In the fascinating 145th renewal of the $1.25 million Travers Stakes, the choice here is the speedy shipper Bayern, who will attempt to give trainer Bob Baffert his second victory in the Mid-Summer Derby. The second choice is Tonalist, who might have a slight edge over my third choice, Wicked Strong. Two other horses, Mr Speaker and Kid Cruz, also have a real shot in this field of 10 three-year-olds.
The top five in order of preference:
Bayern — He absolutely got mugged coming out of the starting gate in the Preakness to lose all chance, and rebounded to win the seven-furlong Woody Stephens Stakes by 7 1⁄2 lengths. Baffert upped the ante by stretching him out to a mile and an eighth in the Haskell Invitational, and he won by 7 1⁄4 lengths gate-to-wire. Baffert would never have shipped him back East to stretch out to the mile-and-a-quarter Travers if he hadn’t come out of the Haskell well. He won the Haskell from the two post and drew the same post in the Travers today. The biggest question is: Can he make the distance? His pedigree suggests he can, but it’s hard to imagine any of the horses behind him in the Haskell catching him if he had to run another eighth of a mile. He can take this on the front end.
Tonalist — The Belmont Stakes winner over Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero California Chrome lost a little ground in the stretch when he finished second by 2 1⁄4 lengths as the 4-5 favorite behind Wicked Strong in the mile-and-an-eighth Jim Dandy Stakes. He seemed to be a tad short in that race, but his trainer, Christophe Clement, who is having a tremendous year, knew that the goal wasn’t the Jim Dandy, rather the Travers. Having won the final leg of the Triple Crown at a mile and a half, there are no distance concerns.
Wicked Strong — Was it the addition of blinkers by trainer Jimmy Jerkens that helped him win the Jim Dandy as the 2-1 second choice, or is he just improving? He’s faced Tonalist three times and lost two, the two he raced without blinkers. It’s a tough call, but with the stretch out to a mile and a quarter, Tonalist may be a tad better.
Mr Speaker — Shug McGaughey’s colt is the most intriguing horse in the Travers. He’s raced once on dirt, when he tired badly to seventh in the mile and a sixteenth Holy Bull Stakes, but his last victory on grass was in the Belmont Derby at a mile and a quarter. So, like Tonalist, there is no concern about the Travers distance. On grass, he’s been extremely versatile, which is a huge plus. He’s won wire-to-wire, from racing in mid-pack and, in his last race, from dead last in the field of 10. He’s also won on synthetic, which is irrelevant today. He should be a square price.
Kid Cruz — I’m not sure what to make of this late-runner. After finishing eighth in the Preakness, he won the Easy Goer and Dwyer Stakes. In the Jim Dandy Stakes, he broke uncharacteristically on the lead, fell behind, then rallied mildly to finish third, six lengths behind Wicked Strong. He was 5-1 in the Jim Dandy and will likely be double-digit odds today. He is not the worst shot in this race.
The Other Five
Commanding Curve — This deep closer on the rail followed his excellent second in the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby, when he beat Wicked Strong, with a ninth behind Tonalist and Wicked Strong in the Belmont Stakes and fourth behind them again in the shorter Jim Dandy. If Bayern gets pushed on the front end, his chances improve markedly.
V.E. Day — This Jimmy Jerkens horse, who is uncoupled with Wicked Strong, won his third straight race when he rallied from ninth to win the Curlin Stakes here by a head over Charge Now. He’s making his graded-stakes debut in this Grade I, which is asking a lot from a lightly raced horse making just his sixth lifetime start.
Charge Now — He led late, before finishing second by a head in the Curlin Stakes. In his previous race, he was seventh in the Iowa Derby. It doesn’t sound like a winning Travers resume, does it?
Viva Majorca — He rallied to finish fourth in the Curlin in his stakes debut. He, too, takes a huge step up in class.
Ulanbator — After finishing third in the Dwyer behind Kid Cruz, he was a tiring fifth in the Jim Dandy Stakes. Good luck.