A Biased, But Dynamic, Analysis of the Travers

Who is going to win Saturday’s Travers? That’s easy, Essential Quality, right? Well, perhaps it’s not quite that cut and dry. Yes, he looks like the logical choice, but sometimes you just let your heart dictate your pick and run with it for better or worse. ~ Steve Haskin

A Biased, But Dynamic, Analysis of the Travers

By Steve Haskin


If you want an objective analysis of the Travers Stakes, there are plenty of professional handicappers out there that will dissect the race using speed figures and trip notes and any other tools on which they rely. And after all the intensive study, 90 percent of them are going to come up with Essential Quality.

And rightly so, as he is by far the fastest and most accomplished horse in the race with a near unbeaten record, six graded stakes victories, a championship, and a classic victory to his credit. And he is as close to a winning machine as any 3-year-old seen in years and is so versatile he can be placed anywhere on the track. Oh, and he’s also ridden by Saratoga’s leading jockey and trained by last year’s Eclipse Award winning trainer.

I have visited Essential Quality on several occasions at Saratoga and was so impressed with everything I saw. He trains, he eats, he relaxes, then sprawls out and takes a morning nap. No fuss, no muss, no problem…the perfect racehorse.

So why would anyone pick against him going a mile and a quarter and with a win over the track?

Because I don’t want to pick a horse who is going to be even-money or less, and I have a history with another horse, finding him mired in a fourth-place finish in a maiden race back in January and clinging to him like a barnacle to a ship all the way to the Derby. And I must admit I had him ranked him much higher than anyone else and certainly higher than his record would indicate. In short, I have an emotional attachment to him, and, oh, one other little thing…I really believe he can win the Travers. And that last line is not based on emotion, but pure handicapping.

I am now going to subject you to a brief journey on this year’s Derby trail and a few comments that even I, in all my modesty, have to consider somewhat prophetic, even though he did finish 18th in the Derby. But more later on that race and why it is a complete throw out.

On the January 25 Derby Rankings, I wrote following a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Gulfstream: “As alluded to earlier, ANOTHER DUKE, coming off a third to Greatest Honour, broke his maiden at Gulfstream Saturday in fine fashion, but it was DYNAMIC ONE, second to Greatest Honour, who was much the best, going six-wide into the first turn from the disastrous 11-post and then making an eye-catching wide move on the far turn to battle for the lead four wide. He couldn’t sustain it for good reason and had to settle for fourth, beaten two lengths. If you’re looking for a real early sleeper for the Derby, this is my hidden gem of the year so far.”

I later found out he lost a shoe in the race and had mucus in his lungs when he was scoped. That made me even more convinced this was a very good horse. I later wrote in Knocking on the Door: “A few weeks ago I mentioned DYNAMIC ONE as my megabomb sleeper. Todd Pletcher still has time to get another race in him in early March and have him ready for a huge leap to one of the big 100-point preps. He had a number of excuses in his last start, which I believe he would have won by several lengths.”

He did break his maiden convincingly in his next start, but did it in slow time. Following the race I wrote: “Granted, he didn’t beat much and they ran very slow over a deep and tiring track, but he trudged his way through it to defeat a highly touted Chad Brown colt by 5 1/4 lengths… he already demonstrated his explosive turn of foot in his last race and this should springboard him to bigger and better things.”

So, it was on to the Wood Memorial and his first meeting with top-class Derby horses. He desperately needed points to qualify for the race. As I wrote: “Now he steps into the big-time in the Wood Memorial. He certainly doesn’t have to win this race, just run well enough to get into the Derby. He has a pedigree to die for and has as strong a female family as you will ever see. Although he needs a fairly big jump forward off his “5” Thoro-Graph number it is doable. I’m just taking a wild shot that there is a top-class colt lurking in there just waiting to bust out. But I admit that more likely will come later on.”

When he finished second, even if it was to his 72-1 stablemate Bourbonic, who nailed him in the final strides, I loved his effort, especially considering how wide he was the entire race.

