I’m not a bridge jumper.
I’m a bridge taker.
And that bridge is the Jim Dandy.
It’s become abundantly clear that if you want to give yourself the best chance of picking a Travers winner, you need to take a stroll across the Jim Dandy, Saratoga’s traditional Travers prep won by Wicked Strong four weeks ago.
I watched the replay of that race about 10 times, and one observation that seemed obvious was that Joel Rosario conspicuously hit Tonalist with the stick just once despite the fact that they were within range of catching Wicked Strong for the win. I counted seven quick spanks by Rajiv Maragh on Wicked Strong outside the eighth pole, and one more inside it.
By no means am I saying that Rosario wasn’t trying to win.
On the contrary, I’m saying Rosario and trainer Christophe Clement were trying to win — the Travers.
Based on Tonalist’s affinity for longer distances and the tightening effort he must have gotten out of the Jim Dandy, he’s my pick to win the 145th Mid-summer Derby today.
The Travers field looks pretty mediocre on paper, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a thrilling race, especially with the presence of the front-running rocketship Bayern from California.
Out of 10 horses, four (Tonalist, Bayern, Wicked Strong, Mr Speaker) are Grade I winners, and only one other — Grade III Dwyer winner Kid Cruz — has won a graded stakes.
V.E. Day and Viva Majorca have never even run in a graded stakes, Charge Now is an allowance winner, and although Commanding Curve was second in the Kentucky Derby and Ulanbator is graded stakes-placed, neither has won anything other than a maiden race.
The pivot upon which this race will turn is Bayern, another in a long list of Bob Baffert-trained speedsters who test longer distances and either crash and burn (see: Coil, my 2011 Travers pick) or turn into dangerous routers (see: Paynter, Bodemeister).
I’m willing to wager that Bayern won’t like a mile and a quarter, especially if someone refuses to let him catch a breather and turn the mile and a quarter into essentially a mile and an eighth.
We need someone to step forward and keep the heat on Bayern, and that someone could be Wicked Strong, which presents a whole different problem.
The “blinkered Wicked Strong is straight as a string today” Tom Durkin called as Wicked Strong won the Jim Dandy by 2 1⁄4 lengths over Tonalist.
He was a different animal with blinkers on and could be tough to catch if he makes the first run at Bayern, but I believe Tonalist will be right there, and this time, they’ll be in good position to take a bite out of that extra furlong.
I’m also willing to believe that Bayern’s Haskell at Monmouth Park won’t translate to a mile and a quarter at Saratoga.
“Saratoga, I don’t know . . . it’s a little bit like Del Mar. You don’t know what you’re going to get,” Baffert said on Tuesday. “The surface, what’s it going to be like that day, with the rains and everything, if it’s deep, loose, whatever. It’s a different beast.”
“He’s always dangerous,” Wicked Strong’s trainer, Jimmy Jerkens, said of Baffert. “There’s nobody like him. He trains his horses very hard and makes them take it and makes them like it. They come out of there on the engine and just keep going. But you can’t really worry about him and you can’t compromise your chances by chasing him, either.”
Baffert had Point Given in 2001, and he won the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell and Travers in succession to earn Horse of the Year.
But Baffert knew Point Given would have no trouble with the mile and a quarter. He doesn’t have that luxury with Bayern.
Since then, 21 Travers horses have run in the Haskell, and 2009 Haskell runner-up Summer Bird was the only one to win the Travers.
I’ll put my money on Tonalist’s ability to find a stalking spot behind Bayern and then outfinish a softened Wicked Strong to win. This is the one Tonalist is supposed to win, and Clement said the Jim Dandy “puts him up where he needs to be” after a short break off the Belmont win.
I’m interested in Kid Cruz getting a piece because he had a strange, trafficky trip in the Jim Dandy and still was able to re-rally for third.
The hard part is, if you’re not picking Bayern on top, what do you do with him? Does he fold the tent, or hang on, Paynter-like, to stay in the money?
In a fantastic finish, similar to the Belmont, my Travers superfecta is: 1. Tonalist; 2. Bayern; 3. Kid Cruz; 4. Wicked Strong.