Travers Preview: Mixed bag in Grade I

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The Travers always has storylines. This year’s version of the Grade I stakes borders on fiction.

The Derby winner, Mine That Bird, trained all summer at Saratoga but won’t run because he hasn’t recovered from throat surgery. The Preakness winner, Rachel Alexandra, trained at Saratoga all summer, but won’t run because she’s bowing to her stablemate and has a date with older males in the Woodward.

So what’s left of the story?

Todd Pletcher tries to win the Travers with a horse coming out of 6 1/2 furlong stakes. Steve Asmussen tries to win the Travers with the second best 3-year-old in his barn. Bill Mott tries to win the Travers with a horse who’s never won a race on the dirt. Kiaran McLaughlin tries to win the Travers with a horse who failed as the favorite in the Jim Dandy and as co-second choice in the Belmont Stakes. Ian Wilkes tries to win the Travers with a horse eligible for two-other-than allowance conditions. Nick Zito tries to win the Travers with a horse who went to Delaware Park to break his maiden. Tim Ice tries to win the Travers with the best horse he’s ever trained.

Funny thing is, they all have a shot.

Now you figure it out.

And, by the way, it’s raining as this is being written Friday night.

Friday morning, Mott untacked his pony, checked a run-down patch on a horse who just breezed on the turf and scanned the 140th Travers’ past performances, given to him by a reporter. With the co-longest shot on the board, Hold Me Back, Mott has the ability to be objective.

There in post position order read the seven horses for the Shadwell Travers. WinStar Farm’s Hold Me Back (Julien Leparoux), William and Suzanne Warren’s Charitable Man (Ramon Dominguez), Stevens Miles’ Warrior’s Reward (Calvin Borel), Edward Evans’ Quality Road (John Velazquez), Robert LaPenta’s Our Edge (Alan Garcia), Kalarikkal and Vilasini Jayaraman’s Summer Bird (Kent Desormeaux). Stonestreet Stable and Gulf Coast Farm’s Kensei (Edgar Prado).

Mott studied the pages.

“Charitable Man is a nice horse, has a little gas,” Mott said. “Looks like Borel dropped Warrior’s Reward back to last one time and sent him to the lead the next. Quality Road, he’s going to show speed going this distance. Our Edge has speed. Summer Bird won the Belmont. Kensei is probably the up-and-coming horse. I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.”

At about 5:48 this evening.

Todd Pletcher has the most to find out. He took over the training of arguably the most talented colt – colt – of this 3-year-old crop when Evans decided to fire Jimmy Jerkens. Pletcher received the son of Elusive Quality June 15 and immediately set out for today. Quality Road fought hoof issues all spring and was playing catch up to get to the 10-furlong Travers. Pletcher knew he couldn’t get him ready in time to go 9 furlongs in the Haskell or the Jim Dandy so he took aim at the 6 1/2-furlong Amsterdam. Quality Road dominated the stakes, setting a new track record in the process.

Asked if he could change one thing, Pletcher would lop off a furlong.

“I guess I’d make the race a mile and an eighth, we’ve had a good 26 days since the Amsterdam, the horse has responded well, he’s training well,” Pletcher said. “We wanted to win the Amsterdam but we also felt like it was a stepping stone to this, had he run well and finished second or third and galloped out good and came out of it good, we were still thinking this, but all that being said, we didn’t lead him over there thinking he wasn’t ready to run that day.”

If it was a talent show, Quality Road would be a lock. He’s won four of five starts, including the Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and Amsterdam. He tries a mile and a quarter for the first time. Going from a 6 1/2-furlong stakes to a 10-furlong stakes wouldn’t show up in any trainer’s manual. Pletcher didn’t have a choice and he thinks it can be done.

“When we got him in, we basically needed seven to 10 days to get ready for a breeze, he had one three-eighths breeze since he had the foot issues, looking at the calendar, it’s like, ‘how am I going to get to the Jim Dandy or the Haskell in this amount of time without doing something out of the box?” Pletcher said. “Looking at it, if I can breeze him two halves and three five-eighths, I thought I could have him ready for the Amsterdam. The only thing that didn’t go exactly how we wanted it, we had to push the one work back 24 hours. Outside of that, everything has fallen into place the way we hoped it would, whether that’s going to be good enough, we’ll find out.”

