Tackling the 2012 Travers
By Mark Shrager, Special to The Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With a history beginning in 1864, and therefore extending further into the past than such upstart races as the Belmont Stakes (first contested in 1867), Preakness (1873) and Kentucky Derby (1875), the Travers Stakes is truly a classic among classic races.
Named for William Travers, long ago the Saratoga Association president, the race's initial running was won by his 3-year-old colt Kentucky, which carried 100 pounds to victory, traveling 1 3/4 miles in 3:18 3/4. Racing was a very different sport in 1864; the Travers was a very different race.
It has since become a long-standing tradition for America's greatest 3-year- olds to display their prowess in the "Midsummer Derby."
Kentucky, which would eventually win 21 times in 23 lifetime starts, has his plaque in the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, and subsequent Travers winners comprise a virtual who's who of great American thoroughbreds: Ruthless (1867) and Harry Bassett (1871), Hindoo (1881) and Henry of Navarre (1894), Roamer (1914) and Man o' War (1920), Twenty Grand (1931) and Granville (1936).
Whirlaway won the 1941 Travers after sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, laying sole claim to what might be termed the Quadruple Crown of American Thoroughbred Racing. Shut Out won in 1942, Native Dancer in 1953, Gallant Man in 1957, Sword Dancer in 1959.
That gets us through the race's first 100 years.
Now add Buckpasser (1966), Damascus (1967), Arts and Letters (1969), Alydar (1978, through the disqualification of Triple Crown winner Affirmed), Easy Goer (1989), Holy Bull (1994), Thunder Gulch (1995), Point Given (2001), Bernardini (2006), Street Sense (2007) ... are you getting the idea that some pretty memorable thoroughbreds have brought home the Travers trophy?
Saratoga will present the 2012 edition of the $1 million Travers on Saturday, Aug. 25th, and our aim is to seek handicapping angles that might earn us a profit on the 1 1/4-mile, Grade 1 race.
To this end, we will focus on the most recent 25 runnings of the Travers, beginning with Java Gold's sloppy-track victory over Cryptoclearance in 1987, and concluding with Stay Thirsty's 2011 steamrolling of Rattlesnake Bridge and JW Blue.
Let's get to it.
IGNORE THE "COMMON KNOWLEDGE"
We can begin by noting the surprising but considerable impact of strategic early speed (coupled with a measure of stretch-running stamina) as a key factor in recent Travers victories.
The trend toward strategic speed as a decisive factor in the Travers is becoming increasingly dramatic. It is now 12 years since Unshaded became the last Travers winner to score from as many as six lengths off the pace, 19 since Sea Hero became the last 3-year-old to win from more than 10 lengths behind.
Let's compile three different average winning Travers running lines: first, for the seven years beginning in 1987 and ending in 1993, then for the 12 years from 1994 to 2005, and finally for the six most recent and most speed-favoring years, from 2006 to 2011.
Here is an instance in which racing's so-called "common knowledge," which always gives the theoretical edge in longer races to stretch-running types, can easily confer overlay status on runners with the tactical speed that actually produces Travers wins.
Take advantage of this. Let the rest of the world wager on out-of-the-clouds stretch-runners while you wisely invest in contenders that pressure the leaders early, then blow past them in the telling final furlongs.
Let us hasten, however, to differentiate the strategic early speed that dominates the Travers from the front-running speed that almost always flattens out nearing the wire. Over the past 25 years, only Corporate Report (1991) and Bernardini (2006) have earned Travers victories in wire-to-wire fashion. We're looking for a stalking trip, not a front-running one.
DERBY, PREAKNESS AND BELMONT WINNERS: GOOD BETS OR POOR ONES?
While Kentucky Derby winners are infrequent competitors in the Travers, 3-year- olds that have scored on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs are excellent bets when they compete in the "Midsummer Derby." Unfortunately, however, this is emphatically not the case for Preakness-winning entrants, while Belmont winners are more or less a break-even Travers proposition.
The numbers: In the past 25 years, only six Kentucky Derby winners have run in the Travers. Three of these won, and the victories by Sea Hero (which paid $15.40 to win), Thunder Gulch ($3.50) and Street Sense ($2.70) returned a total of $21.60 on a hypothetical $12 in win wagers. Given our unstinting admiration for wagering propositions that produce 50 percent winners and 180 percent returns on investment, we will certainly give serious consideration to any Derby champion entered in the Travers.
