Saratoga Springs

Wide-open field for 150th Travers

Tacitus, Code of Honor, Tax head interesting mix of stakes horses and new faces
Belmont Stakes runner-up Tacitus is the 5-2 morning-line favorite for the 150th Travers on Saturday.
Belmont Stakes runner-up Tacitus is the 5-2 morning-line favorite for the 150th Travers on Saturday.

Categories: Sports

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Opportunity knocked.

And knocked again.

Much of the pre-Travers talk has been about who won’t be in the race, since the news came late and the names were as big as it gets.

In the last 10 years, there has been at least one winner of a Triple Crown race in the Travers eight times, and one of the years without was last year, when Justify collected all three legs, then was retired.

For the 150th version of Saratoga Race Course’s signature race on Saturday, there will not only be no winners of a Triple Crown leg, but the 2018 Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male, Game Winner, will miss the race because of a minor illness. He probably would’ve been the Travers favorite, and absent Game Winner, Maximum Security probably would’ve been the favorite — but he’s not racing, either.

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Never mind Preakness winner War of Will who was declared out of Travers consideration weeks ago, or Belmont winner Sir Winston who is on the farm, although he will race again next year. Country House, the default Kentucky Derby winner via Maximum Security’s disqualification? He’s in the same boat as Sir Winston, and it isn’t the Travers canoe.

But what the 150th Travers lacks in star quality, it makes up for with depth and … more depth. Tacitus, the Belmont Stakes runner-up and Jim Dandy runner-up, is the 5-2 morning-line favorite in a field of 12 that includes some horses who jumped into the fray when some of the big guns left the scene.

Of the 12, three haven’t won above the maiden level, one is an allowance winner, two haven’t won a graded stakes, one hasn’t run in a graded stakes and five are multiple graded stakes winners.

There isn’t a Grade I winner in the field, and only three have won above Grade III, Tacitus (Wood Memorial, Tampa Bay Derby), Tax (Jim Dandy) and Code of Honor (Fountain of Youth, Dwyer).

“When you lose the horses who would’ve been the first two choices out of the race, it probably gives you a little better chance,” Code of Honor trainer Shug McGaughey said. “But I think it’s a really good Travers.

“Horse for horse, there’s not the per se ‘star’ like Game Winner, who was the champion 2-year-old last year, and Maximum Security was the winner of the Derby and was taken down. So he was kind of a mystery horse, from where he came from, from maiden 16,000 to where he was. But I do think it’s a pretty darn good race and will prove to be that.”

“They’re not in there, and that’s fine with me,” said Bill Mott, who trains Tacitus. “Look, at this juncture, anybody who’s got a horse just hopes they stay healthy until race time, whether it’s a soundness issue or the virus that’s going around, you cross your fingers and hope you just stay in good shape from now until the race. I don’t think you want to be acting joyous over somebody else not being able to run, because you could be in the same shoes.”

Mott knows that too well.

He had an interesting Travers contender last year, Hofburg, but had to declare out of the race with less than a week to go when Hofburg failed to shake a minor illness in time.

But enough about who didn’t make it.

This year’s Travers, scheduled for 5:44 p.m., offers an interesting puzzle for bettors and could have some influence on how the 3-year-old male division shakes out over the rest of 2019. With 12 horses (the maximum is 14), the field size is a little higher than the average (10.3) for the previous 10 Travers.

Tacitus is the favorite despite the fact that he hasn’t won since April 6. But he has had some hard-luck trips in his last two, including a stumble at the gate in the Jim Dandy that nearly put his nose in the dirt. Jockey Jose Ortiz said afterward he didn’t know how he stayed on the horse. Tacitus will add short-cup blinkers for the Travers.

Code of Honor finished behind Maximum Security twice, although elevated to second in the Kentucky Derby by the DQ. He’s coming off a commanding win in the Dwyer at Belmont and is one of five Travers horses who are coming in off a victory (although in the case of Scars Are Cool, it was a maiden race).

Tax has drawn some interest because of his Jim Dandy win, in which he held off a well-recovering Tacitus by three-quarters of a length. Trainer Danny Gargan said he didn’t have Tax 100% fit for his fourth in the Belmont Stakes because Tax missed a workout with a foot issue.

It’s all good now, after Tax ripped a 47.33 breeze for four furlongs on the main track on Aug. 16.

“He’s two lengths better now [than he was for the Belmont], and might be three or four,” Gargan said. “He tries. He’s the kind of horse that just always shows up. Some horses want to be racehorses, and he wants to be one.”

Mechanicville native Chad Brown has trained eight Travers starters since 2011 and hasn’t finished better than fourth. He has two shots this year, with Curlin winner Highest Honors, and Looking At Bikinis who was sent off as the even-money favorite in the Curlin and finished third.

Both of his colts have raced just three times.

“He’s been looking for a mile-and-a-quarter for some time,” Brown said of Highest Honors. “I know he’s lightly raced and lacks some experience, but I’m confident the distance will suit him.”

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Another Curlin horse, runner-up Endorsed, got an extra nudge toward the Travers when Game Winner and Maximum Security pulled out.

“We were looking at it strongly, but it helps to know that two of the favorites aren’t running,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “We’re doing very well and excited about the prospects.”

Besides Tax, two horses listed at odds of 6-1 are the dangerous Bob Baffert-trained Mucho Gusto, who was second to Maximum Security in the Grade I Haskell Invitational, and Ohio Derby winner Owendale, who was third in the Preakness.

The long shots Everfast, Chess Chief, Laughing Fox and Scars Are Cool are all listed at 30-1.

In 13 career starts, Everfast has gone off at an average of 51-1 betting odds. He gets his sixth jockey in six races, and it isn’t one of the usual suspects from the Saratoga colony. Trainer Dale Romans has opted to use Martin Chuan, a 24-year-old from Peru who has been winning races for Romans at Ellis Park in Kentucky. He’s never ridden at Saratoga and now will be asked to be the pilot in the biggest race of the meet.

Romans characterized Everfast as a one-run horse, and that it’s just a matter of Chuan picking the right moment to start that run. Like many in the Travers field, Saturday’s race seemed like the right moment.

“I don’t think he has to worry about getting lost, right?” Romans said with a chuckle. “He’ll be fine.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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