The Dwyer Stakes, held at Belmont Park on Independence Day - July 4, is usually a prudent choice for horses catching up on conditioning with the Triple Crown contestants. To a lesser degree, the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, scheduled for July 14, is an option for West Coast-based three-year-olds.
Neither of these races, however, seems to get as much attention, or shall we say “intention,” as two later races, both held in early August. The $1 million Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth and the $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga are the preps for the Midsummer Derby – the Derby that every Johnny-come-lately seems to covet, the $1 million Travers.
“Right now, I’m planning on races like the Dwyer, Jim Dandy and Travers,” said Barclay Tagg, trainer of Nobiz Like Showbiz, who was a “no show” in Baltimore.
“The main goal will be the Travers,” announced Nick Zito, hoping to avoid CPR with CP West.
There have been 137 Travers and perhaps that’s what makes the stake’s lure so enticing. Horses such as Man O’ War, Whirlaway, Buckpasser, Damascus and Point Given have won it.
But it’s rare when a Triple Crown race winner finds his way into the Travers winner’s circle, a little less rare when a Kentucky Derby winner makes it, and even rarer when the big predicted showdown of spring actually takes place at the Spa.
This in no way diminishes the importance of the Travers as a graded stakes. It only points to the folly of believing that it serves as a reunion of the spring’s best three-year-olds.
Only three Kentucky Derby winners in the last 64 years have won the Travers. With the exception of Thunder Gulch in 1995 (the Derby winner at 25-1) and Sea Hero (at 13-1) in 1993, statisticians have to go back to Shut Out in 1942 to find a Travers winner that three months prior to the Travers was the toast of the nation.
There have been only three Preakness winners to annex the Travers in the last 39 years, and none of them won the Derby. Damascus was undoubtedly the best three-year-old of 1967 and Point Given was without comparison in 2001. But the third Preakness/Travers winner of these four decades was Bernardini – a great horse, no doubt, but one who wasn’t tested by Barbaro.
Eight Belmont Stakes winners in the last 39 years have triumphed in the Travers, but three of them (Point Given, Thunder Gulch and Damascus) were also Kentucky Derby or Preakness winners. So, for the long period of 1967 to 2006, the tally of Triple Crown race winners to come back to win at Saratoga in late August is 11.
More troubling, however, is the roster of Triple Crown heroes who never even made the Travers. Count such crowd-stirring champions such as Barbaro (2006), Afleet Alex (2005), Smarty Jones (2004), Funny Cide (2003), War Emblem (2002) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) in that august group. Go back a little farther, and you can list Kentucky Derby/Preakness winners Charismatic (1999), Real Quiet (1998) and Silver Charm (1997) among Travers absentees.
Make little of all this, of course, because the Travers is certain to showcase a worthy champion. Just don’t plan on it to be Street Sense or Curlin and any of the weary Triple Crown horses who make it through the grind of these races. All the good intentions of their trainers don’t measure up to the reality.