the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity. After he took Santa Anita’s Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 1, he ranked No. 2 behind only Tiz the Law on my Kentucky Derby Top 10.
But then Thousand Words went off form.
Going into Santa Anita’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes on March 7, Thousand Words ranked No. 3 on my Top 10 behind No. 1 Tiz the Law and No. 2 Nadal.
After Thousand Words lost by 11 1/4 lengths when he finished fourth in the San Felipe, he tumbled to No. 9 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10.
Thousand Words then dropped off my Top 10 after the May 7 Oaklawn Stakes. He stumbled at the start and lost by 29 3/4 lengths when he finished 11th in the field of 13.
Baffert said after the Shared Belief that Thousand Words got “sour” for a time this year and needed “a freshening.” The colt returned to action and looked better when he finished second, four lengths behind Uncle Chuck, in the Grade III Los Alamitos Derby on July 4.
According to Baffert, after Thousand Words was relocated to a cooler Del Mar from Santa Anita following the Los Alamitos Derby, he thrived, setting him up for his Shared Belief upset at 9-1.
With a furlong to run in the Shared Belief, it looked like Honor A.P. was not responding and might even finish last in the field of four. But then he showed some interest in deep stretch to come on and finish second. Even though Honor A.P. got beat, I think his effort really was not all that bad, which is one reason I’m keeping him at No. 1 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10.
Another reason for not moving Honor A.P. down on my Top 10 this week is the belief that he quite possibly is going to run better in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Sept. 5. I think there is a pretty darn good chance that he will like the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Run for the Roses a lot better than the 1 1/16 miles of the Shared Belief.
Still another reason I opted to keep Honor A.P. in the top spot on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 is the Beyer Speed Figure he received for his Shared Belief defeat.
Thousand Words completed 1 1.16 miles last Saturday in 1:43.85. The Kentucky-bred Pioneerof the Nile colt posted a 104 Beyer Speed Figure. Honor A.P. received a 102 Beyer.
Kiss Today Goodbye finished third, a half-length behind Honor A.P., while Cezanne ended up a neck farther back in fourth. Kiss Today Goodbye and Cezanne each recorded a 101 Beyer.
I believe those Beyers might be inflated to some extent, particularly when the figures are viewed in terms of what the four horses had done previously. According to Andrew Beyer, a Beyer figure-maker from time to time will arbitrarily raise or lower the figures for a race if they look out of whack compared to the horses’ previous figures. I think that might have been appropriate in this case.
Even in defeat, Honor A.P. still managed to match his career-best 102 Beyer that he recorded when he won the Grade I Santa Anita Derby by 2 3/4 lengths on June 6.
Thousand Words’ 104 in the Shared Belief was a career-best figure by 13.
Kiss Today Goodbye’s 101 Beyer was a career-best figure by 12.
Cezanne’s 101 Beyer was a career-best figure by 11.
Did Thousand Words, Kiss Today Goodbye and Cezanne all improve so much at the same time? I am skeptical, as is the DRF’s Privman.
Privman addressed the Beyer Speed Figure situation for the Shared Belief in his analysis of the race.
“In a race in which the four runners were separated by just 1 1/2 lengths at the finish, and in which favored Honor A.P. looked as though he went through the motions, the figure came back very strong, by far the career-best for Thousand Words. Honor A.P. got the same fig (102) he received in the Santa Anita Derby, and both Kiss Today Goodbye and Cezanne got lifetime best figs, too.
“The Beyer boys played it straight. There was only one other two-turn dirt race on this card, Race 5, which was run about 90 minutes after the Shared Belief. The variant was treated similarly for both races; it wasn’t split. With the later race producing a final figure close to par, that meant the Shared Belief (Race 2) had to get a significantly higher number, as it was much faster for its distance than Race 5.
“That said, I remain skeptical that three of the four runners produced new tops, and Honor A.P. ran as well as in the Santa Anita Derby. That’s not how it looked. And as much as I trust and believe in figs, I also have to trust my eyes.”
On the other hand, I think there is a chance that Thousand Words’ 104 Beyer in the Shared Belief might be legit. It looks like this is a possibility when the figure is compared to the winner of Del Mar’s Grade II San Diego at the same distance a week earlier.
Maximum Security, one of the top older horses in the world, completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.54 when he won the July 25 San Diego by a nose over Midcourt. Maximum Security was credited with a 101 Beyer Speed Figure, which seems to line up pretty well vis-a-vis Thousand Words’ 104 when his final time of 1:43.85 was faster.
But even if Honor A.P.’s 102 Beyer Speed Figure is higher to some extent than it should be, I believe it’s an indication that it might not be a good idea to jump off his bandwagon off that one defeat.
