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2012 Travers Undercard Preview

Look who found his way back to the grass! It's none other than Optimizer.
Look who found his way back to the grass! It's none other than Optimizer.

If you've followed the current Saratoga meeting closely you've no doubt noticed the incredibly difficult cards the track has put out day after day. Yeah, there's been a bunch of state-bred races and tons of Maiden Special Weights, and few traditional allowance races, but the fields are almost always quite deep and very even. It doesn't happen every day but, for the most part, I've found the cards challenging, which is something I love; I'd rather be handicapping tough 11-horse fields than five-horse fields with an unbeatable 2/5 favorite. (Not that there aren't some of those at Saratoga.)

The Travers undercard presents us with another day of extremely challenging races to sort through, especially the juvenile races early in the day. Let's take a look at each of them to get a picture of what we're up against.

Below is the race schedule, conditions and post times (all times Eastern) for Travers Day at Saratoga:

# Post Race Age/Sex Dist/Surf
1 11:35a OC $20k/N1X 3up 7.0
2 12:05p Maiden Special Weight 2yo 6.0
3 12:37p Maiden Special Weight 2yo 8.5 (T)
4 1:10p Maiden Special Weight 3up, f&m 6.0
5 1:45p Allowance N1X 3up 7.0
6 2:20p Maiden Special Weight 2yo, f 8.5 (T)
7 2:55p Allowance N1X 3up 8.5 (T)
8 3:30p OC $35k/N1X 3up 9.5 (T)
9 4:05p G2-Ballston Spa 3up, f&m 8.5 (T)
10 4:38p G1-Test 3yo, f 7.0
11 5:10p G1-King's Bishop 3yo 7.0
12 5:46p G1-Travers 3yo 10.0
13 6:20p Maiden Special Weight 3up 8.5 (T)

Race 1: OC 20k/Conditions
7 furlongs, Dirt
3&up, NY-bred

The first race on the card isn't overflowing with speed, something that should favor 13-Brigand (5/2) given his prior races. This colt has shown some flashes of real talent, including a good 2nd place finish to The Lumber Guy in the G2-Jerome in a one turn mile at Aqueduct back on April 21st. He's taking a decent drop in class for this effort after running against OC $40k/N1X company last time out at Del Mar. He's also cutting back in distance to seven furlongs after going 8.5 last time out.

Over the last five years, Bob Baffert is 44-for-183 when cutting back in distance from a route to a sprint (24% Win%, 54% In-The-Money, $1.90 $2 ROI). If you filter that sample for races only taking place on dirt (which is probably a little more appropriate), he's a blistering 15-for-46 (33% Win%, 59% ITM, $2.23 $2 ROI). The ROI for his dirt cut-backs is very nice as he's showing a flat-bet profit for all runners.

(If you want one more filter of those Baffert numbers, try this on for size: Over the last five years, Baffert is 6-for13 with horses cutting back in distance AND switching from synthetic to dirt (46% Win%, 69% ITM, $1.97 $2 ROI).

So, any way you slice it, Brigand looks to be a powerful factor in the Saturday opener at the Spa.

I'm not much of a fan of Richard Dutrow's 11-Jeter (4/1), the second choice on the morning line. He's taking a bump up in the class ladder after a pretty bad effort on the Belmont Stakes undercard as the favorite (probably a result of lots of Yankee fans throwing cash his way), and while Dutrow is usually quite good with layoff horses but he's not having a typical Dutrow meeting and I'm skeptical of his "off form" horses right now.

I don't know that 3-Dehere of the Cat (great name) has the class to match Brigand but he's rounded into decent form during 2012 and he's shown enough talent to consider him in the mix.

A price play in this first race: 8-Southbeachsandy (12/1). You got to dig to find it, but this gelding has done well at the distance at Saratoga. On August 6th and September 4th of 2011 he ran against state-bred N1X-ers with one race a gate-to-wire win (9/4/11) and the other a disaster 9th place finish. He has an excuse for the disaster race as he stumbled badly leaving the gate and then proceeded to get roughed up all the way around the track. The trip note is short and sweet: "Stumbled break, brutal trip". What I can't figure out is why it took Tony Dutrow this long to get this gelding back to seven furlongs.

Race 2: Maiden Special Weight
6 Furlongs, Dirt

Ah, juvenile races! And high-class juveniles, at that (or, at least, "expensive" juveniles).

Pedigree-wise, I've got a little interest in the 5-Rapsandtaps (20/1), but this is one of those situations where other factors cancel out what appears to be a good pedigree.

Tapit has done well with first timers and the dam sire (Tale of the Cat) is also a good "win early" sire. Of course, the dam herself is a big part of the equation and she hasn't done a whole lot (one other foal that has raced one time and accomplished nothing). On an even worse note, trainer Thomas Voss is abysmal with first time starters: 0-for-24 over the last five years, with just 4 starters to finish in the money. Not good.

