Twelve horses, 10 trainers. All staring at one goal – the 139th Travers Stakes.
Remember, trainers began their quest as fans. Teased by the intrigue of a good horse, respectful of what it takes to get a good horse and agonized by the chances of demoralizing a good horse, trainers bear the brunt of taking a shot in the deep and contentious Travers. Fans sit back and watch. Trainers live and die by what happens Saturday afternoon.
“I feel like we have a very, very nice colt, but it’s a very deep race,” said Neil Howard, trainer of third choice Mambo In Seattle. “A wonderful group of horses when you look top to bottom.”
“It’s a hell of a race, it’s a Group I, it’s a million dollars and it’s a make or break race for a stallion,” said Eoin Harty, trainer of California shipper Colonel John. “The critics have been very down on this crop of 3-year-olds, but let history be the judge of who they are.”
“It’s an interesting race. You can see a number of things happening,” said Todd Pletcher, trainer of second choice Harlem Rocker. “There’s a little bit of speed and as long as there’s an honest pace, then you can just ride your race. But it’s the Travers.”
“The race is there, it’s a prestigious race, so we’re in it. Let’s just see what happens,” said Nick Zito, trainer of Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara, two-time winner Amped and Haskell third-place finisher Cool Coal Man. “They are all bred for the mile-and-a-quarter and how many times can you run a 3-year-old going a mile-and-a-quarter? I hope it works.”
“The race is tough, but he’s here and ready to go,” said Barclay Tagg, trainer of Wood Memorial winner Tale Of Ekati. “You always worry about the Travers Day conditions. It’s like running the gauntlet when you come through all those fans.”
The Travers – presented by Shadwell Farm – attracted three Grade I winners (Tale Of Ekati, Colonel John, Da’ Tara), five Grade II winners (Macho Again, Cool Coal Man, Tres Borrachos, Pyro, Court Vision), one Grade III winner (Harlem Rocker). The only three horses to not have won a graded stakes are Mambo In Seattle, who’s won his last three including the Henry Walton Stakes on the Jim Dandy undercard, Amped and Tizbig, who’s trained by none other than Allen Jerkens.
Shake it up and see what happens.
Mambo In Seattle represents the second brigade of 3-year-olds, the ones who skipped the Triple Crown wars and approached the summer as their big dance. The bay son of Kingmambo won one of four starts to begin his career and has gone undefeated in his last three. Owned by Will Farish and Mrs. William Kilroy, Mambo In Seattle won two allowance races at Churchill Downs and then benefited from the addition of the Henry Walton to the Jim Dandy undercard July 27. Under today’s pilot Robby Albarado, Mambo In Seattle battled a game You And I Forever but prevailed by a neck. Conservative by nature, Howard loved that stepping stone.
“He’s lightly raced but he’s done everything right. He’s made better and stronger progress in a short period of time than an average horse, that’s why we don’t feel too remiss in doing this,” Howard said. “He’s a real professional, easy to train, very straightforward, he’s got a lot of the attributes you like to see in a horse that’s going to compete in a race like this. Demeanor. Professionalism. Focus. He’s a good doer. He’s a very good keeper. He holds his flesh. He’s just one of those horses that always looks good, never worries about anything. He’s a good-feeling colt, but in an honest way, not in a wishy-washy way. I think that’s what makes the difference – that distinction.”
Mambo In Seattle made his seventh start in the Walton and it served as a perfect two-turn prep for the Travers. Since then, he’s breezed three times; going a half-mile eight days after his race, then going three-quarters in 1:13 Aug. 10 and finished his preps with another half-mile tightener Aug. 19.
“You don’t always get to stay on schedule, 99 out of 100 times something gets in your way, the horse not doing just right or making every race you want, weather keeps you from breezing every time you want to, just like people, there are some days when you’re scheduled to breeze and little things happen,” Howard said. “In this instance, it’s been uncanny, the way things have gone for this horse. That reason was our determining factor in going to the Travers.”
Howard began this journey all the way back at Churchill this spring. Mambo In Seattle finished second in an allowance race on Derby Day. While other Travers starters Tale Of Ekati, Pyro, Court Vision and Colonel John were going through the spin cycle of the Derby, Mambo In Seattle was making just his second start of his sophomore season.
“He had a chance to go through his conditions, that’s what they’re there for, especially when you have a good horse,” Howard said. “The races went when we wanted them to, we were able to graduate in distances the way we wanted to, and we came up here and there was a race which was a little bit more competitive than a three-other-than but it wasn’t the Jim Dandy. Over the track. It almost makes you wonder how things could go so smooth, it never does. We don’t feel like we’ve pushed him over his limits to get here.”
Harlem Rocker enters the Travers riding the same second-wave campaign as Mambo In Seattle. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Harlem Rocker carries a gaudy 4-for-5 mark, his only defeat coming over Woodbine’s Polytrack in the Queen’s Plate Trial. Owned and bred by Frank Stronach, Harlem Rocker ran down King’s Bishop favorite J Be K in the Withers back in April and took the Prince of Wales Stakes in his most recent start. Eibar Coa returns in the saddle.
“I thought the race that stamped him as a real quality horse was the Withers when he beat J Be K, who’s obviously a real talented horse. We kind of got off track a bit when we went to the Queen’s Plate Trial, he didn’t seem to appreciate the synthetic surface but he rebounded and ran a big race in the Prince of Wales, he probably won easier than it looks. That was at a mile and three sixteenths, but the competition of the Travers is a lot different than there, I don’t want to short-change the Prince of Wales but this is a different group of horses.”
Pletcher nearly leapt from the Withers to the Preakness but he and Stronach agreed to aim the Ontario-bred son of Macho Uno to Canada for the rich Canadian Triple Crown.