I certainly was glad that I did not jump off Secretariat’s bandwagon off his defeat when, in his final start before the Kentucky Derby, he ran third behind Angle Light and Sham in the Wood Memorial
After the 1973 Wood, I wrote in “The Lewis and Clark Journal,” my high school newspaper: “Secretariat lost, Angle Light did not win. That is the story in last Saturday’s $100,000-added Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
“You can’t throw out a horse because of one defeat. It takes more than that. A perfect example of that occurred last year when Riva Ridge lost the Everglades but came back strongly to take the Blue Grass Stakes, Kentucky Derby and grueling Belmont Stakes.
“So Secretariat lost some of his pride in defeat, but he’s still the one they have to beat on May 5. My Kentucky Derby picks are:
3. Angle Light
Secretariat, of course, did come back following his loss in the Wood and win the Kentucky Derby on his way to a Triple Crown sweep. I had predicted the Triple Crown sweep in that same newspaper earlier in the year. On March 22, I wrote: “Going out on a limb and living dangerously, I dare say that 1973 will be a historic year as Secretariat will become the first Triple Crown winner since the great Citation in 1948.”
FIVE ON KENTUCKY DERBY TOP 10 TO RUN THIS WEEKEND
Saturday’s Travers has attracted four 3-year-olds on my Kentucky Derby Top 10:
No. 2 Tiz the Law, No. 4 Uncle Chuck, No. 8 Max Player and No. 10 Country Grammer.
Meanwhile, No. 3 Art Collector is expected to head the field for Sunday’s Runhappy Ellis Park Derby at 1 1/8 miles. Victorious in all three starts this year, Art Collector goes into the Ellis Park Derby off a 3 1/2-length win in the Grade II Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on July 11.
SECOND BEFORE KENTUCKY DERBY NOT A DISASTER
Even though Honor A.P. did not win the Shared Belief, by running second he did what the vast majority of Kentucky Derby winners in the last 30 years have done, which is to finish first or second in their final start before the Kentucky Derby.
Only five of the last 30 Kentucky Derby winners were coming off a race in which they finished worse than second. Those five were:
Finish-Year-Horse (Final Race Prior to Kentucky Derby)
3rd 1990 Unbridled (Blue Grass Stakes)
4th 1993 Sea Hero (Blue Grass Stakes)
4th 1995 Thunder Gulch (Blue Grass)
4th 2005 Giacomo (Santa Anita Derby)
4th 2009 Mine That Bird (Sunland Derby)
John Shirreffs trains Honor A.P. Keep in mind that Shirreffs, much like the legendary Charlie Whittingham back in the day, is a master at having a horse at his or her peak for a big race.
Shirreffs trained Giacomo. After Giacomo finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, he moved forward off that race and won the Kentucky Derby.
After Honor A.P. finished second in the Shared Belief, I will not be the least bit surprised if he moves forward and wins the Kentucky Derby.
VEKOMA IS NEW NO. 1 IN NTRA POLL
Midnight Bisou had been No. 1 in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll since March 9. But the 5-year-old Kentucky-bred Midnight Lute mare fell out of the top spot this week after she finished second, a neck behind Vexatious, in Saratoga’s Grade I Personal Ensign Stakes last Saturday.
That was a costly neck defeat for Midnight Bisou poll-wise. She received just one first-place vote this week from the 40 poll participants after getting 22 first-place votes last week.
Vekoma is the new No. 1. He’s three for three this year. After taking the Sir Shackleton Stakes at Gulfstream Park in March, Vekoma registered Grade I victories at Belmont Park in the Grade I Carter Handicap on June 6 and Met Mile on July 4.
Tom’s d’Etat was No. 2 last week. He’s No. 2 again this week. Tom’s d’Etat stumbled at the start and finished third as the even-money favorite in Saratoga’s Grade I Whitney Stakes last Saturday.
Improbable is a newcomer to this week’s Top 10 at No. 3. He followed his win in the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita on June 6 by capturing the Whitney. He received my first-place vote this week. I believe it’s a strong statement on the part of Improbable to win an important race in California like the Gold Cup and a prestigious race in New York like the Whitney.
The race for the 2020 Horse of the Year title looks wide open at this point due to seven horses receiving at least one first-place vote in this week’s poll.
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 321 Vekoma (13)
2. 299 Tom’s d’Etat (6)
3. 278 Improbable (6)
4. 256 Maximum Security (9)
5. 248 Midnight Bisou (1)
6. 140 Zulu Alpha
7. 120 Monomoy Girl (2)
8. 118 Tiz the Law (3)
9. 112 By My Standards
10. 56 Volatile
The Top 10 this week’s NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 400 Tiz the Law (40)
2. 300 Honor A.P.
3. 280 Authentic
4. 276 Art Collector
5. 180 Uncle Chuck
6. 138 Thousand Words
7. 112 Ny Traffic
8. 106 King Guillermo
9. 89 Swiss Skydiver
10. 84 Gamine