2-Bogart (12/1) is another quandary for the horseplayer: Make Your Move and Transparent are coupled which leaves Bogart as the rail horse, which is a spot I really don't like for first time starters. But on the positive side his sire, Lion Heart, has done well with first timers and the dam has thrown multiple winners, including the graded stakes winning Her Smile.

Bogart's works are good, including a snazzy bullet from the gate on Wednesday morning, and trainer Jonathan Sheppard is decent with first time starters (21-for-156, 13% Win%, 31% ITM, $1.92 $2 ROI). But in the continuation of the "good news/bad news" theme, Sheppard has been awful with two-year-old first time starters over the past five years (1-for-14, 7% Win%, 29% ITM, $0.25 $2 ROI). Tough to back a colt with trainer numbers like that.

If the Pletcher first timer, 10-Archwarrior (4/5), draws into the field, he's going to be tough for anyone to ignore. But with 9-Casino Day ahead of him on the AE list, it's possible that the best horse in the field won't even make it into the starting gate.

Assuming Archwarrior doesn't draw in and mess things up, I am leaning towards the second timer for Eddie Kenneally, 6-Honorable Dillon (4/1). His debut back on July 28th was solid but he certainly has room to move forward and might prefer running over a dry surface in this spot. Kenneally is very good with horses second time out (47-for-222, 21% Win%, 53% ITM, $1.87 $2 ROI) but not quite as good if you are just looking at two-year-olds at the Maiden Special Weight company (8/50, 16% Win%, 40% ITM, $1.34 $2 ROI).

A very tough race to pick a winner if Archwarrior doesn't draw in.

Race 3: Maiden Special Weight
1 1/16 Miles, Turf

Looking just at the dams for this field, very few have produced any foals to win over the turf. A brief summary:

1-Soulsinging (Dam: Ticket to Seattle): No other foals to race
2-Slamarama (Senora Cat): One other foal; never ran on turf.
3-Secretive (Collusion): One other foal; never ran on turf.
4-Sain Vigeur (does every horse in this field have a name being with an "S"?) (Dam: Sweet Way): No other foals to race.
5-Chuckle (Wend): One foal , Buleria, three races on the turf with one win. The dam ran 14 times on turf with seven wins and a place.
6-Mo Jo (Imaflashycat): No other foals to race.
7-His Honor (High Country): One other foal raced two times in Germany and once in N. America on turf; no wins.
8-Security Analysis (One Good Book): No other foals to race.
9-O'Prado Ole (Mexican Moonlinght): Three foals that are 0-for-4 on turf. Dam raced 21 times on turf with 4 wins and 4 seconds.
10-Cumberland Chief (No Knocks): Three other foals to race with only one start on turf and no wins.
11-Fredricksburg (Choreograph): Dam raced 13 times on turf, winning three. Two other foals sport a 13-5-1-3 record on the lawn.
12-Summer Shiner (Fabled Flyer): One other foal that never ran on turf.
13-Newfound Zapper (Tustarta): Three other foals with a combined 14-3-2-3 record on turf (Lickety Lemon with all three wins, places and shows).
14-Brickyard Kitten (Brickyard Gal): No other foals to race.
15-Draw Two (Belle Watling): No other foals to race.

16-Brother Bob is a half-brother to a couple of nice runners: Your Blugging and Nacho Friend, but none of his siblings have done anything on the lawn (which is probably why he's a Main Track Only).

I am looking forward to taking a shot with the German-bred 7-His Honor (15/1) in this spot and, if he draws in, 11-Fredericksburg (5/2).

Race 4: Maiden Special Weight
6 Furlongs, Dirt
Fillies & Mares, 3&up, NY-bred

After looking over this race too many times all I can say is "yuck". Pass-o-rama.

Race 5: Allowance N1X
7 Furlongs, Dirt

A very large and deep field for this seven furlong N1X event on the main track. I'm going all the way to the far outside of the gate to find 13-Reload (7/2) on the drop from ungraded stakes company last time out. The best race on his performance line came at seven furlongs and he should love the cutback from nine furlongs to this seven panel affair. I'm tossing that effort in the Curlin aside given the condition of the track (sloppy and sealed) and the distance. I think Reload is primed to crush this field.

If I'm looking for a potential price-play in this race, I'm looking no further than 3-American Legend (20/1). He's a perfect 2-for-2 at the seven furlong distance, including a win at Saratoga at the trip just three weeks ago. He's in top form right now and trainer Bignath Parboo saw enough in this colt to plop down $35k to claim him out of the last race. Parboo's first after a claim numbers are simply phenomenal over the last five years as he's 11-for 31 (35% Win%) with a 61% In The Money hit rate and a healthy $2.61 ROI.

Parboo's first off the claim winners have typically been bet down to at least the 3/1 to 9/2 range, so pay attention to the action on the tote board with this gelding. American Legend might not be a prime win candidate but he could be a great horse to use in the exacta or tri.

