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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Everything To Know About The Grade I Runhappy Travers Stakes

The Travers Stakes is one of the most prestigious races for American three-year-olds and is the highlight of the historic Saratoga meet. 

Run at ten furlongs (1 ¼ mile), the same distance as the Kentucky Derby, the Travers is often referred to as the “Midsummer Derby” and helps a top three-year-old cement his or her status as the leader of the division. 

According to TwinSpires, this race is one of the most important ones in the Saratoga Race track schedule.

Here’s what you need to know going into this year’s edition of the famous race.

Why This Name?

Although the race is referred to as simply the “Travers Stakes,” it is officially the Grade I Runhappy Travers Stakes. Why is that?

The most prestigious kind of races are stakes races, but even those have degrees of quality. The best stakes races may be eligible for graded status, with Grade I being the highest rating. To receive Grade I status, a race must have a purse of at least $300,000, must have been run under similar conditions (surface, distance, restrictions, and other factors) for at least two years, and can only be restricted by age and/or sex of the horse. Grade I races, such as the Travers, typically attract the best horses in training for their particular division.

As for the “Runhappy” portion, that adds to the name is more recent. Runhappy was a popular racehorse, becoming the Eclipse Champion Sprinter in 2015. Retired to stud after racing as a four-year-old, his owner, Jim McIngvale, decided to promote the horse by sponsoring several top races, including the Grade I Runhappy Travers Stakes.

Hot Summer

Heat is always a factor when racing in the deep summer, but this year’s summer is proving to be hotter than normal. As of the time of this writing, heat indexes in Saratoga Springs, New York, have been as high as 99 degrees Fahrenheit (37.2 degrees Celsius). 

This means that not only will racegoers have to stock up on sunscreen and iced drinks, but trainers and grooms will have to keep a keen eye out for signs of heat exhaustion from their horses. These weather conditions may also affect the quality of the racetrack itself, especially when considered alongside the prevalence of summer rains.

The Baffert Ban

Anyone looking for Bob Baffert’s top three-year-olds in this year’s Travers will be disappointed. 

Following Medina Spirit’s post-race positive, which cost him a Kentucky Derby win, Baffert began to receive sanctions from racing circuits all over the country. Few groups, however, punished Baffert as swiftly and as harshly as the New York Racing Association, the governing body of Belmont Park, Aqueduct, and Saratoga, the track at which the Travers is run.

While many racetracks, such as Monmouth Park in New Jersey, chose to allow Baffert back after serving his 90-day nationwide suspension, the NYRA declared that Baffert was to serve a full year’s ban from their tracks. While this was shorter than the initial proposal, which was a two-year ban, Baffert will not only be barred from competing in this year’s Saratoga meet but also in the prestigious fall and winter races held at Belmont and Aqueduct. 

This means that Taiba, the talented son of Gun Runner who finished second by a head in the Grade I Haskell Stakes (which is often a prep race for the Travers) will be unable to face off against his fellow three-year-olds in the Midsummer Derby. While Baffert has declared the Breeders’ Cup (held this year at Keeneland) the year-end goal for Taiba, he has not yet decided which races will serve as the colt’s preparation.

A Bit Of History

horse race

The Travers Stakes, named for Saratoga Racing Association president William R. Travers, was first run in 1864, making it one of the oldest stakes races still run in America today. Saratoga is today not only one of the most famous places for horse racing but also offers horseback riding to anyone who is keen on trying.

The race has not been run continuously, having been skipped in 1896, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1911, and 1912. It has been run at distances ranging from 1 ⅛ mile to 1 ¾ mile, settling on its current distance of 1 ¼ mile in 1904. 

In addition to the winning purse, the connections of the Travers winner are presented with a gold trophy called “The Man o’War Cup.” The trophy was first awarded to the famed American superhorse Man o’War after his victory over Sir Barton in 1920. It was donated to Saratoga in 1936 by Man o’War’s owner, Samuel Riddle, and it is presented annually by Riddle’s descendants. The winning silks are also painted on the canoe in the Saratoga infield.

Although the race is typically thought of as belonging to the male division, the Travers is open to three-year-old fillies as well. Fillies performed well in the early editions of the race, taking it seven times: Maiden won the second running of the race in 1865, followed by Ruthless (1867), The Banshee (1868), Sultana (1876), Liza (1895), Ada Nay (1903), and Lady Rotha (1915). However, most top fillies nowadays race against their own sex and are pointed to the Grade I Alabama Stakes against the girls rather than the Travers.

Triple Crown winners have, somewhat surprisingly, not fared well in the Travers, contributing to Saratoga’s reputation as the “Graveyard of Champions.” Of the thirteen American Triple Crown winners to date, only four have contested the Travers, with only Whirlaway (1941) coming away victorious. Both Gallant Fox (1930) and American Pharoah (2015) were upset by lesser horses, while Affirmed (1978) crossed the wire ahead of his great rival Alydar, but was disqualified for interference.

Leading Contenders

Two of the three Triple Crown race winners from this year are pointed toward the Travers Stakes: Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike and Preakness winner Early Voting. While the former will likely train up to the Travers, according to trainer Eric Reed, the latter is eyeing the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes, also at Saratoga, as a prep race. 

They are likely to be joined by Charge It and Cyberknife, who have made their presence known as divisional leaders in recent weeks. Charge It earned his first stakes victory in dramatic fashion, crushing the competition in the Grade III Dwyer Stakes by an amazing 23 lengths. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, has noted the gray son of Tapit may also contest the Jim Dandy on the way to the Travers.

On the flip side, Cyberknife won the Grade I Haskell Stakes by a desperate head after a stretch battle with the aforementioned Taiba, setting a new track record in the process. A son of Gun Runner, Cyberknife had previously won the Grade I Arkansas Derby, and is now eligible for a million-dollar bonus should he add the Travers and the Breeders’ Cup Classic to his win record.

An interesting prospect is the talented filly Nest, who won the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks over Kentucky Oaks victor Secret Oath. Although Todd Pletcher said she will most likely go toward Alabama, the Travers was a possibility. Nest has previously contested the colts, running a good second in the Belmont Stakes.

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