Recent Belmont Stakes winners also have turned a profit in the Travers. The Belmont has produced 16 Travers starters over the past quarter-century, and six of them (37.5 percent) posed in the winner's circle following the race. These were: Easy Goer ($2.40 win payoff in 1989), Thunder Gulch ($3.50 in 1995), Lemon Drop Kid ($9.30 in 1999), Point Given ($3.30 in 2001), Birdstone ($11.60 in 2004) and Summer Bird ($7.80 in 2009). Add together their $2 win payoffs, and the result is a $37.90 return on $32 in wagers, for a profit of 18.44 percent.
Like the Derby winner, any Belmont Stakes winner entered in the Travers must be regarded as a serious play, if other handicapping factors seem positive. Betting propositions that produce an 18.44 percent profit over 25 years are never to be taken lightly.
For Preakness winners, however, the numbers are far less encouraging. Of the 25 Preakness champions from 1987 through 2011, a total of seven contested the Travers, and these produced two winners: Point Given, which returned a $3.30 win mutuel in 2001, and Bernardini, which returned $2.70 in 2006. Obviously, a $6 return on a $14 investment arouses little enthusiasm, and therefore when we encounter a Preakness winner striving for additional glory in the Travers, we should address the situation by seeking the entrant most likely to dash its aspirations.
THAT IMPORTANT FINAL PREP RACE
The past 25 Travers winners ran their final prep races at a very limited number of venues. The majority - 13 of the 25 - prepped at Saratoga, 11 in the traditional pre-Travers tightener, the Jim Dandy Stakes, and two - Java Gold and Easy Goer - against older runners in the 1987 and 1989 Whitney.
Seven of the winners had their final Travers preps in the Haskell at Monmouth Park, and four others prepped on the Left Coast, in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. The remaining Travers winner was Birdstone, which won the 2004 Belmont Stakes and then was trained up to his Travers victory by top conditioner Nick Zito. As training feats go, winning a Belmont Stakes and a Travers with an 84-day layoff in-between is a pretty impressive one.
What may be more important than a Travers entrant's last-race venue, however, are the quality of its final prep and how long ago it occurred. Over the past 25 years, only Sea Hero, which finished fourth in the 1993 Jim Dandy Stakes, has won the Travers following a last-race out-of-the-money performance.
Fourteen of the remaining 24 Travers winners were exiting a victory, six had most recently run second, and four had run third. Clearly, we should demand a quality final prep from the runners that carry our Travers wagers.
We also should look for a start within 30 days of the Travers; only four of the 25 most recent winners were returning from layoffs of more than 30 days. The numbers speak for themselves: the Travers is most likely to be won by a runner with a pace-stalking style that has raced within the past 30 days and was competitive in its final prep, preferably over the Saratoga course.
A FEW OTHER FACTORS
Over the past 25 years, only one gelding, Unshaded in 2000, has won the Travers, and no fillies have won. Jockey Javier Castellano has ridden the two most recent Travers winners, and has piloted three of the past six. If there is a "hot" Travers rider, it certainly would be him.
A number of trainers have won multiple Travers. Shug McGaughy, with three, is the leader over the past 25 years, but others with multiple wins during the past quarter-century are D. Wayne Lukas, the late Mackenzie Miller, Carl Nafzger, Todd Pletcher (winner of the 2011 edition with Stay Thirsty) and Wallace Dollase.
Finally, we can note that the Travers in recent years has become an exceptionally chalky race. Favorites have won eight of the past 25 runnings (32 percent), and none of those 25 winners has recorded a payoff greater than the $17.20 generated by Thunder Rumble in 1992. The average $2 win payoff for the past quarter-century has been just $8.74, which suggests that when the favorite has been defeated, it has most often been by the second or third wagering choice.
And so we offer one final piece of handicapping advice: be aware that the public has demonstrated over the past 25 years that it has the measure of the Travers. Play a live longshot if you can find one, but bear in mind that in its Travers wagers, the public is usually correct.
08/17 11:39:34 ET