SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Grade 1 winners Tonalist and Wicked Strong will renew their budding rivalry on racing's biggest summer stage, joined by fellow Grade 1 heroes Bayern and Mr Speaker among 10 horses set to gather for the 145th running of the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
Regarded as the centerpiece of Saratoga's 40-day meeting, the 1 Â¼-mile Mid-Summer Derby debuted in 1864 and is one of the oldest stakes races for 3-year-olds in the country, run at the nation's oldest major sporting venue.
The Travers highlights a 13-race card that kicks off with a special first-race post time of 11:35 a.m. and also features the Grade 1, $500,000 Ketel One King's Bishop for 3-year-old sprinters, the Grade 1, $500,000 Ballerina for female sprinters, and the Grade 2, $250,000 Ballston Spa for females turf horses.
Live coverage of the Ballerina and Travers will be part of NBC Sports Network's national telecast from 4:30 to 6 p.m. The Travers has a scheduled post time of 5:46 p.m.
Tonalist and Wicked Strong have met three times dating back to an optional claiming allowance in February at Gulfstream Park, where Tonalist finished second to eventual Grade 1 Florida Derby winner Constitution and was 3 Â¼ lengths better than Wicked Strong in fourth.
Since then, they have split a pair of graded stakes, with Tonalist taking the final leg of racing's Triple Crown, the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, as Wicked Strong dead-heated for fourth with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome; and Wicked Strong turned the tables on Tonalist in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy on July 26, Saratoga's traditional prep for the Travers.
Trained by Christophe Clement for Robert S. Evans, Tonalist was sidelined by a lung infection following the Gulfstream race until making his comeback with a decisive four-length triumph in the Grade 2 Peter Pan May 10 at Belmont Park.
A bay son of Grade 1 winner Tapit, Tonalist stretches out another furlong from the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy, where he was within a half-length of leader Wicked Strong at the top of the stretch but couldn't get by, beaten 2 Â¼ lengths. The last Belmont Stakes winner to repeat in the Travers was eventual Three-Year-Old Champion Male Summer Bird in 2009.
"I think everything was fine. He just got beat. It's called a horse race, and you get beat sometimes. I don't think he ran a bad race, he just got beat," Clement said. "I'm looking forward to the Travers. I'm looking forward to a mile and a quarter. I'm looking forward to the pace scenario. I'm excited. Let's go."
Joel Rosario will ride Tonalist, 3-1 second choice on the morning line, from post 6. All horses will carry 126 pounds.
Following a disappointing winter campaign where he finished ninth in the Grade 2 Holy Bull prior to his optional claiming allowance defeat, Wicked Strong returned north and cruised to a 3 Â½-length victory in the Grade 1 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
A closing fourth in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, the Hard Spun colt was fitted with blinkers by trainer Jimmy Jerkens for the Jim Dandy. Wicked Strong responded to the change by showing more focus and racing closer to the lead, taking over at the top of the stretch and having plenty left to hold off Tonalist.
"We needed to see that from him," Jerkens said. "He's been slowly developing all along. He certainly didn't run bad in those [Triple Crown] races, but he hadn't put it together like that. It was good to see."
Wicked Strong is attempting to become the 11th horse since 1960 and sixth in the last 12 years to complete the Jim Dandy-Travers double. Seven of the past 10 Travers winners have exited the Jim Dandy, most recently done by Alpha, who dead-heated with Golden Ticket in 2012.
"I'm really happy with where we're at right now," Jerkens said. "He's doing good. We've just got to hold him together another few days until the race."
Jerkens, who won with his only other Travers starter, Afleet Express, in 2010, will also send out V. E. Day in the Travers. The chestnut son of grass champion English Channel has won three straight starts, including the 1 1/8-mile Curlin Stakes at Saratoga on the eve of the Jim Dandy.
"He certainly doesn't have the seasoning the others have, and he's going to have to run even better than he did in the Curlin, that's for sure," Jerkens said. "He's been stepping it up for every other race, so we're hoping he does for this one."
Regular rider Rajiv Maragh will be aboard Wicked Strong, 7-2 third choice on the morning line, while Jerkens has enlilsted Saratoga's meet-leading rider Javier Castellano on V. E. Day, listed at 15-1.
Based in California with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, Bayern is the 2-1 program favorite for the Travers off his dominant front-running triumph in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on July 27, winning by 7 Â¼ lengths in 1:47.82 for 1 1/8 miles.
A troubled ninth in the Grade 1 Preakness on May 17, Bayern cut back to seven furlongs and bounced back to rout the Grade 2 Woody Stephens presented by RTN field by 7 Â½ lengths on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Baffert won the 2001 Travers with eventual Horse of the Year Point Given.