Belmont winner Summer Bird arrived in Saratoga after finishing second to Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell. Tim Ice bedded him down in the stakes barn and put two breezes into the rangy son of Birdstone. Kent Desormeaux guided him through both breezes, 5 furlongs in 1:01 4/5 Aug. 15 and a 1:00 4/5 Aug. 22. Ice is new on this stage but on Thursday morning, the Louisiana Downs-based conditioner had a handle on running his first horse in the Travers. 

“The horse is ready, I’ve been ready, looking forward to it, he’s going very, very well. I feel the same way as I did leading to the Belmont. Friday morning, he came off the track bucking and playing,” Ice said. “I was confident going into the Haskell and I feel like he ran a winning race, we were overshadowed by the filly, obviously she’s a very, very nice horse, we were second-best that day. The mile and a quarter is the biggest factor and the fact that we can get back to letting him run his race instead of sending him up close to the front.”

Summer Bird tracked Rachel Alexandra and Munnings in the Haskell and held on well enough to be second, 6 lengths behind Rachel Alexandra and a length in front of  Munnings. In his other races, Summer Bird relaxed and punched late, which will be the plan again in the Travers.

“We had to show speed at Monmouth, we knew what we were up against, he stepped up and ran a big race, I was very, very happy with how he ran,” Ice said. “They went three quarters in 1:09 and change and we were right there. I don’t think he’s a plodder. To know the versatility is there, we can go in any race confident, if there’s a fast pace or a slow pace, we can go either way.”

Kensei will make his presence felt in the pace equation. Breaking from the outside, the Dwyer and Jim Dandy winner showed tactical speed to sit second in the Jim Dandy before rolling to an easy win over Warrior’s Reward and Charitable Man. While those two suffered eventful trips, Prado was able to negotiate a perfect scenario for the Jim Dandy. Minutes after winning, Prado was already analyzing his chances in the Travers.

“I was where I wanted to be, second or third, nice and easy, in the clear. He passed the test. He’ll be easier next time. He’s the kind of horse that has the tools,” Prado said. “He relaxed on the backside until I asked him so he had something left. Those are two things I like, I hope he carries over to the next one. I like the way he picked it up, he didn’t level off. Horses need natural speed to be where I wanted to be. And comfortable, then you can play it from there. If you want to go, you can go, if you want to take back, you can take back.”

Of all the horses, Kensei probably has the most tactical advantage. The four-time winner breaks from the outside which should allow Prado the chance to see what’s going on inside him before committing to a position.

Warrior’s Reward earned some hype this spring when he won an allowance race at Churchill Downs over Munnings. In his next two starts, the $180,000 yearling went off favored in the Northern Dancer and the Dwyer. The robust son of Medaglia d’Oro stumbled badly in the Dwyer and then ran second behind Kensei in the Jim Dandy. He looks to break through to the next level in the Travers.

“Great mind. Very classy,” trainer Ian Wilkes said. “I liked him at the sale and I picked him out. He has a good leg to him; good bone. I liked the way he walked. I took a shot; Medaglia d’Oro, first season sire. He’s out of a Seeking the Gold mare. He just fit, and we liked everything about him. The price, $180,000, was a stretch for a first-season sire, but he is a good-looking horse and we really liked him.”

Hold Me Back owns three wins and a second over synthetic surfaces; actually the only three times the horse has hit the board. The $400,000 yearling failed in the Kentucky Derby, after making an audacious middle move and flopped in the Remsen last fall, his only two attempts on the dirt. He won the Lane’s End at Turfway Park and finished second in the Blue Grass at Keeneland in April.

Our Edge, a Florida-bred son of The Cliff’s Edge, possesses dangerous early speed and will probably be on the lead under Alan Garcia. The $130,000 yearling purchase won his last three by taking it to them early, accounting for a maiden, the Coronado’s Quest at Monmouth and the Barbaro Stakes at Delaware Park. 

Charitable Man disappointed in the Jim Dandy while suffering a disjointed trip for most of the way. Ramon Dominguez takes over for Garcia. A dynamic winner of the Peter Pan, Charitable Man didn’t quite see it out in the Belmont and then failed as the favorite in the Jim Dandy.