I moved him up from No. 12 to No. 9 and wrote: “According to Trakus, he ran 43 feet farther than the winner, indicating that with a ground-saving trip he would have won by many lengths. He still showed a good turn of foot sweeping by horses on the far turn to reach contention. He kept on determinedly, but all that ground loss eventually took its toll. He has a tremendous pedigree, but it’s just a question of whether he is fast enough now to win the Derby. He surely has the bottom under him and is dead fit. He may be more of a Belmont or even Travers horse, but I still feel with a good trip he can make his presence felt in the Derby.”

I then took a shot and moved him all the way to No. 4, in good part to his Thoro-Graph pattern. As my comments stated, “We haven’t seen anything close to his best yet… I’m not saying he’s going to win the Derby, but don’t be too quick to dismiss him, especially in the exotics.”

Then came the Derby, and, boy, was I shocked by his 18th-place finish. What in the world happened? There were no excuses coming out of the Pletcher camp.

The weekend after the Derby, my wife and our close friends Avi and Rhoda Freedberg drove to Fair Hill to see their horse, Grade 3 Westchester winner, Nicodemus, who was recovering from an injury at Bruce and Amy Jackson’s Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center. We walked into one of the barns and the first horse I saw stopped me dead in my tracks. There was Dynamic One peering out of his stall. It was almost surreal, having seen him the week before in the Kentucky Derby and now at a clinic in Fair Hill. In deference to his owners I won’t reveal the reason for his being shipped to a therapy center, as it was avoided completely by Pletcher, who simply said they were going to regroup. Nothing was released by the owners, so they obviously did not want to make it public. However, I can say it was not an injury, but two maladies that had to severely affect his performance, both of which were treatable with proper therapy.

The question was, can he be ready for the Travers? Two and a half months later he was entered in the 1 1/8-mile Curlin Stakes at Saratoga and he unleashed a powerful late run to win going away by almost two lengths in 1:49 1/5. So, can a rejuvenated, late-blooming colt with as classic a pedigree as you could want going a mile and a quarter in late August defeat the likes of Essential Quality and several other top-class horses in the Midsummer Derby?

His “2” Thoro-Graph figure following that dreadful Derby figure of “14 ½” equaled his Wood Memorial career high. But he still has improving to do to get close to Essential Quality’s four negative figures and a “zero” in his last five starts. He even has to improve slightly to match Keepmeinmind’s back-to-back “1 ¾” figures in the Jim Dandy and Ohio Derby.

So, from a speed figures standpoint, Essential Quality towers over the field if he can just maintain the numbers he’s been running.

But I am going to stick with my early discovery and hope he can turn in a career-best performance, while Essential Quality regresses just a little. He never does, but if you’re looking to upset a horse of his caliber you need both to happen. I have become an Essential Quality fan and would be happy to see him and Dynamic One run-two. But my heart belongs to the latter.

Now that I have bored everyone with my self-indulgence, let’s take a more logical look at the Travers.

I have been saying all along that when Midnight Bourbon has his break-out performance it will be on the front end when he is the only horse who wants the lead. And he will be hard to pass in the stretch once the Tiznow, and maturity, comes out in him. Now he shows up coming off that near-disastrous incident in the Haskell, and I don’t see anyone trying to outrun him early, especially from post 1, with Essential Quality and Masqueparade stalking, but giving him enough breathing room. Essential Quality normally would have been better served drawing farther out, but from post 2 he will be able to break next to Midnight Bourbon and get a good position right off him.

Dynamic One would need one of these two to go after him early enough to at least give the closers a shot. And Dynamic One, Keepmeinmind, and Miles D can all close.

Now we come to the most intriguing horse in the race and my longshot pick. King Fury was going into the Kentucky Derby the potential wise guy horse after his impressive victory in the Lexington Stakes, but he was forced to miss the race, coming down with a fever the day before. He returned in the Ohio Derby and was flying at the end to barely miss catching Masqueparade by a half-length and finishing ahead of Keepmeinmind. He was all set for big effort in the Jim Dandy Stakes, but NYRA would not allow him to run because his barn’s quarantine ended one day after the race. Trainer Kenny McPeek decided to use the Saratoga Derby as his Travers prep rather than go into the race off a two-month layoff, even though he had never run on grass. When he drew post 11 in the 11-horse field it put him at even a bigger disadvantage, and McPeek was reluctant to run him. He raced wide the entire race, put in a brief bid, then tired, with Jose Ortiz not persevering with him in the final furlong. He will appreciate a return to the dirt and will relish the mile and a quarter. He looks live, especially in the exotics, and to me is the huge upset possibility. I’ll take the generous 15-1 morning line odds right now.

