By Ed McNamara
Bob Baffert, underdog?
Four months ago, Baffert had three undefeated 3-year-olds – Nadal, Charlatan and Authentic. On Saturday, he will challenge Tiz the Law in the $1 million Travers Stakes without any of them.
Nadal suffered a career-ending injury, Charlatan is being rested because of a sore ankle, and Haskell winner Authentic is being trained up to the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby.
The all-time leader with 16 Triple Crown wins will send out the inexperienced but brilliant Uncle Chuck, 2-for-2 by 11 lengths and with the potential to be Baffert’s next star.
“He’s got a huge stride and he’s really quick on his feet,” Baffert said. “So far he’s done everything right, but he’s still green. He still looks around. He’s still growing into himself, and I think the Travers will be a good spot for him.”
If anyone but Baffert were sending a colt into a 1¼-mile Grade 1 in only his third start, few would give him a chance. But doubting perhaps the best main-track trainer ever is dangerous. Uncle Chuck, a son of standout sire Uncle Mo, convinced Baffert to ship him to Saratoga with a bullet 5-furlong workout in 1:00.20 Sunday at Del Mar.
Four years ago, Baffert ran a colt with a similar running style and body type in the Travers. Arrogate went off at odds of 11-1, which proved to be the overlay of the century when he flew away by 13½ lengths in a track-record 1:59.36.
Baffert sees similarities between the late bloomers, neither of whom ran at 2. One big difference is you won’t get rich off Uncle Chuck, the 5-2 second favorite in the morning line behind even-money Tiz the Law.
“Uncle Chuck is a big, long, lanky horse, and I had no intention to run him as a 2-year-old,” Baffert said. “We took our time with him and just let him grow into himself. It’s the same thing that happened with Arrogate.”
To defeat Tiz the Law, Uncle Chuck must make a quantum leap and hope the Belmont Stakes hero regresses. Tiz the Law is 5-for-6 for trainer Barclay Tagg and 3-for-3 this year. Co-owner Jack Knowlton is confident his New York-bred superstar is ready for another big effort.
“He’s won each of his races this year convincingly,” Knowlton said. “Manny Franco hasn’t really had to dig deep with him, and everything we’ve seen from him is that he’ll relish a mile-and-a-quarter.”
Baffert knows getting a fourth Travers trophy won’t be easy.
“I’ve been very impressed with Tiz the Law,” he said. “They’ve managed him very well and picked the right spots for him. I think he’s progressed perfectly, and he’s definitely the best 3-year-old in the country right now. We’re going to see if Uncle Chuck can run with him.”
Let’s see if we can hit the pick 5 starting with the seventh race, the Ballerina. I’m proposing a $40.50 investment (3 x 3 x 3 x 1 x 3) on a .50 base bet.
Serengeti Empress (1) needs the lead and will gun from the rail. She’ll either go wire to wire, as she did in last year’s Kentucky Oaks, or fade in midstretch. She ran a close second to eventual female sprint champion Covfefe in the Test Stakes last year, so she likes the track. If she doesn’t win, Bellafina (4) and Come Dancing (7) are the most logical alternatives. Bellafina was third in last year’s Test. Stalker Come Dancing has lost three in a row but is 2-for-3 at Saratoga, including an easy win in last year’s Ballerina.
Imprimis (1) is 7-for-11 at the distance and the best closer in a speed-packed field of seven. He makes his 2020 debut after losing his last four races last season, but all could be forgiven. After a respectable sixth at Royal Ascot behind English superstars Blue Point and Battaash, he ran a close-up fourth at quirky Kentucky Downs. He was third in the Grade 2 Woodford at Keeneland before finishing his year by running sixth, beaten only four lengths, in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
That may sound like a lot of excuses, but Imprimis is training well and has won off a long layoff. His main rivals are Shekky Shebaz (4) and Pure Sensation (5), both trained by streaking Christophe Clement. I’ll be using all three.
I’ll also be using three horses in this grass marathon for older fillies and mares. Mrs. Sippy (1) makes her season debut for Graham Motion, who somehow started the meet 0-for-11. She’s a horse for course after taking the 1 3/8-mile Glens Falls at the Spa last August. She’ll have to beat Clement’s Olympic Games (5), making her third start off a layoff. She ran second in her last two, and both were eventful trips. With a smooth run she could break through.
Chad Brown’s My Sister Nat will draw money, but she’s 0-for-5 in the U.S. and winless since September 2018. I prefer Brown’s other runner, Fools Gold (7), who won this race last year. She had no chance last time, when she faded to fifth after chasing quality front-runner Mean Mary through crawling fractions in the 1¼-mile New York Handicap. She’ll be much tighter in her second try off a long layoff.
Baffert’s superfreak Gamine (5) has never been anywhere but on the lead in three races, which also is how Venetian Harbor (6) likes to run. If they hook up, they could cook each other and open the door for a long shot, but I couldn’t tell you who that might be.
Venetian Harbor has more experience, and her early-pace figures are comparable to Gamine’s, but Gamine took her two one-turn races by a total of 24¼ lengths. She won by a head over Speech, who then beat Venetian Harbor by three lengths. Gamine is also a much better finisher, so I’ll single her. But if you wanted to add Venetian Harbor to your ticket, I wouldn’t try to talk you out of it.
Can Tiz the Law be beaten? Is Uncle Chuck the Next Big Thing?
Tiz the Law (6) never has run a subpar race, is training exceptionally well and dominated at Saratoga in his debut last Aug. 8. A year later, he’s the undisputed king of the 3-year-olds. His New York-based owners would love to win the Travers, so he’ll be fully cranked, not just be prepping for the Derby.
Uncle Chuck (3) could be another demon for Baffert. In only his second start, he glided to a four-length rout of stablemate Thousand Words, who last week came back to upset Honor A.P., the West Coast’s top-rated Derby prospect. If Tiz the Law isn’t himself, Uncle Chuck could win.
My long shot stab is Max Player (4), who closed well (11 4/5 seconds) in the final furlong of the Belmont to be third, 5¼ lengths behind Tiz the Law. He’s a grinder who might find 1¼ miles to his liking, and I’m pretty sure he’ll be moving better in the stretch than many of the others. Occasionally the Travers is a battle of attrition, and if it is, Max Player could move up. Or finish fifth. I’ll pay a few extra dollars to find out.
Country Grammer and Caracaro ran 1-2, respectively, separated by a neck in the Spa’s Peter Pan, and if you use one, you have to use the other. I’ll take my chances that neither is that good and won’t use either.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.