The 145th Travers Stakes presents a tricky balancing act for most of the field.
Bayern faces no such puzzle.
Barring a gate mishap, the runaway Haskell winner and jockey Martin Garcia are going to go right to the front from the start.
And he will go very fast.
Except for a few confirmed closers, the trick for his rivals will be to find a way to keep the 2-1 morning-line favorite within striking range without burning too much energy.
The two best equipped to do that are Jim Dandy winner Wicked Strong and Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, and the morning line clearly reflects that.
If anyone can keep Bayern on a short leash, then the question becomes whether the 2-1 favorite, who has won just one race longer than a mile, will have the stamina to win going a mile and a quarter.
“I don’t think you can let him get too easy of a lead, but at the same time, you’ve got to remember, it’s a long way,” said Jimmy Jerkens, who trains Wicked Strong for Centennial Farms. “He’s not the only horse in the race. A jock shouldn’t ride just to beat him. You’ve got to save some for the end.”
The $1.25 million Travers has a scheduled post time of 5:46 p.m. and will be televised live during an NBC broadcast from 4:30-6.
Wicked Strong is the 7-2 third choice, and Tonalist, second by 2 1⁄4 lengths in the Jim Dandy, is 3-1.
Tonalist was the beaten betting favorite in the Jim Dandy, which has been a key race for the Travers since 1996.
Eleven of the 19 Travers winners over that span finished in the money in the Jim Dandy.
Trainer Christophe Clement gave Tonalist some rest after his Belmont win, in which he spoiled the Triple Crown bid by California Chrome.
He believes Tonalist’s second place to Wicked Strong sets him up well for the Travers.
“He had a bit of a break after the Belmont, so the race got him back to the level of fitness where he needs to be,” Clement said. “And mentally, he’s doing great. He was doing great before that race, as well. But the race put him up where he’s supposed to be.”
Tonalist put in a five-furlong breeze last Saturday on the Oklahoma training track nearly identical to the one he had just before the Jim Dandy.
He’ll be ridden by Joel Rosario for the fourth straight race, and Wicked Strong will also have his regular rider, Rajiv Maragh, who was on the Hard Spun colt for a victory in the Wood Memorial and fourth-place finishes in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont.
Tonalist and Wicked Strong will break side-by-side from the No. 6 and 7 posts, respectively, in the 10-horse field.
Bayern will break from the No. 2 and should have no difficulty establishing the lead heading into the first turn. By then, the first pieces of the puzzle will have fallen into place.
“I don’t worry about that,” Clement said. “The jockey will have to worry about that. Wherever he’s comfortable will be fine with me. My job is just to train the horse, and get him there as well as I can. He’s a jock who is a top jock, and he will have to make this decision.”
Wicked Strong will use blinkers for the second race in a row, an equipment change Jerkens tried in the Jim Dandy when Wicked Strong got off the bit down the backstretch in the Belmont.
“I sent him away from there a little bit, too, so I think it was a little bit of both, a combination of the blinkers and he got after him a little bit so he could get a nice spot going into the turn,” Jerkens said. “That made him lay up close to the pace. He ran straight, true and strong. That’s what we were looking for.”
Bayern’s three attempts beyond a mile were a third to Danza in the nine-furlong Arkansas Derby, a ninth in the Preakness and the Haskell.
That spectacular race convinced trainer Bob Baffert that it would be worth a shot to ship Bayern back to the East Coast for a Travers try, but the mile and a quarter remains the big question for Bayern.
“Nobody ever knows anything until you do it,” Baffert said. “So we’re going to find out. Can he get it? He should get it. If he can get the Travers, and Saratoga, it’s still demanding there, and horses have had a race over it, and I think the Jim Dandy’s probably the best way to prep your horse for the Travers.”
Among the late-running types in the Travers are Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve, Belmont Derby winner Mr Speaker and Dwyer winner Kid Cruz, who was third in the Jim Dandy with a trip that trainer Linda Rice said sets him up for the Travers.
Mr Speaker, the 10-1 fourth choice on the morning line, is in the Travers because he won at a mile and a quarter in the Belmont Derby, the new turf stakes for 3-year-olds created by new NYRA director of racing Martin Panza.
“He’ll definitely get a mile and a quarter. He’s done it, he’s bred to do it . . . whether or not he’s going to do it on the dirt or not, I don’t know,” trainer Shug McGaughey said. “After the Belmont Derby, I got him up here and worked him a few times on the dirt. I thought he worked very good on it, but that’s different than running. I don’t really worry about the dirt in his face as much as I do whether he’s going to spin his wheels.”
Jerkens is also starting a horse who is considered more suited to grass, V.E. Day, but he’s coming off a dirt win in the Curlin at Saratoga, so it made sense to take a crack at the Travers, too.
“He’s really bred top-heavy for turf, on both the sire and the dam side,” Jerkens said. “But he worked so good on the dirt, I felt like I had to give him a good shot on the dirt. That’s why we ran in the Curlin.”