Seven things to know for Travers Day

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

August 27th, 2016

In light of Saturday’s blockbuster card at Saratoga, “five things to know” just can’t be enough. So we’ll make it a list of seven, one for each stakes on an action-packed Travers Day. 

1. A Travers (G1) victory by Exaggerator would go a long way toward wrapping up the three-year-old male championship. It’s not a clincher yet, since Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Nyquist might still have something to say in his fall comeback. If Nyquist can shrug off his losses to Exaggerator in the Preakness (G1) and Haskell Invitational (G1), and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), he’d make a strong case to regain divisional leadership.

The Nyquist-strikes-back scenario isn’t terribly likely at this point. Even if his vacation at San Luis Rey Downs restores him to peak form, he’ll run into a future Hall of Famer at the top of his game – California Chrome – in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And a second-place effort there wouldn’t be enough to wrest the Eclipse Award from Exaggerator, if that rival finishes the season with four Grade 1 trophies.

Because of the Travers’ significance in the 2016 three-year-old title chase, it’s all the more desirable for the track to be fast. Exaggerator has capitalized on sloppy tracks in the Santa Anita Derby, Preakness, and Haskell. We really don’t need another mudfest to tilt the playing field in his favor, especially because Exaggerator would be viewed as a weather-assisted champion. Yet he’s high class on fast tracks too, as illustrated by his terrific runner-up efforts to Nyquist in the San Vicente (G2) and Kentucky Derby  – and by his victory here in last summer’s Saratoga Special (G2). A fast-track Travers can put that issue to rest, and thankfully, the forecast promises just that.

2. Mohaymen’s cutback in trip for the King’s Bishop (G1) makes sense. Whether he regains the winning thread or not, the seven-furlong option on Saturday was the better call than the 1 1/4-mile Travers. Once a leading classic hopeful, Mohaymen hasn’t progressed as the distances increased this year, finishing fourth in the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Jim Dandy (G2). Although the Kiaran McLaughlin trainee captured last fall’s Remsen (G2) over nine furlongs, he’s apparently no longer as effective at that trip now. It’s worth taking the opportunity to shorten up in a Grade 1 in his own age group, and see if that conjures a form turnaround.

Aside from his race record, Mohaymen’s pedigree is also supportive of a seven-furlong gambit. His dam, multiple Grade 2 winner Justwhistledixie, spent most of her career around one turn. She managed to win the 1 1/8-mile Bonnie Miss (G2) early in her three-year-old campaign at Gulfstream, but that was an outlier on her resume. Might Mohaymen’s Remsen turn out likewise?

There’s precedent for Derby veterans to shorten up successfully in the King’s Bishop. In recent years, Derby runner-up Hard Spun (2007), as well as also-rans Visionaire (2008) and Discreetly Mine (2013), earned their signature wins in this spot. Note that Mohaymen isn’t the only one fitting this angle in Saturday’s renewal: Tom’s Ready, 12th in the Run for the Roses, already made a winning return over seven furlongs in the Woody Stephens (G2).

3. Lady Eli has already achieved a storybook comeback just by making it to the Ballston Spa (G2). After a life-threatening bout with laminitis last summer, the unbeaten turf star has scored her most significant victory of all: a recovery of health and strength. She’s even been training sharply enough to work in company with recent Beverly D. (G1) heroine Sea Calisi. You know trainer Chad Brown wouldn’t have paired them up unless he was quite satisfied with Lady Eli’s readiness for the task.

From the video clips I’ve seen, Lady Eli looks in incredible shape. Judging by her physical appearance and mental attitude, she could pick up right where she left off in the 2015 Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1). We can also take heart from a couple of other high-profile laminitis survivors who won straight off the bench, in Paynter and Bal a Bali.

That said, the Ballston Spa will be an unforgiving gauge of whether Lady Eli can reproduce her very best in her first start back. Her two leading rivals, Miss Temple City and Sentiero Italia, couldn’t hold a candle to her last year. But Miss Temple City is much improved this term, and Sentiero Italia is a horse-for-the-course. If Lady Eli dusts them again, it will go down as one of the Spa’s most heartwarming moments.

4. Flintshire looks virtually impossible to beat in the Sword Dancer Invitational (G1). Unlike last year, when I cast about for reasons why the Juddmonte celebrity might be too skimpy a price, there aren’t even imaginary straws to clutch at this time. He’s in a different galaxy from the opposition, proven over the course, and in outstanding form. Barring a crazy mishap, like unseating Javier Castellano or having the Sweet Meteor of Death crash into the inner turf, Flintshire should remain perfect since joining Brown and book his ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1).

5. The Personal Ensign (G1) could be viewed as a way to correct the record from the 2015 Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), held over the same 1 1/8-mile trip. I’m a Chatterbox led throughout that day, and gamely staved off Curalina by a nose. Or at least that’s how they finished. I’m a Chatterbox was unfortunately disqualified for interference, deprived of a hard-fought victory. She’d go on to trade decisions with Curalina in their next two, but they haven’t met yet this season as four-year-olds. While both enter off big wins, I’m a Chatterbox represents a much better value at 4-1 than the 9-5 favorite Curalina. Of course, this “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) is a lot deeper than such a head-to-head reading implies. But these two arguably provide the biggest grudge match. 

6. Carina Mia faces a greater test than just facing older distaffers in the Ballerina (G1). Last seen mounting a short-lived challenge to Songbird in this summer’s CCA Oaks, Carina Mia was emphatically dispatched by the undefeated champion. Whenever a horse suffers that kind of psychological defeat – believing she’s ranging up to threaten, only to be trounced – you never know what kind of mark that might leave. Confidence can be shattered, morale can take a hit, and somehow they’ve lost the taste for combat.

Now Carina Mia has shown absolutely no trace of that malaise, judging by her ensuing works, and by the fact that Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott is pitching her in against her elders. But the only way to be certain is when she’s back in the cauldron of competition.

Like Mohaymen in the King’s Bishop, Carina Mia’s turning back to seven furlongs is eminently logical. She won going two turns at two, but has excelled around one turn this campaign. If she’s back to her dazzling best here, Carina Mia will demonstrate as much psychological toughness as physical brilliance in this “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1).

7. In the week that reigning Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) winner Runhappy returned to the worktab, his 2015 form is well represented in the “Win and You’re In” Forego (G1). Marking was the last horse to finish second to Runhappy back in the Malibu (G1), but Limousine Liberal has an even better claim. Limousine Liberal was best of the rest to Runhappy in last summer’s King’s Bishop over this very track and trip, and bringing good current form to the table, he rates a better than 15-1 chance in the Forego. A. P. Indian remains the one to beat, but he picks up six pounds as the 124-pound highweight, perhaps complicating his hopes of extending his winning streak.

Happy Travers Day!