Pricci's Saratoga Diary
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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rider’s Race: Post Draw to Dictate Travers Strategy

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 21, 2013—With regard to Thoroughbred racing’s handicapping puzzle, there sometimes is a tendency to overblow the importance of post positions.

All know the obvious caveats: You never want the rail or extreme outside post in baby races; the fence can intimidate or trap a horse, and inexperienced youngsters often bear out from an outside post, taking away most strategic options.

No one wants the extreme outside with a short run to the first turn over any surface; particularly going two turns on grass, and the connections of horses with tactical speed generally want to draw outside major speed rivals to better facilitate a winning strategy.

In Saturday’s mile and a quarter Travers Stakes, the importance of the post draw is somewhat mitigated by a long enough run into the first turn as to give rival jockeys options, a poor start notwithstanding.

But don’t play down the importance of post positions to Todd Pletcher who will saddle the first two betting choices—Wood Memorial and Haskell winner Verrazano (2-1) and Jim Dandy and Belmont Stakes winning Palace Malice (5-2)--in what figures to be a highly contentious 144th renewal of Midsummer’s Derby.

There was one dramatic interlude in this morning’s Travers post draw. Two posts remained, #3 and #7, and Verrazano’s name was yet to be drawn from the entry box. “Number 7 is War Dancer,” which left the 3 to Verrazano, a position inside the very speedy Moreno in slip #6.

“The post does matter,” said Pletcher when asked about the draw. “I would have wanted 7 on the outside. Ideally both horses are stalkers, but Johnny [Velazquez] knows him and it looks like there’s an honest pace in here.”

It was the last phrase which indicated that Pletcher was not about to give away the strategy both favorites would use on Saturday. All that’s at stake is a possible three-year-old championship no matter how racing this fall shakes out.

One notion can be inferred from the Travers draw. Successful Jim Dandy prepster Palace Malice, having drawn #8, will be positioned off Moreno’s right hip in the run to the first turn.

Had Oxbow not been relegated to the sidelines with a season ending injury, this Travers would have been in the conversation as the best ever run.

It certainly could give the 1987 renewal, regarded by many as the best of the modern era, featuring Java Gold (1st), Cryptoclearance (2nd), Polish Navy (3rd), Gulch (4th), Bet Twice (5th) and Alysheba (6th).

Parenthetically, Gulch went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint the following year and dual Classics winning Alysheba, despite his Travers defeat, was still voted 3-year-old champion and the following year won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, giving him the older horse and 1988 Horse of the Year titles.

The remainder of Saturday’s field, with post position and early line odds, includes Curlin Stakes winner via disqualification 1-Romansh (12-1); Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby winner 2-Orb (4-1); Derby runnerup 4-Golden Soul (20-1);Rebel winner and Jim Dandy runnerup 5-Will Take Charge (10-1) and Curlin first finisher 9-Transparent (10-1).

From post 3, Johnny Velazquez will still have some options to play it off the break, his position being far enough away from the fence so as not to get him jammed up inside.

With his speed, it’s likely that Pletcher and Velazquez would prefer to break sharply, taking some sting out of Moreno in the run to the first turn before allowing him to take the lead so that he can move Verrazano to a position outside the likely frontrunner.

Meanwhile, Mike Smith and Palace Malice will not be far away. The captivating moment will come when Smith puts some pressure on Verrazano to go after Moreno, forcing him to take the advantage or get caught between Moreno and Palace Malice’s momentum.

This is a likely scenario on paper but the drama will play out between the fences and not on the printed page.

Orb from his inside post—“like Todd, I wanted to be outside,” said Shug McGaughey, likely will be tucked up inside but will also want to move out for clear running. Orb showed watchful Triple Crown observers his propensity for racing outside rivals.

Most of America’s best three year olds are getting together in Saturday’s mile and a quarter but, even at that, Travers 144 looks more and more like a rider’s race.

“You would hope they wouldn’t get in each other’s way,” Pletcher said last weekend when asked about the similar running style of his pair. But Verrazano also appears to be more comfortable racing on the outside.

After this morning’s post draw, little has changed in that regard. Position and style are just two more elements that make Saturday’s renewal so compelling.

Written by John Pricci

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