Whether you’re the kind of person who thinks the Daily Racing Form should be required reading or a casual fan who follows the sport only on Kentucky Derby day, you’ll want to circle Saturday’s Runhappy Travers day at Saratoga on your calendar.
Godolphin’s Eclipse Award-winning Champion Two-Year-Old Male Essential Quality is the 4-5 favorite in the 152nd running of the G1 feature race. Now three and vying for multiple Eclipse awards, the big gray son of Tapit will leave from gate 2 seeking his eighth win in nine starts.
The Brad Cox trainee is missing career perfection by only a length after finishing a close fourth to current winner Medina Spirit in this year’s Kentucky Derby. That race saw him bumped hard at the start leaving from the far outside 14 post, forced wide and running further back in sixth rather than his preferred stalking position nearer the leader. Still, he ran an estimated seven lengths further than the winner and was closing strongly at the finish.
Essential Quality will face a quality field of six rivals in the 1 1/4-mile $1.25 million dirt contest, known as “The Mid-Summer Derby.” Preakness runner-up Midnight Bourbon (9-2) will start at the rail under Ricardo Santana, Jr. as the likely pacesetter. The ever-pesky Keepmeinmind will certainly be on Essential Quality-pilot’s Luis Saez mind aside the favorite in gate 3. Dynamic One (Irad Ortiz, Jr.), Miles D (Flavien Prat, 12-1), Masqueparade (Miguel Mena, 8-1) and King Fury (Jose Ortiz, 15-1) fill out the gates in that order.
Keepmeinmind will be squaring off against Essential Quality for the sixth time in his 11 starts. The Robertino Diodoro-trained son of Laoban has won only one of his starts, last year’s Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs, but always has competitors looking over their shoulder for him. He’s placed three times and showed twice.
His most recent start, the Jim Dandy (G2) July 31 at Saratoga, was indeed a dandy. Keepmeinmind poked a nose in front and matched Essential Quality stride-for-stride in the deep stretch before yielding by a half-length at the very finish.
The losses haven’t deterred Diodoro for trying his luck and Keepmeinmind’s pluck one more time.
“People say he got the perfect trip in the Jim Dandy and it was his chance to beat Essential Quality,” Diodoro says, “but I disagree with that. Going into the first turn, he was little bit rank. Joel [jockey Rosario] had to take a hold of him a couple of times.
“Around the far turn, he had to hesitate a couple of times and he did get through. Down the lane he was on the inside, but he definitely didn’t have a perfect trip.”
“He was just pulling a little bit at the beginning,” agrees Rosario. “If he could have settled a bit, that probably would have been better. He was okay being on the inside, he was handling it pretty well, but probably being on the outside would have been better.”
Keepmeinmind and Dynamic One are co-third choices at 6-1, an attractive price at the “Graveyard of Champions” (we get to that elsewhere).
Essential Quality trainer Cox conceded a few anxious moments during the stretch in the Jim Dandy, but is happy with where his horse is for the Runhappy Travers.
“Physically and mentally, he’s right where we want him to be,” affirms Cox. “I’d be content if they would line ‘em up and run it in 30 minutes.”
They’ll line ‘em up for Race 12 on the 13-race card Saturday at 5:57 pm EDT.
On a day when six of the 13 scheduled races are G1, another can’t-miss event on the Travers card is the $600,000 mile-and-an-eighth dirt Personal Ensign Stakes (G1) for fillies and mares age three years and older.
Renamed in 1998 after the undefeated filly (13-0-0), the contest is part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series. An all-expenses-paid ticket to the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Del Mar awaits the winner.
The nine-horse field is led, figuratively and perhaps literally throughout the race, by the no-longer-surprising Letruska, the 6-5 favorite. Now 15-1-1 in her 20 starts, the five-year-old Super Saver mare will seek to jump out to the lead from the 6 post and play catch-me-if-you-can. So far this year, no one has been able to run down the speedy Fausto Gutierrez-trained mare. She moved to el Norte after making a name for herself as Mexico’s Champion Three-Year-Old Champion Filly.
She’s only gotten better, winning seven of eight graded contests at four different tracks the past two years, her only miss a second-place finish in the Azeri Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn early this year.
Her regular rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., is as hot as she is, now ranked among the world’s leading jockeys. Her speed and his skill combined to upset two-time Eclipse Award winner Monomoy Girl by a nose in the $1 million Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) Apr. 17 at Oaklawn.
“She’s one of the top horses in the division, and one of the top horses in this race,” understates Gutierrez. “The way she runs is no secret. She’ll run free, and post 6 is fine. How she breaks is more important than the post position.”
The Personal Ensign won’t see a rematch of that exciting stretch duel. Monomoy Girl was rested for the summer with a mild muscle strain and is just returning to her regular training regimen.
Another likely Breeders’ Cup Distaff entry, Shadwell Stable’s Malathaat, is also among the missing. A Curlin (yeah, him again) daughter, trainer Todd Pletcher returned her instead from an upset loss to Maracuja in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) to earn a measure of revenge in last Saturday’s Alabama Stakes (G1). With only that single loss in her 6-1-0 column, a showdown is inevitable.
But the oddsmakers’ favorite will have to contend with the another mare that likes to run near the front, fan favorite Swiss Skydiver, at 7-2 odds. Both she and the favorite carry heavy allowance weight of 124 lbs.
It’s been a weird four-year-old campaign for the reigning Eclipse Award-winning Three-Year-Old Champion Filly.
She started the year well for trainer Ken McPeek, winning the Beholder Mile at Santa Anita (G1). She was in contention early in the Apple Blossom, but trailed off badly at the top of the stretch to finish a distant third. Having won last year’s Preakness (G1) against eventual Eclipse Award Champion Three-Year-Old Male and Horse of the Year, Authentic, McPeek again tried her luck against the boys in the Whitney Stakes (G1) three weeks ago at Saratoga. No luck. She finished fourth in a race won by the ever-improving Knicks Go.
“It’s been a little of this, a little of that,” says a frustrated McPeek.
Well, maybe a lot.
The Daredevil mare acquired an infection that nearly kept her from the Apple Blossom. She spiked a fever on arrival at Belmont that erased her planned start in the Ogden Phipps (G1). Most recently, Saratoga had an outbreak of EHV-1 that led to a quarantine, eliminating the Shuvee Stakes (G3) from her July dance card.
McPeek says she came out of her Whitney run well, so he has “no reservations” about racing her back on only three weeks’ rest. She’ll be ridden by Jose Ortiz.
The rest of the field makes the Personal Ensign no gimme.
Chad Brown will saddle five-year-olds Dunbar Road (20-1) on the rail and stablemate Royal Flag (10-1). The latter was among the top three finishers in all her 10 races and winner of this year’s Shuvee Stakes. She’ll fly alongside Letruska in post 5. Four-time Personal Ensign-winning rider Mike Smith will pilot trainer Bob Baffert’s As Time Goes By (6-1).
Completing the horse-and-rider field, their odds and post positions are Bonny South (Manny Franco, 10-1, 3), Miss Marissa (Daniel Centano, 20-1, 7), Harvey’s Lil Goil (Luis Saez, 8-1, 8) and Graceful Princess (John Velazquez, 15-1, 9).
Post time is 4:47 pm EDT for the Personal Ensign, race number 10 on the card.