Travers Stakes: A Saturday in Saratoga

Despite two Triple Crown race winners in the field, Verrazano, seen here winning the Haskell Invitational, was made the 2-1 morning-line favorite at the Travers Stakes. (Bill Denver/Equi-Photo, via AP)

–by Michael A. Riley

Saratoga Race Course is celebrating its 150th year of racing, and Saturday’s 144th renewal of the historic Travers Stakes at the venerable track is shaping up to be one of the more memorable runnings of the “Midsummer Derby” in recent years. The field will include the winners of the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes (Orb and Palace Malice, respectively), as well as the once-defeated Verrazano, whose only loss was a drubbing in the sloppy track at the Kentucky Derby (he came into the race as many people’s favorite to win). Toss in a few other quality three-year-old colts that could easily step up and make a name for themselves in this exciting mile and a quarter race, and this should make the sesquicentennial at Saratoga extra special. A possible record crowd at the racetrack will be cheering these magnificent animals down the stretch.

The history of Saratoga – and the Travers itself – is among the most revered in the sport. In 1978, Affirmed, already the winner of the Triple Crown that year, crossed the wire first against his arch-rival Alydar, only to be disqualified for checking Alydar on the backstretch – a controversial decision that is still debated to this day. So Alydar got the win, but Affirmed still won the Triple Crown and the three-year-old championship. Last year’s running saw Alpha and Golden Ticket race the entire 1-1/4 miles only to finish in a dead heat, a first in the modern history of the Travers Stakes. Kentucky Derby winners have been defeated by unheralded rivals, and championships have been won or lost at Saratoga. Although it was not in the Travers Stakes, the all-time great Man o’ War – on a par with Babe Ruth in terms of sports heroes in the 1920s for winning the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1920 – was compromised at the start of the 1919 Sanford Stakes at Saratoga and suffered the only defeat of his career to Upset. In fact, many people attribute the word “upset” and its use for when sporting favorites lose to that event, even though use of the word in that context did exist prior to it.

The 2012 Travers finished in a tie, with Alpha (l., with Ramon Dominguez) and Golden Ticket (with David Cohen) declared the winners. (AP/Hans Pennink)

No wonder why the nickname for Saratoga is “The Graveyard of Champions.“ I, however, like to call it The Graveyard of Favorites, as some of the greatest wagering upsets have occurred at the historic track located in the foothills of the Adirondacks in upstate New York. So let’s try to beat the favorites on Saturday and look at this year’s race in further detail.

Shockingly the morning line favorite is Verrazano at 2-1. Orb, the Derby winner and leading three-year-old in my opinion, is listed at 4-1! While Verrazano is coming off of a smashing 9-3/4 length win in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, I feel his best distance in less than the 10 furlongs that he will be asked to run on Saturday. Orb and Palace Malice have proven their effectiveness at the longer distances and I feel they will be hanging around a lot longer than the speedy Verrazano. Although Verrazano has the services of Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Velazquez, who can get the most out of any horse on any day, you can’t make a horse run farther than he wants to or is bred to. Verrazano will provide his backers with a thrill for the first mile, but a host of challengers will be breathing down his neck when they hit the top of the stretch. Palace Malice showed us in the Belmont that he can rate his speed and make that move to pass a horse in the stretch, just like Orb did in the Derby.

But are there any others in there with a shot, or is this a three-horse race? I like the looks of Golden Soul. He finished second to Orb in the Derby and was one of the only horses near the lead in the early part of that race that wound up in the same zip code as Orb at the wire. He had two subpar performances in the Belmont and the Haskell but he seems like one of those horse who will love Saratoga, where a combination of speed an closing kick seem to win a great share of races. I look for him to sit just off of Verrazano and any other competitor who is foolish enough to chase that colt early, and then get the first jump on Orb and Palace Malice as they turn for home. Golden Soul at 20-1 is the pick. He will be followed by tough luck Orb who just doesn’t have the early speed to keep up with the front-runners. Palace Malice will be in third and the turf runner War Dancer (love that name) will round out the superfecta.

It promises to be an exciting running of the 144th Travers Stakes – The Midsummer Derby.

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