The “Midsummer Derby” predates the Kentucky Derby (G1) in this topsy-turvy COVID-19 landscape, but Saturday’s $1 million Travers Stakes (G1) still retains a salient characteristic: pitting the established class against up-and-comers in the sophomore ranks.
In a normal year, though, the division leaders would already have been tested at the vicinity of the 1 1/4-mile distance. Favored Tiz the Law enters as the winner of the lone classic contested so far, the June 20 Belmont S. (G1) over a truncated 1 1/8 miles. Now he faces his first proper stamina exam, like the rest of his rivals including Bob Baffert’s Uncle Chuck, who brings the most buzz of the class climbers.
The other novel twist is that the Travers will impact the Kentucky Derby picture, beginning with the reactions by bettors in Pool 7 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager that runs this weekend until Sunday evening at 6 p.m. (ET). Aside from the opportunity to boost, or bust, reputations going into the “Run for the Roses,” the Travers will affect the composition of the Derby field by offering points on a 100-40-20-10 scale.
Here are my five points to ponder:
1. Tiz the Law puts his Derby favoritism on the line.
As other potential claimants have come and gone, or suffered reverses, Tiz the Law has proven that rare commodity – an elite Kentucky Derby contender who has continued to enhance his claims over the long haul. If the Barclay Tagg trainee extends his winning streak to four on Saturday, he’ll clinch his status as the early Derby favorite in the final Future Wager.
But if Tiz the Law becomes the latest upset victim at the Spa, without an obvious excuse, his Derby stock would likely take more of a hit than in a typical prep. A loss at the Derby trip of 1 1/4 miles would loom larger, and in his case, renew discussion that his prior defeat had come at Churchill Downs last fall.
In other words, Tiz the Law arguably has more prestige on the line here than, say, Honor A. P. did when overturned at 1-5 in the Aug. 1 Shared Belief. As a 1 1/16-mile affair dictated by controlling speed in a small field at Del Mar, the Shared Belief need not be an indictment of Honor A. P.’s chances in a completely different set-up in the Derby. It might be harder to make that kind of case following the Travers.
2. Uncle Chuck has less experience than Arrogate did going into his Travers.
Baffert has not been shy about comparing Uncle Chuck to Arrogate – both late bloomers with a gigantic stride that covers the ground seemingly without effort. But before Arrogate dismissed veterans of the 2016 classics in a track-record stakes debut in the Travers, he’d made twice as many starts.
The Juddmonte champion began in a 6-furlong sprint at Los Alamitos, where a slow start combined with trouble resulted in a third-place finish. Arrogate also got an education in his subsequent outings at 1 1/16 miles, all three versus older horses. After dueling on the inside and drawing off in his maiden and entry-level allowance scores at Santa Anita, he was still learning on the job when clearing his second-level allowance condition at Del Mar.
Uncle Chuck’s racing experience consists of two races in a shorter span of time. He too has had a taste of setting the pace in his maiden tour de force, and driving from a stalking position in a four-runner Los Alamitos Derby (G3), while still looking like a green recruit. Even if he has the same degree of raw ability as Arrogate, Uncle Chuck is facing a trial by fire in his third lifetime start.
3. Country Grammer and Caracaro made the most of their Peter Pan trips.
As a fan of beaten Peter Pan (G3) favorite Mystic Guide, I’m still playing the what-if game. Had he not lagged well behind a modest pace, but instead lay within striking range as he had in his prior two, Mystic Guide probably would have finished much closer to Country Grammer and Caracaro. I’m tempted to project, given how strongly he rallied for third from his poor position, that he at least could have been involved in a three-way tussle. And if the Godolphin brain trust weren’t taking the go-softly approach, Mystic Guide might well have advanced to the Travers too.
You don’t have to accept that optimistic interpretation regarding Mystic Guide, though, to recognize that Country Grammer and Caracaro capitalized on more advantageous trips. Their tactical shrewdness was perching behind a pair of longshot pacesetters and disposing of them at will. The task here is more complex, and the Peter Pan top two both need to improve to threaten on Saturday.
Country Grammer has the stronger case to take such a forward move. A May foal by Tonalist (and inbred to Pleasant Colony to boot), the Chad Brown trainee was accosted by Caracaro in the stretch but rebuffed him. Caracaro was positively heroic to miss in the Peter Pan, considering that he was making his stakes and two-turn debut off a six-month injury layoff. The scruple is whether he ran too well off the bench, setting himself up to regress in this more challenging spot. The extra furlong doesn’t figure to benefit him as much as it does Country Grammer either.
4. Max Player is eligible to improve from the Belmont.
Max Player might have an even more appealing resume by now if not for the COVID clampdown. The Linda Rice trainee had just put it all together with his decisive Withers (G3) victory on Feb. 1, and was looking forward to the Wood Memorial (G2), when the pandemic rewrote his agenda. Max Player’s new target evolved into the June 20 Belmont. Reverting to one turn, albeit going 9 furlongs, and off a longer holiday than planned, he closed stoutly to grab third.
Now Max Player stretches out back out, and returns on a timetable perhaps more amenable to producing a big follow-up effort. The son of Honor Code has a yawning 5 1/2-length gap to bridge with Tiz the Law, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he reduces some of it.
5. Shivaree could be the tactical key to the race.
As a once (and future?) sprinter, Shivaree has shown plenty of dash in his two attempts on the Derby trail so far. He was able to hang on for second in the Florida Derby, but retreated to 11th in the Blue Grass (G2), and the “nephew” of multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Jackson Bend appears to have his uncle’s distance limitations.
Yet Shivaree could play a major role in how the Travers unfolds. Although not the only forward type in the line-up – Uncle Chuck has early foot, and longshot First Line could try to go from his rail post – Shivaree might be the one who ensures it’s a fast-run contest that exposes any stamina weaknesses.
If so, his presence theoretically could help Tiz the Law more than Uncle Chuck. Tiz the Law’s dynamic displays have come with a strong pace set-up, and on pedigree, the distance should not be an obstacle. Uncle Chuck has shaped as one with no stamina problems either, in principle, although his relative inexperience makes this a more searching test in the circumstances.
South Bend would likely need a meltdown to spring a shock in his first start for new connections. The recent Ohio Derby (G3) runner-up had been looking pretty exposed on both dirt and turf until his latest, but he fired a bullet ahead of this debut for Hall of Famer Bill Mott.
Happy Travers Day!