So, it is a Dynamic One, Essential Quality, King Fury exacta and trifecta box, with my main win bet going on Dynamic One and a smaller wager on King Fury. Although Miles D, Keepmeinmind, and Masqueparade are all eligible to run big races, the main danger would be Midnight Bourbon stealing the race. After what he went through at Monmouth, it would be a great story.

But on a personal level, I am looking for Dynamic One to fulfill the promise I saw in him way back in January when he was still a maiden. Now, how’s that for an objective analysis?

Time to Anoint Gamine the Queen?

Gamine hasn’t gotten much attention lately, but she is back in the big-time, taking on some classy filly sprinters in the grade 1 seven-furlong Ballerina Stakes. If she wins this race with the same brilliance she has won most of her one-turn races then perhaps it is time to consider her, pound for pound, the best horse in the country.

It is the belief of most veteran racegoers that the immortal Dr. Fager is the fastest horse ever produced in this country. The Doc’s two most iconic records were his world-record mile in 1:32 1/5 under 134 pounds, which has not been broken on dirt in 53 years, and his career finale, the Vosburgh Handicap, in which he lugged 139 pounds and broke Aqueduct’s seven-furlong track record, blazing the distance in 1:20 1/5. Well, Gamine equaled Dr. Fager’s time of 1:20 1/5, winning by 6 ¼ lengths, and ran a mile in 1:32 2/5, just a fifth of second slower than The Doc’s world record, while winning by almost 19 lengths. And we’re talking about a 3-year-old filly. When she won the Test Stakes by seven lengths, she ran the seven furlongs in 1:20 4/5, which was the co-fastest time in the 99-year history of the race.

Even with her winning the Derby City Distaff at Churchill Downs by only 1 ½ lengths when trainer Bob Baffert had her a bit short over a track she didn’t care for, her average margin of victory in one-turn races is still eight lengths.

Never Dismiss Swiss

Here is a statistic you will never see again. Last year, Swiss Skydiver, who runs in the grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes, won the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks at Gulfstream with Paco Lopez aboard, the Grade 3 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park with Brian Hernandez aboard, the grade 2 Santa Anita Oaks at Santa Anita with Mike Smith aboard, the grade 1 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga with Tyler Gaffalione aboard, and the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico with Robby Albarado aboard. That is five graded stakes wins at five different tracks in five different states, ridden by five different jockeys. She won in the South (Florida and Arkansas), the West (California), and the East (New York and Maryland).

She also finished second in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, second in the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and third in the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds. So in all, she won or placed in eight graded stakes at eight different tracks in seven different states…in just one year. Not bad for a $35,000 yearling purchase. No matter what she does the rest of the year, her legacy is secured.

Will Life be Good for Jackie’s Warrior?

Is there a more intriguing matchup on Saturday than Jackie’s Warrior vs. Life is Good in Saturday’s Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at seven furlongs? Jackie, arguably the fastest colt in the country, will take on the undefeated Life is Good, who was forced off the Derby trail with an injury after crushing eventual Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit in the San Felipe Stakes. Initially trained by Bob Baffert, he has since been turned over to Todd Pletcher.

I doubt there is anyone who can outrun Jackie’s Warrior early, but you can bet Pletcher will have Life is Good cranked up coming off a layoff. No one, with the possible exception of Baffert, gets horses to break more sharply than Pletcher. And let’s not forget that Drain the Clock also has plenty of early lick, with three major sprint victories to his credit, and is the only horse to defeat Jackie’s Warrior sprinting, although he was trounced by him last time out.

This should be the proverbial barn burner.


Photos courtesy of Steve Haskin


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