SARATOGA SPRINGS — The only gray area heading into Saturday’s 152nd running of the Travers Stakes is Essential Quality’s coat.
He’ll be surrounded by four bay colts and two chestnuts, and Godolphin’s nearly undefeated son of Tapit stands out not only visually, but also as the clear favorite in the $1.25 million jewel of the Saratoga Race Course meet.
Post time for the first of 13 races is 11:35 a.m., and the mile-and-a-quarter Travers is scheduled on the main track for 6:12 p.m., when what likely will be a crowd of over 40,000 will have packed the grounds that saw no fans for Travers Day in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Essential Quality not only is the 2020 Eclipse Award winner for 2-year-old males, but he has assembled the most impressive race record of any 3-year-old male in the country this year, highlighted by a victory in the Belmont Stakes on the heels of his only career loss, by a length while fourth to Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby.
He also has a win over the track, having beaten two of his Travers rivals in the Grade II Jim Dandy on July 31.
The bad news for those who will challenge the 4-5 morning-line favorite on Saturday is that Essential Quality has improved since then, in the eyes of trainer Brad Cox.
“He’s sharp, mentally. He’s sharper this race than going into the Jim Dandy,” Cox said. “My plan all along was to have him peak in this spot. Our goal since the Kentucky Derby was to have him at his best Travers Day, and from a mental and physical standpoint, I feel he’s right where we want him.
“I feel like he’s as good as he’s ever been. I feel like if we run our race, we’ll be tough. There’s six other good colts in there, and we still have to play our game. If we do, I think we’ll be a big factor.”
Seven and a half hours of Travers TV coverage and analysis will begin at 11:30 a.m. on FS1 and will conclude with a 90-minute segment on FOX beginning at 5.
The field, in post-position order from the rail out, will be: Preakness runner-up Midnight Bourbon; Essential Quality; Jim Dandy runner-up Keepmeinmind; Curlin winner Dynamic One; lightly raced long shot Miles D; Ohio Derby winner Masqueparade, who was third in the Jim Dandy; and Ohio Derby runner-up King Fury.
Essential Quality will be ridden by Luis Saez, who heads into the weekend with a substantial lead in the jockey standings for the meet.
Saez has been aboard for every one of Essential Quality’s eight career races except for his debut at Churchill Downs in September.
In the mile-and-an-eighth Jim Dandy, Essential Quality broke from the outside of the five-horse field, which remained fanned five across as they headed into the first turn. He tracked the front-runners from the back of the pack, but closely, and went four wide coming off the second turn to engage Keepmeinmind. After a stretch duel, Essential Quality, who frequently wins by small margins, prevailed by a half-length.
“This is a demanding track, but he’s fit,” Cox said. “He’s as fit as they are, and he’s come off a mile-and-a-half race two back [in the Belmont]. We’re right where we want to be in preparation for a big performance on Saturday.
“He’s able to sit close when there’s a soft pace and he’s able to close into a hot pace. He showed that in the Belmont and the Breeders’ Cup. I thought we had enough pace in the Kentucky Derby. He ran well in the Kentucky Derby, he was running at the end, but you could tell he had to start his run a little wide and maybe a little early. But overall, he’s a horse who is adaptable to the pace, for sure.”
“On the charts, it’s a one-horse race,” Masqueparade’s trainer Al Stall Jr. said. “But I’ve always been taught, and I’ve learned every year, that you don’t duck one horse. As far as I’m concerned the ones behind Essential Quality are very even, and in a good way, of course. It’s strictly that one horse to beat, and Essential Quality is going to be a legitimate 2- or 3-5 shot. If he runs his ‘A’ race and gets the right trip, he’ll be virtually impossible to beat, but this is horse racing.”
Keepmeinmind appears to be improving off his last two starts, especially while giving Essential Quality all he could handle in the Jim Dandy, but is still searching for the second win of his career after 10 starts.
His trainer also believes that the Travers mile-and-a-quarter distance will suit him. Also, jockey Joel Rosario said after the Jim Dandy that he learned a few things about the tough, headstrong colt from his first time riding him.
“We always thought he was a nice horse, but I just thought with time he’d get better and just mature a little more, especially on his physical appearance,” Robertino Diodoro said. “He’s starting to do that now, starting to fill out, and he’s a horse that I think will be a better older horse and better the second half of his 3- year-old year.
“I really believe the further the better for this horse, and I think he’ll run all day. He shows it in mornings, and he hasn’t shown any signs of not wanting to do it in the afternoon. We’re more than happy with the distance.”
The Steve Asmussen-trained Midnight Bourbon is the 9-2 second choice off what was nearly a tragic run in the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth Park on July 17.
He clipped heels with Hot Rod Charlie in midstretch and went face-first into the ground at full speed, throwing jockey Paco Lopez. Remarkably, Midnight Bourbon was able to regain his footing and gallop through the wire without Lopez, and Hot Rod Charlie was disqualified from first place, giving the victory to Mandaloun.
“He’s a very impressive horse,” Asmussen said. “I think we’re obviously very fortunate that he came out of the mishap in the Haskell in good shape, and he’s training well, per usual.”
By opting for the Curlin instead of the Jim Dandy, trainer Todd Pletcher took the softer route to the Travers with Wood Memorial runner-up Dynamic One, who beat just one of 19 horses in the Kentucky Derby. Dynamic One left no doubt that he belongs in the Travers, though, racing wide on the first turn in the Curlin, then using a last-to-first move to split the field in the homestretch and winning by a length and three-quarters over Miles D.
He carried co-owner Mike Repole’s orange-and-blue silks in the Curlin; jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. will wear the green of co-owner St. Elias Stable in the Travers.
“I think what we saw in the Curlin is what Todd has been saying for a year now,” Repole said. “Here is a horse with tremendous talent. After the Derby we sent him to Fair Hill [in Maryland], almost like a mental health rehab, and we just got him away from track life to put him in a calmer setting and have him grow up a bit. Since then, he’s been training great, and he ran a huge race in the Curlin.”
At 15-1, King Fury is the longest shot on the morning line, after trainer Kenny McPeek entered him in the Saratoga Derby Invitational on the turf just to get in a race. King Fury missed the Jim Dandy because McPeek’s horses were under quarantine at the start of the meet.
“The turf race was probably a bad idea in hindsight,” McPeek said. “I’m not a gambler. The price is the price. When Golden Ticket won [the Travers], nobody paid any attention. When Sarava won [the Belmont], nobody was paying any attention. Maybe that’s better. No pressure.”
Miles D represents meet-leading trainer Chad Brown’s 12th shot at the Travers, a race the Mechanicville native craves to win.
His best finish was a fourth by Gift Box in 2016.
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