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Picture: Three-time Grade 2-winner Epicenter (Not This Time), who was also runner up in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (ESPN). 


5 Grade 1 Blockbuster Card At Saratoga On Saturday Night (Watch Live on Channel 240)

Nicholas Godfrey of examines the $1.25m highlight of a blockbuster programme at Saratoga on Saturday.
Saratoga’s ‘midsummer derby’, the Travers Stakes, is often considered an unofficial fourth leg to the Triple Crown – and ahead of this Saturday’s £$1.25 million renewal, live on Sky Sports Racing, the US Classic generation could certainly do with Saturday’s feature providing a bit of clarity.
First things first: this is a potentially thrilling eight-runner event, featuring four Grade 1 scorers, among them the winners of both the Kentucky Derby (Rich Strike) and Preakness Stakes (Early Voting). Belmont Stakes winner Mo Donegal would presumably also be involved, if he hadn’t been sidelined with a spot of bone bruising.
Watch the Runhappy Travers Stakes from live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 27th August.
So far, so good. The issue is that the three-year-old division is all over the place – to the extent that the generational leader as it stands may be that wonderful filly Nest, who has beaten Kentucky Oaks winner Sacred Oath twice at Saratoga in recent weeks after her game runner-up effort against the boys in the Belmont.
Indeed, such is the relative lack of lustre among the Triple Crown types that Nest is one of only two three-year-olds to feature in this week’s latest update of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s (NTRA) Top Ten Thoroughbred Poll. In effect, this amounts to a regular weekly ballot of Eclipse Award voters who list their top horses on a points basis; a sort of running ‘Horse of the Year’ ballot.
Normally, given the pre-eminence of the Triple Crown, you would expect the list to be flush with three-year-olds. Not this time: Nest is number four, behind leading older horses Life Is Good, Flightline and Jackie’s Warrior (who also runs elsewhere on Saturday’s blockbuster programme).
Number five in the NTRA poll is likely Travers favourite Epicenter – which seems as good a place as any for a quick jog-trot through Saturday’s line-up which, despite previous observations, looks pretty darned hot!
And yes, they are in order of preference, before you ask.
Steve Asmussen/Joel Rosario (post 6)
Has to be regarded as pro tem top dog among three-year-old males, but the absence of a Grade 1 win in his CV is a negative. That said, never runs a bad race, and was second in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, looking especially unlucky as market leader in the former where he fought off a dogged Zandon before getting chinned by rank outsider Rich Strike. Beat Zandon again in the G2 Jim Dandy, the main Saratoga trial for this, coming from last of four. Only horse in the field with more than one triple-digit Beyer, and now has a proper chance to stamp authority on this muddled division. Expect him to track Early Voting and Cyberknife and pounce in stretch.
Steve Asmussen says: “He’s arguably the best three-year-old in the division despite not having a Grade 1 win that he needs. We’ve all witnessed his Classic defeats with our mouths agape. But watching that happen in the Derby and the Preakness, we realise how fortunate we have to be. It looks like an incredible field, and I imagine all eyes will be on him on the grandstand and the racetrack.”
Chad Brown/Irad Ortiz (post 5)
One of three to represent trainer who is runaway leader of Saratoga meet standings, this is a Juddmonte homebred whose career record coming in bears more than a passing resemblance to that orgainsation’s world champion Arrogate, who broke through to the top level with such a spectacular triumph here in 2016. With only three runs in his life, this one arrives with similar lack of seasoning, but he was hugely impressive on two-turn debut in the Listed Curlin Stakes last month over a furlong shorter, easily beating Travers rival Gilded Age. Bred in the purple, dam is multilple G1 winner Paulassilverlining. Exciting; could easily upset the applecart.
Chad Brown says: “The horse brought himself here since we got him to his debut at Keeneland. Moving forward, he’s always worked right on schedule, and he’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do,” Brown added. “He’s been stretching out nicely and his first two-turn race was impressive, his best race. I have a lot of optimism that horse will be able to carry another eighth of a mile.”
Chad Brown/Jose Ortiz (post 7)
Forward-going type justified decision to bypass Kentucky Derby by beating Epicenter in Preakness Stakes and owns best Beyer speed figure (105) in the Travers. Also beaten by only subsequent Belmont winner Mo Donegal in Wood Memorial. Races spaced out and still looks pretty green, and while it was disappointing to see him weaken to last of four in the Jim Dandy, he had been away for three months and that was a prep race. While the Preakness played well for prominent runners, he doesn’t face any real need-the-lead speed rivals here so could get a really favourable set-up.
