It looks like a game of catch-me-if-you-can, with the winner’s share of a $1.25 million pot at stake when 10 line up for the 145th Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
Haskell Invitational winner Bayern, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, is the 2-1 morning-line favorite and will break from post No. 2 under Martin Garcia at about 5:46 p.m.
If he runs his usual style, Bayern will blast out to the front, and then it will be up to nine rivals, including Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist and Jim Dandy winner Wicked Strong, to go get him.
Tonalist is the 3-1 second choice and will break from the No. 6 post under Joel Rosario, and Wicked Strong is 7-2 and will be ridden by Rajiv Maragh.
“He’s won so many big races, and all his horses seem to rise to the occasion at the right time, so I don’t blame anybody for making him the favorite,” Jimmy Jerkens said of Baffert. “The way he ran in the Haskell, nobody was even close, and there were some good horses in there.”
“[Bayern] probably will go for it,” said Christophe Lorieul, assistant to Tonalist’s trainer, Christophe Clement. “We’ve got Wicked Strong outside of us, and he might go a little bit, too. It could be a good set-up. We don’t want to be as wide as we were in the Jim Dandy, so [Rosario] will have to tuck him in a bit more.”
The Travers will be televised live on NBC in a broadcast that will run from 4:30-6 p.m..
Trainer Todd Pletcher has been dominating the Saratoga meet again, but won’t have a horse in the Travers for just the third time since 2003.
Two trainers have a pair of horses entered — Jerkens (Wicked Strong, V.E. Day), who won it with Afleet Express in 2010, and Ian Wilkes (Viva Majorca, Ulanbator).
Viva Majorca is owned by Marylou Whitney, who won the Travers with Birdstone in 2004.
The connections for Tonalist and Wicked Strong were looking to avoid inside posts, and were rewarded by the luck of the draw.
“From five on up, that was good for us,” Lorieul said. “We didn’t want to get stuck on the inside. Tonalist has tactical speed, but it really is his game being close up and behind horses. He wants to be in the clear. He has a very long stride. The No. 6 is a pretty good post.”
Maragh said he likes the options he has with Wicked Strong breaking from 7 post.
“We’re posted outside most of the speed horses, and it seems like a very ideal situation,” he said. “I would think that Tonalist might show a little more speed. He was pretty close to the lead in the Belmont.
“We’ll play it by ear and see how the race is going. The great thing with Wicked Strong is you can adjust with him. He doesn’t have one specific running style. He’s won close to the lead like last time and also has won from pretty much off the pace. Our hands aren’t tied to doing anything specific.”
Besides the top three, the only horse with odds under 10-1 is Kid Cruz (8-1), who will be trainer Linda Rice’s first Travers starter. Wicked Strong, Tonalist, Kid Cruz, Commanding Curve and Ulanbator took the top five spots in the Jim Dandy.
Besides Tonalist, Travers horses who participated in Triple Crown races include Bayern, ninth in the Preakness; Commanding Curve, second in the Kentucky Derby and ninth in the Belmont; Kid Cruz, eighth in the Preakness; and Wicked Strong, fourth in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont.
Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey entered Mr Speaker, who has run on conventional dirt just once in nine career races, a seventh in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. He’s in post No. 10.
“I’m fine with the outside,” McGaughey said. “The speed is on the inside of him. Bayern being in the No. 2, Tonalist and Wicked Strong in the middle, it’s fine. It will be interesting to see what they do. Bayern is a speed horse, and someone has to go with him.”