“He was doing awfully well at that time. I think it would be foolish to predict that he was going to beat Big Brown, but we wouldn’t have been embarrassed in the Preakness,” Pletcher said. “We’re anxious about it. This horse is doing great. He’s training like a real good horse and we’re about to find out if he is.”
In that same camp stands trainer Eoin Harty, who ships in from Del Mar with Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John. Owned and bred by WinStar Farm, the son of Tiznow had people buzzing leading to the Kentucky Derby. He entered the Derby after six starts where he never finished worse than second. His Derby proved to be a bad date – over early. Breaking from the 10 hole, he got shuffled around like a rumor and wound up sixth. Harty opted for the exit ramp from the Triple Crown Trail and aimed at a summer campaign which began with the Swaps at Hollywood Park July 12. It also began with a loss, Colonel John finished third behind Travers starter Tres Borrachos. Jockey Garrett Gomez has the return call.
“Initially I was disappointed but when cooler heads prevailed and we realized how the race set up, the weight I was giving away, the layoff, the wide trip, it wasn’t as bad as it looked,” Harty said. “He’s got a really good turn of foot, a late kick, but unfortunately the way the race set up Gomez had to put him in the race right off the bat. Everybody figured Tres Borrachos would sit off the speed, then he takes back and Garrett figured if he didn’t put some pressure on the speed horse we were running for second, so he was committed.”
Harty dismisses the fact that Colonel John has done most of his running over a synthetic track and comes to Saratoga confident.
“He’s a really easy horse to train, he puts so much into everything he does,” Harty said. “He’s training really well, he acts like he’s sitting on a big one.”
Trainer Dallas Stewart had Macho Again sitting on a big one in the Jim Dandy July 27. The West Point Thoroughbreds’ colt could have gotten a job with US Postal Service, delivering despite traffic and mud. Macho Again got past Tiz Now Tiz Then late and then had to hold off an onrushing Pyro. He and jockey Julien Leparoux took the Grade II stakes by a half-length over Pyro.
“He hasn’t had to do much since the Jim Dandy, just two little half-mile breezes,” Stewart said. “He’s a tough horse, he lets you know how he’s feeling and I think the mile and a quarter suits him.”
Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan knows too well that the 1 1/8 miles of the Jim Dandy suited Macho Again just perfectly. The regular rider of Pyro nearly ran down Macho Again but just couldn’t seal the deal in the final strides. Bridgmohan has ridden Pyro, trained by Steve Asmussen for breeder Ron Winchell, in all 10 starts. Pyro has one way of doing things and that’s arriving late on the scene. That won’t change in the Travers.
“There were things I could have done, I had a chance to move a little earlier, Macho Again got the jump on me. I was thinking I needed to ride my horse and not worry about any other horses,” Bridgmohan said. “That’s the same format I’m taking into the Travers, because he’s a horse you have to be alert with what he’s doing and not what everybody else is doing. Strategy-wise, I can’t be taking him out of his game, I know how he likes to run and I’m not going to play cute and try to do this and that, I’m going to ride Pyro for who he is, straightforward.”
Bridgmohan thought he had Macho Again measured in the Jim Dandy but couldn’t quite get to the resolute gray.
“Yeah, I thought I was going to get there. He gave me a nice run and I thought for sure he was going to get the job done,” Bridgmohan said. “He got a little tired, I expect him to move forward off that race. I expect him to run another big race. He’s a horse you have to really pay attention to. He was getting to Macho Again the last time so giving him more distance should help him. He’s such a willing horse, when he’s right, he lays it out there for you. That’s all you ask, that’s why I have to do what’s right for Pyro and not worry about anybody else.
Tale Of Ekati failed to finish off his run in the Jim Dandy, winding up fourth for owner Charles Fipke and trainer Barclay Tagg. Tale Of Ekati rallied to win the Wood Memorial in April and finished better than any other Travers starter in the Derby when staying on to be fourth. Edgar Prado rides.
Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara will try to take the field on a merry dance like he did in the final leg of the Triple Crown. Trained by Nick Zito for owner Robert LaPenta, Da’ Tara couldn’t shake Mint Lane in the Jim Dandy and cooked on the lead, winding up last. Alan Garcia has the return call.
Allen Jerkens admittedly takes a shot with one-time winner Tizbig. The massive son of Tiznow recently finished second in an allowance race. Recently, as in six days ago. Owned by Long Bay Stable, Tizbig has the Chief (have you heard, they call him the Giant Killer?) and entices Cornelio Velasquez to stay put.
Zito reaches into his paint can and throws Cool Coal Man into another Grade I contest. The paint stuck in the Fountain of Youth and the Spend A Buck, earlier this summer at Monmouth. The Mineshaft colt finished third behind Big Brown in the Haskell and gets the services of John Velazquez.
Amped completes Zito’s three-pronged Travers attack. A son of Fusaichi Pegasus, Amped closed some ground in the Henry Walton but never threatened Mambo In Seattle, ending up third. Jorge Chavez has been aboard in his last three starts and will be again in the Travers.
Beau Greely upset the Swaps with Tres Borrachos and will try to turn the trick again. Owned by Greely, his brother John and Phil Houches, Tres Borrachos stands 2-for-10 in his career and vaults out of his best performance to date. Tyler Baze ships in for the ride.
Court Vision rounds out the field from the outside post. Owned by IEAH Stable and WinStar Farm, Court Vision played hard on the Triple Crown scene but failed in the Fountain of Youth, the Wood Memorial and the Derby. Trainer Bill Moot re-routed to the turf and he finished fourth in the Colonial Turf Cup and a hard-fought second in the Virginia Derby. Kent Desormeaux, aboard for the first time in the Virginia Derby, rides again.