A quartet of Grade 1 winners will square off in Saturday's 145th running of the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course and the 1 1/4-mile race could have serious championship implications in the three-year-old division.
Live coverage of the Travers will be part of NBC Sports Network's national telecast from 4:30 to 6 p.m. (EDT). The Travers has a scheduled post time of 5:46 p.m.
The strong 10-horse field is headed by the up-and-coming Bayern, who broke through with his first official graded stakes victory (disqualified from a narrow win in the Derby Trial) when capturing the seven-furlong Woody Stephens by a resounding 7 1/2-length margin on the June 7 Belmont Stakes undercard.
The Bob Baffert-trained colt prove to be no one-turn wonder when stretching back out to a route in the July 27 Haskell Invitational, romping by 7 1/4 lengths in the prestigious 1 1/8-mile test at Monmouth Park, and Bayern will now attempt to carry his speed an extra furlong Saturday.
Favored at 2-1 on the morning line, the son of Offlee Wild drew well on the inside for his front-running style (post No. 2) and Martin Garcia retains the mount.
"The Haskell was pretty impressive," Baffert said of Bayern, who made his career debut on January 4 and has earned more than $1 million while winning four of seven starts. "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."
The Travers marks the third stakes match-up between Tonalist and Wicked Strong, who have split their past meetings and are listed as the respective 3-1 and 7-2 second and third choices on the morning line.
Tonalist made his stakes debut a winning one in the May 10 Peter Pan, scoring by four easy lengths in the slop at Belmont Park, and the Tapit colt followed with an excellent tally in the final jewel of the Triple Crown, gamely capturing the Belmont Stakes by a head with Wicked Strong two lengths back in fourth. Tonalist was favored at 4-5 in his Travers prep, the July 26 Jim Dandy, but wound up finishing second, 2 1/4 lengths behind Wicked Strong.
Joel Rosario rides the classic winner for trainer Christophe Clement.
"From (post) 5 on up, that was good for us," assistant trainer Christophe Lorieul said after Tonalist received post 6. "We didn't want to get stuck on the inside. He has tactical speed, but it really is his game being close up and behind horses. He wants to be in the clear. He has a very long stride.
"(Bayern) probably will go for it. We've got Wicked Strong outside of us (in post 7), and he might go a little bit, too. It could be a good set-up. We don't want to be as wide as we were in the Jim Dandy, so (Rosario) will have to tuck him in a bit more. It's an extra furlong (compared to the Jim Dandy), but I think the horse needed the race last time. He's had two good works since then."
Wicked Strong added blinkers for the Jim Dandy and raced more forwardly than his previous starts. A close third when concluding his juvenile campaign in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct, the Hard Spun colt returned this year with a pair of disappointing efforts at Gulfstream Park. He rebounded back in New York, taking the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial by 3 1/2 lengths, but experienced a troubled trip finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby.
After a fourth in the Belmont Stakes, Jimmy Jerkens stated his disappointment, noting that Wicked Strong ran only in spots, and the trainer decided to add blinkers for the Jim Dandy. Wicked Strong closely tracked the pacesetter in second before seizing control at the conclusion of the far turn, and proceeded to easily repel the rally of Tonalist in midstretch.
"It definitely made him get on the bit," Jerkens said of the decision to add blinkers. "Rajiv (Maragh) sent him away from there a little bit, too, so I think it was a little bit of both. I don't think they made him rank by any means. It was a combination of blinkers and Rajiv sending him from there because he wanted to get a nice spot going into the turn that made him close to the pace.
"I don't think it's going to make him rank by any means. I can't deny that he does seem to run straighter and truer with them on, no question."
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.
Maragh was pleased post 7.
"I think it's a great post. It gives us some options," the jockey said. "We're posted outside most of the speed horses, and it seems like a very ideal situation. I would think that Tonalist might show a little more speed; he was pretty close to the lead in the Belmont. The No. 7 post gives me a lot of options to see how the race unfolds and pick a good spot. We'll play it by ear and see how the race is going.
"The great thing with Wicked Strong is you can adjust with him; he doesn't have one specific running style. He's won close to the lead like last time and also has won from pretty much off the pace. Our hands aren't tied to doing anything specific."
Mr Speaker will be seeking his first win on dirt following a terrific turf victory in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby, defeating Irish invader Adelaide by a length. He was flattered when that rival came back to capture last Saturday's Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington as the heavy favorite.
By Pulpit and out of an Unbridled mare, Mr Speaker is bred to relish the main track. But his successes have come strictly on turf and synthetics so far, including a four-length triumph in the Lexington on Keeneland's Polytrack. He didn't run well when trying Gulfstream Park's main track earlier this season, finishing a well-beaten seventh in the Holy Bull, but Shug McGaughey is hopeful that his charge will show more on Saratoga's dirt track.
"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."
The Hall of Famer 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 shows a couple of fast works on the Saratoga main track this month and will break from the far outside post Saturday with Jose Lezcano.
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.
Four-time stakes hero Kid Cruz will look to improve upon his third-place effort in the Jim Dandy. A sharp winner of the Grade 3 Dwyer and the Easy Goer in his two previous outings at Belmont Park, the late-running son of Lemon Drop Kid will keep Irad Ortiz Jr. in the saddle.
"He's coming in great," trainer Linda Rice said of Kid Cruz, who was claimed for $50,000 from his second career start in late November. "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 (April 19) Tesio (at Pimlico) 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."
Kid Cruz, who can provide Rice with the first Travers victory by a female trainer, raced closer than normal during the early stages of the Jim Dandy, dropped back going down the backstretch, and came again late for third.
Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve, fourth in the Jim Dandy, is also entered. The Dallas Stewart trainee breaks from the innermost post with Shaun Bridmohan.
Rounding out the Travers field are Charge Now and Viva Majorca, the second- and fourth-place finishers in the Curlin; and Jim Dandy fifth-placer and Grade 3 runner-up Ulanbator.