"The Haskell was pretty impressive," Baffert said. "Will he take a step backward? I don't' know, but he looks good. He's not a really big horse, but he's fast. He's a handy horse, and he's got a lot of speed. I'm not totally convinced he can go a mile and a quarter, but he's pretty fast. You just have to let him go and what happens, happens. You can't worry about it. When you have a horse with that kind of brilliant speed, you have to use it."
Martin Garcia, up for the Haskell victory, comes in from California to ride.
Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey is one of only eight trainers with three victories in the Mid-Summer Derby, having won with Easy Goer (1989), Rhythm (1990) and Coronado's Quest (1998). Mr Speaker enters the Travers off a neck victory in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational on July 5 at the 1 Â¼-mile distance.
The Travers will be just the second start on dirt for Mr Speaker, who was seventh in the Grade 2 Holy Bull on January 25 at GulfstreamPark. In his only other non-grass race, the Pulpit colt won the Grade 3 Lexington over Keeneland's all-weather surface in April.
"It's just a matter of whether he takes to the dirt or not," McGaughey said. "He'll be fine if he takes to the dirt. You never know on the dirt when you turn their head loose and ask them to run what they're going to do or if the dirt gets to hitting them. I don't think that will be a problem. If he takes to it and does fine, I think we'll be in the ballgame."
Jose Lezcano will ride Mr Speaker from outside post 10.
Grade 3 Dwyer winner Kid Cruz is one of five Jim Dandy horses targeting the Travers. The late-running son of 1999 Travers winner Lemon Drop Kid was third in the Jim Dandy after an eventful trip. Irad Ortiz Jr., whose hot streak has him closing in on Castellano inSaratoga's jockey standings, get the return call.
A $50,000 claim last fall, Kid Cruz sandwiched wins in the Private Terms and Federico Tesio stakes in Maryland and the Easy Goer and Dwyer in New York around a distant eighth in the Preakness. Trainer Linda Rice is attempting to become the first female to win the Travers.
"He's coming in great," Rice said. "We struggled this spring with him with a shoulder and a pinched nerve at the base of his neck. We missed the Wood Memorial and went to the Tesio instead. The Preakness went poorly but frankly he's coming into this race very well. Despite the fact that the Jim Dandy was kind of an ugly race for us, the goal was to get to the Travers. Hopefully, we'll be ready."
Since breaking his maiden to end his 2-year-old season, Commanding Curve has been fed a steady diet of graded stakes this year. Trained by Dallas Stewart for West Point Thoroughbreds, he was third in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, second by 1 Â¾ lengths in the Kentucky Derby, ninth of 11 in the Belmont and fourth, 2 Â½ lengths behind Kid Cruz, in the Jim Dandy.
"The Travers is a mile and a quarter so, hopefully, it will be the same style as the Derby. He'll be laying back, and he makes that big run," Stewart said. "He's been strong and consistent. Throw out the Belmont and he's been knocking at the door, so we'll see what happens."
Shaun Bridgmohan will ride from post 1.
By two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow and a half-brother to 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, Charge Now dueled with V. E. Day down the stretch before falling a head short in the Curlin. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, runner-up in the 1999 and 2009 Travers, has been eyeing the race for some time.
"I thought Travers six months ago," Mott said. "I think he's got a lot of stamina to him. I think he keeps coming. There's some good horses in there and I'm sure there's some that will get the distance, as well, but I think he ran well enough the other day and is one that just keeps coming. I'd like to give him a try, anyway."
Closing in on 1,000 career wins, Junior Alvarado will ride from post 3.
A former assistant to two-time Travers winner Carl Nafzger, trainer Ian Wilkes will send out both Viva Majorca and Ulanbator. Owned by Marylou Whitney, who won a memorable edition of the Travers 10 years ago with Birdstone, Viva Majorca was fourth by a length in the Curlin despite traffic trouble; while Ulanbator was fifth in the Jim Dandy after running third in the Dwyer and second in the Grade 3 Matt Winn.
"You can't win if I'm in the stall. If I'm in the starting gate, I've got a shot," Wilkes said. "Especially with Viva, he just lacks a bit of seasoning. He's had one two-turn race and one little stakes race; now you're going into the Grade 1 deep end. It's a big test. [Ulanbator] has to step his game up. Both horses do, to have any shot."
Julien Leparoux will ride Viva Majorca from post 5, while Brian Hernandez, Jr. is named aboard Ulanbator from post 9.
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