No offense to Pyro, but I was pretty surprised when he was named the 7–2 morning-line favorite of the $1 million Travers Stakes set for this Saturday. Maybe the bettors are feeling the field is pretty wide open, as the race is yet another virtual “best of” the Triple Crown contenders, with some exceptions. Come post time, I have serious doubts the winner of the Louisiana Derby will still be the odds-on favorite. Among Pyro, Colonel John, Tale of Ekati, Cool Coal Man, Da’ Tara, Macho Again, Court Vision, and Tres Borrachos, I think the horse to beat is an outsider—one Harlem Rocker.
Unbeaten on dirt, Harlem Rocker is the winner of the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, the 1 3/16-mile Prince of Wales Stakes. He comes with the reputation that of all the horses Rick Dutrow was nervous about sending Big Brown up against, this was one of them. That was before Big Brown’s Black Belmont, naturally. In Harlem Rocker’s only defeat, on the synthetic surface at Woodbine, the gray colt finished fourth. I find it easy to throw out a synthetic loss due to the fact so many good dirt horses seem to be tripped up by it; but the one kink in the colt’s record is that he’s never gone the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Travers.
That’s where Pyro’s got him. In his last start, the bay colt lost by a neck to Macho Again as he ran out of track. Had the race been just as much longer, Pyro would have easily gotten up to win. It’s become a bad habit of him to hang back and wait until the last minute to pounce. And as he has drawn the 11th post position, chances are we are up for another late-coming Pyro race. What I would like to see from Pyro is for him to not fall to the back of the pack at the beginning of the race and stay more middle-placed. There will be some speed in the race, thanks to Da’ Tara and Tizbig, a horse who’s won once in 12 starts. For Pyro to have a nice closing kick, he really needs the pace to be set up decently, and judging from the Jim Dandy, Da’ Tara really likes to battle for the lead. Note that the two speed horses have drawn post positions 3 and 4. I say the beginning of the race should be about as interesting as the end.
Pyro is a stalker and he is going to have to act like one in this race. With his late kick, he’s going to have to keep an eye on Harlem Rocker, though he’s certainly not the only horse worth chasing. Mambo in Seattle has proven to be a worthy contender, though in lesser graded company. Also, Tres Borrachos showed he could upset the betting darlings when he turned the tables on Colonel John in the Grade II Swaps Stakes, squeezing through on the rail to steal the win. Macho Again could be peaking, with his narrow victory in the Jim Dandy and his second place finish to Big Brown in the Preakness. So in other words, it’s easy to see why the bettors are only making mild favorites for the Travers.
The winner of the Grade I Travers will add prestige to his name and a wad of cash to his bank account. For some, the race seems like a long shot, and others, a major test. It is one of the oldest Thoroughbred races in North America, and one of the most highly regarded. Run on the historic Saratoga Race Track, the Travers Stakes has seen some of the Greats, from Native Dancer to Damascus, Buckpasser to Man o’ War and saw the final duel between Affirmed and Alydar. Seen as the pinnacle of racing in the hallowed summer days at the Spa, the Travers is a tradition that will place its winner in a certain class. It is more than fitting that in a year where there are no stand-outs, excepting the one not appearing in this race, the field for the Travers will be the largest in 18 years. It is the summer Derby, weeding out those who will step up to the challenge.
Can Pyro finally score his Grade I win? Will Harlem Rocker prove he can handle the classic distance? Will Nick Zito upset again? Or will another horse arise as a late-blooming champion?
The Travers will be aired on ESPN, with coverage beginning at 4:30pm ET. Post time is scheduled for 5:45pm ET. TVG and HRTV will also be covering the race as well as the undercards.
Field and Odds for the 139th Running of the Travers Stakes:
- Tale of Ekati (20–1)
- Colonel John (8–1)
- Da’ Tara (8–1)
- Tizbig (30–1)
- Macho Again (6–1)
- Cool Coal Man (15–1)
- Amped (30–1)
- Harlem Rocker (4–1)
- Mambo in Seattle (5–1)
- Tres Borrachos (15–1)
- Pyro (7–2)
- Court Vision (12–1)