Race 6: Maiden Special Weight
1 1/16 Miles, Turf
Fillies, 2yo

There are just a ton of maiden races on this Travers day card, including two juvenile Maiden Special Weights on the lawn. If these races get washed off the grass I'm going to be a very unhappy horseplayer.

Take note of the 4-Scat Scan (20/1): her dam, Cottage Flower, has produced a ton of runners to make it to the track (161 totals starts by her foals), but none that have done anything of note on the grass (18-1-2-2). On the flip side, the dam of 8-Tap Twenty One (4/1) (Twenty One A.C. has done well with her grass offspring, most notably Terrific Storm (27-6-5-3 on the lawn).

10-Flash Forward (15/1) caught my eye the first time I went through this race. She's a daughter of Curlin who, as a sire, hasn't produced much in the way of turf runners and who didn't perform that well on grass in his only try. However, the dam Magical Flash has produced some horses to take to the grass over the course of her broodmare career (74.17-8-10 in all turf races). Trainer Dominick Schettino doesn't exactly light up the tote board with first time starters on the grass (2-for-35, 6% Win%, 14% ITM, $0.82), so it's tough to get on board with this gal.

It seems unlikely that 15-Emotional Kitten (7/2) will draw into this field, but I hope she does after seemingly "waking up" when switched to the lawn last time out in her third career start.

Race 7: Allowance N1X
1 1/16 Miles, Inner Turf
3&up, NY-bred

It's going to be really hard for me to get away from the Ramsey colt in this race, 2-Sneaky Kitten (7/2). He hasn't turned in a bad performance in three lifetime starts and even though he's running against older horses (which he's already done in all three previous races) he's not facing any monsters in this spot.

Race 8: OC $35k/Conditions
1 3/16 Miles, Turf

An optional claiming race at a mile and three-sixteenths on the lawn and the field is almost completely devoid of speed. Well, I should re-phrase that: if 14-Change Command (5/1) doesn't draw into this race, then it's almost completely devoid of speed.

The wildcard in this race, for me, is 12-Battle Hardened (15/1). This colt has never run on turf but he's a son of Giant's Causeway, so you'd think that he's probably got a least a smidgen of turf ability. On the dam side there isn't anything to get overly excidited about on the grass but trainer Eddie Kenneally has done well over the last five years with the first time turf angle (22-for-106, 21% Win%, 42% ITM, $2.35 $2 ROI). It will be hard to ignore this colt if he's sitting at 15/1 come post time.

Remember Optimizer, the D. Wayne Lukas trainee that has spent the better part of his career learning how to lose on dirt? Well, it seems as if the connections have finally decided to put him into a spot where he might acutally win a race* (read: something other than a freaking graded stakes race).

11-Optimzer (4/1) won his debut on turf at Sarartoga back on August 6th of 2011 and then spend the better part of a year getting his butt handed to him on the dirt. Finally, in late July, this colt was put back on the grass for the G2-Virginia Derby at Colonial where he finished a respectable 4th. His last race was washed off the turf and resulted in an expected poor effort (G2-Hall of Fame; 8/10/12). He's got talent on the grass (he always has), the question is whether this colt can unlearn his losing habits.

*Optimizer is a son of Breeders' Cup Turf winner English Channel out of an A.P. Indy mare (Indy Pick) that foaled a seven time winner on the lawn (Humdinger). Why has this horse been wasting his career away on dirt? Yeah, I know the reason, I just wanted to type that question one more time.

Race 9: G2-Ballston Spa
Race 10: G1-Test
Race 11: G1-King's Bishop
Race 12: G1-Travers

See Travers Stakes Preview.

Race 13: Maiden Special Weight
1 1/16 Miles, Inner Turf

Travers day ends with yet another maiden race on the lawn (I REALLY hope it doesn't rain!), this one for older horses, as opposed to the parade of juvenile events earlier on the card.

I love first time starters on the grass by Theatrical (IRE), like 8-Artistic Director (12/1). I don't like it when they are sent out by trainers that win with firsters on the grass only slightly more often than I win the lottery (Thomas Bush: 1-for-25, 4% Win%, 12% ITM, $0.22 $2 ROI).

7-Night Site (3/1) has been knocking on the door for quite some time and looks set to final break through (one of these days). I don't like taking short odds on a horse that likes to burn money and I'll probably pass on this one unless he drifts up to something like 5/1 or better... which I doubt will occur.

I'm hoping 12-Kris Royal (7/2) stays at or around his morning line odds because I would love to play this gelding in his first attempt on the grass. His race at Presque Isle Downs over the plastic stuff was quite good considering the ground loss. Given his pedigree, which screams "turf" (by Royal Academy out the French mare Krispar), he should be able to at least duplicate that effort in this race. If he can, I think he's the winner.

I'm waiting all day long just to play Kris Royal. He better not scratch.

Whew! All done. Time for a beer.