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USUAL CAST OF UNDERSTUDIES HOPES FOR STARRING ROLE IN TRAVERS STAKES
Cast Of 9 Lines Up In The Wings
Not one to claim first hand knowledge as to the motivations of the connections of the 9 three-year olds that will face Triple Crown winner and all but immortal American Pharoah in the $1.6 Million Grade I Mid-Summer Derby at Saratoga on Saturday I have to believe there are a few other incentives beyond "hoped for a miracle."
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Foremost, I would expect, is the purse money. The original amount to bed distributed to the winner and supporting cast runners was $1 million but in order to entice American Pharoah to race in the Travers NYRA officials announced that if the Triple Crown winner entered and ran the purse would be increased to $1.6 Million. That means that the second place finisher will receive at least $320,000 and third place reward is at least $160,000. Outside of the Breeder's Cup these second and third place payouts are more than the win payouts from all but a couple of dozen races yearly.
I would also believe that a second place finish behind American Pharoah, especially if it turns out "somewhat competitive" is close to a Grade I win vs any other "normal" stakes three-year old in 2015 so has some "cred" in future breeding circles.
Most analysts are looking at Texas Red as the closest colt American Pharoah has as a competitor...and the other day his connections were quite candid in admitting they are probably running for second money.
Nonetheless, hope springs eternal so let's look at the "other" nine horses that are going to join American Pharoah for the late afternoon stroll around the 1¼ mile layout at the Spa.
UPSTART (15-1) - Although he finished third behind American Pharoah and Keen Ice in the Grade I Haskell 4 weeks ago that performance had to be a relief to owners Ralph Evans and Winstar Farms and trainer Richard Violette. Following a strong third behind Texas Red in the BC Juvenile the son of Flatter won the Fountain of Youth and ran second in the Florida Derby before coming completely undone in the Kentucky Derby. He did not return to training until late June and the Haskell was his return race. In addition he has trained exceptionally well at Saratoga both before and after the Haskell and will be ridden by daylight leading Spa jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. If back to his pre-Derby form he is as likely as any to make noise.
MID OCEAN (50-1) - The George Weaver trained son of Mineshaft swill b making his 7th career start. Unfortunately his 6th career start was finally his maiden breaker. Maybe the connections believe in his progress or maybe they believe the supporting cast is soft enough to be vulnerable. Either way he'll have to improve about 15 lengths off his career best 89 BRIS speed number if he wants even a piece of the action.
TEXAS RED (8-1) - The son of 2005 Preakness (Alex's amazing recovery from his in-race stumble and victory is still worth watching) and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex was a promising third behind American Pharoah in the Grade I Front Runner last Fall at Santa Anita and then sent on to pull the upset in the Grade I BC Juvenile when Pharoah as declared due to injury. Texas Red returned to begin his Triple Crown preps by running second in the one turn Grade II San Vicente but then he also was injured and missed all three Crown tests. The Keith Desormeaux trainee finally returned to the races to run second in the Grade III Dwyer at Belmont on July 4th and won the Grade II Jim Dandy here 4 weeks back, a race in which he beat Belmont Stakes runner-up Frosted and the well-regarded Japan, who has since been injured. This is his third off the layoff and his works say he is moving forward so is a logical contender.
FRAMMENTO (30-1) - The Nick Zito trained son of Midshipman is still eligible for non-winners of 2 races lifetime and has been dusted by American Pharoah by 12 and 15 lengths respectively in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Of course more than one commentator will bring up 2004 when Zito's Birdstone upset Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes and mention a few of the trainer's Saratoga upsets but Frammento is no Birdstone and Zito doesn't have the stock he once had. The colt did plod along for 3rd in the Fountain Of Youth and 4th in the Blue Grass but hasn't come close since. Even hopes for completing the superfecta would depend on much going wrong for a number of runners in better form.
FROSTED (6-1) - The son of Tapit followed up a win in the Grade I Wood Memorial with a slightly troubled 4th (beaten 3¼ lengths in the Kentucky Derby and a second in the Belmont Stakes. In the Derby he was off slowly before rallying but has more tactical speed than he showed that day and in his last test he prepped for this by making a 3 wide move in the 4 horse Jim Dandy before falling a half length short of Texas Red. His talent is not questioned but in 10 career races he has just two wins while playing the runner-up role on six occasions. Jockey Joel Rosario has been his regular pilot and trainer Kieran McLaughlin won't keep running them if he doesn't consider them close to or at the top of their game and the colt's ability to "stay on" will serve him well. While his resume says he plays the supporting role again he has been more consistent in that role than most in here so is worthy of second favoritism...although the guess here is that Texas Red will go off the second favorite and Frosted the third.
KEEN ICE (12-1) - Like Frammento, this son of Curlin is still eligible for non-winners of two lifetime despite having made 10 starts and earning over $640,000. And like his sire he also appears to be a late developer as his last two races, third behind American Pharoah in the Belmont Stakes and second behind him in the Haskell. The Dale Romans trainee was never close to threatening Pharoah in either of those races though his late running style allowed him to pick up pieces after others had done the dirty work of attempting to challenge the champ. Keen Ice just might do the same again here and will be ridden for the first time by Javier Castellano who replaces Kent Desormeaux who in turn, of course, pilots Texas Red.
TALE OF VERVE (30-1) - His upset second in the Preakness Stakes when beaten 7 lengths by American Pharoah to complete a $124.40 Exacta was more likely a result of winning the war of attrition over the horrendous surface deluged by rain prior to the race. In his two subsequent starts the son of Tale Of Ekati was never a factor, beaten 20 lengths in the Belmont Stakes and never a menace when 6th in the West Virginia Derby behind a group of five opponents, none of which are running in the Travers. Trainer Dallas Stewart might have pulled off a pair of longshot seconds in the Kentucky Derby in 2014 and 2013 but he is still a 2% trainer in graded stakes races and Tale Of Verve has never won a race on fast dirt. He is tough to endorse.
KING OF NEW YORK (50-1) - This guy would truly be the King of New York if he pulled the upset but he'll have very few subjects backing him when he enters the gate, The son of Street Boss has won 2 of 13 races in his career, one on turf and one on a sloppy surface...neither of which he'll discover on Saturday. He has never surpassed an 89 BRIS speed number on any surface while American Pharoah's lowest figure during his eight race streak is 95 with five races creating a triple digit number. Furthermore, Texas Red, Frosted, Keen Ice and Smart Transition have each easily surpassed that number in their last 5 races. Add in trainer Ken McPeek's struggles at the meet, no wins, one second and three thirds from twenty-six starters entering racing on Wednesday and this guy seems well up against it.
SMART TRANSITION 20-1) - If they would allow the public to place an early bet on which runners in the Travers would go off at post time the lowest below his morning line the bet here would be this late developing son of Smart Strike. After an even fourth in the one mile/one turn Dwyer Stakes at Belmont on July 4th he returned to run a sparkling race in the ungraded Curlin Stakes here on July 31. It seems that every year a late developing three-year old makes some noise in the Travers and this is the 2015 candidate. Although he is only 2-for-6 in his career it is worth noting that those two wins came in the only two races in his career when he has been around two turns, and he is no more an outsider than V.E. Day, who exited the Curlin to win the Travers last year at $41.00. Continued improvement and a heady ride by the meet's third leading jockey John Velazquez could easily earn this John Shirreffs trained colt one of those juicy "underneath" purse payoffs.
I mentioned yesterday that even with American Pharoah doing his thing at odds-on the contention for completing the "understudy roles" is deep enough that the right combination should be decent enough. There are no "cold" exacta or trifecta scenarios in this one.