NBC's "Summer at Saratoga" coverage continues Saturday with the centerpiece of the historic meet, the 142nd running of the $1 million Travers Stakes. It's the oldest race in the United States for 3-year-olds. The races will be televised from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBC.
A chaotic divisional race promises to come into focus in Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes.
The 1 1/4-mile event at Saratoga has championship implications for the top four contenders in the field - Coil, Stay Thirsty, Shackleford and Ruler on Ice. Barring an upset, one of them will take the driver's seat for the Eclipse Award for 3-year-old males and gain big momentum for a Horse of the Year bid.
It's been an unsettled season for 3-year-old males, with no horse posting multiple Grade 1 wins, and the Horse of the Year picture is blurred. The Travers winner will be a serious contender for the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 5.
Coil and Stay Thirsty put themselves in the conversation four weeks ago with impressive wins in the Haskell Invitational and Jim Dandy Stakes, respectively. They're essentially late-comers to the championship party, attempting to become the first horses since Tiznow in 2000 to win champion 3-year-old without capturing a Triple Crown race.
Preakness winner Shackleford and Belmont Stales hero Ruler on Ice own proper credentials, but both will be attempting to regain a little luster following the Haskell, where they finished second and third, respectively.
What makes Coil so exciting is there's no telling how high his ceiling is. Trained by Bob Baffert, who also orchestrated the 2001 Horse of the Year campaign of sire Point Given, the chestnut Coil missed this year's Triple Crown events after making a belated sophomore debut May 6. After winning his first two starts back, including his stakes bow in the Grade 3 Affirmed on June 11, Coil recorded a head second in the July 9 Swaps Stakes.
Coil shrugged off the narrow setback in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell on July 31, overcoming a slow start to win in last-to-first fashion, and netted a commendable 106 BRIS Speed rating while displaying admirable versatility, racing from off the pace for the first time. Jockey Martin Garcia felt the improving colt should have won by considerably more than a neck margin.
"He wanted to look at the other horse," Garcia said after the Haskell, explaining how his mount waited on Shackleford after overhauling his rival in the final eighth of a mile. "I must have switched sticks five times (to keep him focused)."
Baffert is hoping for another jump forward from the maturing 3-year-old.
"This horse doesn't have that foundation (of Preakness, Belmont, Haskell and Travers winner Point Given). He is doing things right now because of raw talent," Baffert told reporters on Tuesday morning. "I think that if your horse is doing well you have to give him a chance to run in the Travers, it is such a prestigious race. His daddy won it, I don't know why he can't."
Stay Thirsty will be looking to emulate his papa, Bernardini, who swept the Jim Dandy and Travers during his championship campaign in 2006. After opening 2011 with an encouraging win in the March 5 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, Stay Thirsty went off the rails in his next two outings, flopping badly in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.
But he turned things around with a game runner-up effort in the Belmont, finishing less than a length back of the winner.
Stay Thirsty continued to blossom in the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy on July 30, netting a 107 BRIS Speed rating for a dominant four-length decision, and has a home-court advantage at the Spa, winning two-of-three starts at Saratoga, the lone defeat a respectable second in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes last year.
Trainer Todd Pletcher recently expressed satisfaction with his colt's preparations.
"Based on the work this morning, I would say he is as good as he was (going into the Jim Dandy), if not better going into (the Travers)," Pletcher commented Sunday following Stay Thirsty's pre-race workout. "He has always run well here and seems to have really flourished since we have been up here."
Coil and Stay Thirsty likely will be one-two in the Travers wagering, in either order.
Shackleford dances every dance. After finishing a head second in the Florida Derby (G1), the Dale Romans-trained colt recorded a fourth in the Kentucky Derby, a half-length score in the Preakness and a fifth in the Belmont. The latter can be excused due to the 1 1/2-mile distance, and Shackleford showed no signs of wear and tear when returning seven weeks later with a good second in the Haskell.
Romans loves his colt's warrior attitude.
"He seems to improve after every race that he's run; he just keeps getting better," Romans stated last weekend. "He's one of the few horses that I've ever had that the more work he does the better he gets. He came out of the Haskell in great shape."
The 1 1/4-mile distance is a potential drawback for the tough competitor, but Shackleford's speed provides him a tactical advantage in a 10-horse Travers field that lacks front runners. As the possible lone speed, Shackleford figures to receive a favorable trip on a moderate pace and his rivals will have to come and get him in the stretch.
After a couple of undistinguished efforts against stakes rivals, Ruler on Ice thrived at the extended Belmont distance, notching a 107 BRIS Speed rating over the sloppy track. He also received an important equipment switch from Kelly Breen that afternoon, adding blinkers.
Ruler on Ice came running too late in the Haskell, rallying past horses in the stretch for third-place honors, but it was a solid race to build upon. The chestnut gelding prefers more ground and his connections are expecting an improved showing in the 10-furlong Travers.
The rest of the Travers field appears up against it - none of the remaining six challengers has a graded stakes win to their credit - and an upset would only cast the three-year-old division into further disarray.