Chad Brown says: “It seemed like he was on a deep, tiring rail [in the Jim Dandy] and I probably didn’t have the horse fit enough either. He is working better now, or I wouldn’t run him. I had the option not to run him from the owner. In fact, it appeared after the Jim Dandy that we weren’t going to run him. The horse brought himself into the race the way he worked and trained.”
Chad Brown/Flavien Prat (post 8)
Blue Grass winner has always been highly rated, and a game third in Kentucky Derby, having been produced from mid-division to challenge in the stretch. Mind you, had every chance to better Epicenter there and couldn’t do it, suggesting this mile and a quarter is far enough; still, decent second again to Epicenter after three-month layoff in Jim Dandy, and clearly not far behind that one. Chad Brown, who also runs Early Voting and Artorius, might have a few domestic travails at present but he’s hard to beat at this venue. One of several likely to come from off the pace. Outside post.
Chad Brown says: “He’s going to have to save some ground into the first turn – he might be in a race that lacks pace, which goes against him. Zandon will have to find a way to turn the tables on Epicenter. He’s had dead aim on him twice now and couldn’t get by him. Now he has to do it going a mile and a quarter, so he has his work cut out for him.”
Brad Cox/Florent Geroux (post 1)
Owner Al Gold named son of Gun Runner after a treatment for prostate cancer using what is described as “one-of-a-kind robotic technology”, whatever that is. Either way, it clearly worked for Mr Gold, and they’ve got plenty of advertising via the horse, who is the sole dual G1 winner in the race, having last month added the $1m Haskell to his Arkansas Derby victory (beat subsequent Kentucky Oaks winner Sacred Oath). Stayed on strongly on rail at Monmouth Park in track-record time, suggesting this extra distance will be right up his alley. One serious blot on chestnut’s copybook came when a dull 18th in Kentucky Derby, though he paid the price for chasing a stupid pace, and won next time at same venue. Haskell form is strong – G1 winners Taiba and Jack Christopher were second and third. Brad Cox won this last year with Essential Quality.
Brad Cox says: “We’ve had luck shipping in here. With his situation, having run at Monmouth, the owner being a local Saratoga guy, I thought it made the most sense for him to come up here. He’s had three works over the track – he looks fantastic, so we’re set up.”
Eric Reed/Sonny Leon (post 2)
You’ll have deduced from this lowly ranking that I don’t trust the Kentucky Derby form. Though that 80-1 shocker was a fairytale result was for little-known connections, the race absolutely fell apart after a couple of overseas riders who should’ve known better treated the first half of the race like the July Cup, and this unheralded colt got a dream run through. Trainer took the less-than-romantic decision to skip the Preakness because they felt the Belmont was his ideal spot. He was sixth of eight, never landing a blow (admittedly, raced a touch keen). Surely won’t get his preferred set-up here. Hard to fancy – surely Kentucky was a fluke? – though frankly I’d be delighted to end up with egg on face. Street Sense in 2007 was most recent to complete Kentucky Derby/Travers Stakes double.
Eric Reed says: “We just have to get a trip and see if he can do what he did all year and that’s finish strong. His running style makes him hard to pick no matter what. He can be in a Grade 3 somewhere and have a hard time getting by the horses unless he decides to show some speed one of these days out of the gate. He’s got all the speed in the world, but for whatever reason he wants to spot these horses.” (speaking to Daily Racing Form)
Bill Mott/Junior Alvarado (post 4)
Yet to win a stakes, and thus hard to fancy in this sort of company. Promising enough in late-running second to Travers rival Artorius last time but hard to see royally-bred son of Medaglia d’Oro turning the tables. Dead-late closer should like distance but will he get the pace he needs to run at? Unlikely winner.
Kelly von Hemel/Tyler Gaffalione (post 3)
Iowa-bred won Iowa Derby; longshot status looks accurate. Has won five out of eight at Prairie Meadows but it’s a long way from Altoona to Saratoga. Would appreciate a big pace tear-up but probably won’t get it. Victory would be shock to rival those for which the ‘Graveyard of Champions’ is notorious.

Kelly von Hemel says: “He’s settled in really well. He’s trained well over the track, he’s keeping his weight good, his energy level is really good. We don’t know what quality, but he is a mile-and-an-eighth, mile-and-a-quarter horse for sure.”