By Mike Farrell
Saratoga, the legendary “Graveyard of Favorites”, confirmed its well-earned reputation last weekend as Midnight Bisou and Tom’s d’Etat suffered stunning defeats as strongly-backed public choices.
Will Tiz the Law become the next jinxed favorite on Saturday in the $1 million Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1)? The leading 3-year-old in this topsy turvy season is even-money on the morning line against seven rivals in one of the last major tests before the Kentucky Derby (G1) on Sept. 5.
Favorites always carry an extra burden at the Spa.
Midnight Bisou looked unbeatable heading into the Personal Ensign (G1) as the 3-10 favorite. Her backers were ready to celebrate a short-priced victory when Saratoga threw up an impenetrable barrier. Try as she might, Midnight Bisou could not nudge past Vexatious, the 9-1 upsetter throughout a fierce stretch battle. Even a claim of foul by Midnight Bisou’s rider Ricardo Santana, Jr. against the winner could not save the day.
The ghosts of beaten-favorites past reached up to grab Tom’s d’Etat by the hoof as he broke from the gate as the even-money pick in the Whitney (G1). The gallant campaigner came out tangle-footed and dropped back to last. He needed a big rally just to salvage third.
The Travers hasn’t been a picnic for favorites who have won just two of the last 12 runnings.
Tiz the Law has been flawless this year, a perfect 3-for-3 following a decisive win in the Belmont Stakes (G1). He is 5-for-6 overall and now returns to the scene of his debut victory last August.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do,” trainer Barclay Tagg said. “We’ve been very fortunate.”
It will require continued good fortune for the New York bred to overcome the Spa hex on favorites.
Call it a mild upset if Uncle Chuck, the 5-2 second choice, gives trainer Bob Baffert a fourth Travers victory.
Nobody has a deeper bench of top level 3-year-olds than Baffert who keeps rolling right along despite the loss of one top contender after another.
The late developing Uncle Chuck is 2-for-2, and right on schedule for the Kentucky Derby. Had the Derby been run on the traditional first Saturday in May, Uncle Chuck would not be in the picture.
This is no ordinary year and the imposing son of Uncle Mo could be a major force at this 1¼-mile distance.
“The talent is there,” Baffert said. “He’s still just figuring it out and putting it together. I thought the mile-and-a-quarter might be good for him.”
Beyond Tiz the Law and Uncle Chuck, we venture into long shot territory.
Country Grammer, the Peter Pan (G3) winner earlier this meet, and Max Player, a rallying third behind Tiz the Law in the Belmont, are co-third choices at 6-1.
The rest of the field are double digit outsiders: Caracaro (10-1), South Bend (15-1), Shivaree (30-1) and First Line (30-1).
One of the many beauties of Saratoga is the opportunity to wager a little to win a lot in the graded stakes. We’ll see if the old “Graveyard” is planning another chalk burial on Saturday.
The winner is assured a spot in the Kentucky Derby. In this out-of-normal sequence season, the Travers becomes a prep race offering 100 qualifying points to the winner. That’s more than enough for a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on Labor Day weekend.
The Travers is one of three Grade 1 stakes on the program. Fillies and mares are showcased in the other two $300,000 stakes both at 7 furlongs: the Ballerina, a handicap for older runners and the Test for 3-year-olds.
Come Dancing returns to defend her victory in last year’s Ballerina and bids to become only the second two-time Ballerina winner, joining Shine Again (2001-02).
The deep field also includes Serengeti Empress, winner of the 2019 Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Victim of Love who defeated Come Dancing most recently in the Vagrancy Handicap (G3) at Belmont Park.
The Ballerina is a Breeders’ Cup “Win & You’re In” challenge race, guaranteeing the winner a slot in the Filly & Mare Sprint.
Gamine, the winner of the Acorn Stakes (G1) by a dazzling 18¾ lengths for Baffert, is the one to beat in the Test. She is unbeaten in three tries although one victory was deleted following a medication positive.
The Travers Day card, usually the most festive of the season, will be run this time without fans in the stands. The 12-race card begins at 12:05 p.m. ET. FOX will provide live coverage from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.