In its field, the 2022 Travers resembles that cute little neighborhood restaurant that you think you’ve kept a secret until you turn around one evening and realize that everybody who’s anybody in town has shown up. That Rich Strike and Early Voting, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, didn’t make the cut into the top three morning line favorites for the $1.25 million late-summer feature is one indication of that. That the white-hot, highly-touted but lightly-raced “outlier” Artorius is favored over those two for the moment tells us that the Class of 2022 is taking shape late.
A couple of rungs higher in the pecking order, the alleged top runner among the nation’s three-year-olds and the top dog in the Travers’ morning line at 7-5, Epicenter, is still working out from under his odd path through the Triple Crown, getting pipped in the Derby and in the Preakness by longshot pretenders into place, back-to-back. His Grade 2 win in the Jim Dandy at the Spa early in the month doesn’t quite erase that. As if this mix needed more explosive instability, Zandon’s back as the fourth favorite, and the still somewhat mysterious Cyberknife is by a clear margin the morning line’s second favorite. His main value at the moment seems to be to screw everybody’s exotics up because nobody can figure out where to put him.
Bluntly put, in a trifecta, the players are going to have to leave out some runners who deeply threaten to nuke their tickets. Leave out a Derby winner? In other words, there will be lots of fancy dancing along the razor’s edge at the windows on Saturday, and plenty of boxing, boxing, and more boxing. Fun, no?
But before we bring in the Bluegrass Wise Man ™, our celebrated Kentucky horseman and owner, to help walk us through this delightful field, here’s a refresher on the post positions and morning line:
(Post Position, Horse, Jockey, Morning Line)
1 Cyberknife, Florent Geroux, 7-2
2 Rich Strike, Sonny Leon, 10-1
3 Ain’t Life Grand, Tyler Gaffalione, 20-1
4 Gilded Age, Jorge Alvarado, 30-1
5 Artorius, Irad Ortiz, 9-2
6 Epicenter, Joel Rosario, 7-5
7 Early Voting, Jose Ortiz, 8-1
8 Zandon, Flavien Prat, 5-1
(Source: NYRA, 8/26/2022)
Although the Bluegrass Wise Man ™ is a lifelong horseman and owner, he has no horses running in this year’s Travers. But he will be playing it furiously. With no further ado, here’s the Wise Man ™.
It’s like the fourth Triple Crown race. Let’s start with that popular dude who’s looking to wreck everything for everybody, Artorius. You like him. So do a lot of other people. Is it his daddy Arrogate?
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: Artorius does get a ton of trackside buzz. In this crowd I’m not sure his odds will stay as low on race day as they are now. Saratoga’s money can have different ideas. That noted, he has won over the track at one-and-an-eighth. He should enjoy going longer because Arrogate won the Breeders Cup Classic at one-and-a-quarter. Also, his works have been very good since he won the Curlin, but he has faced nothing like the kind of talent he will face on Saturday, so for him this race is pretty much ‘welcome to the NBA.’ He’s a rookie. I do like him, and I’ll use him, but let me repeat that he’s lightly raced, and going up against all this. I think his question is a simple one: Is he good enough?
What does he need to do to take ‘em all down?
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: Artorius wants to sit just off the early pace. The fractions in the Curlin were not that fast, so he was ready to go when asked and then blew them out. Fast fractions or not, he is a stalker. He will need a good trip and then he’ll have to find a clear lane for his run.
Hilarious that we have a Derby winner as sixth-favorite in an eight-horse field, but them’s the breaks. Give us your read on Rich Strike.
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: It’s a reflection of his 80-1 longshot-ness in the Derby. Now, Rich Strike has a couple of problems that aren’t that. You have to ask why he won the Derby. I think he won the Derby because he loves the Churchill track, absolutely loves it, and the pace was very fast in front of him. He got the perfect ride and it was simply his day, but his questions do flow from that Derby set-up. Rich Strike needs to like the Saratoga surface. Some don’t. He’s picky, he may not. Most important is that he needs to have a speed duel in front of him so that the leaders wear each other out. That can happen on Saturday, but it depends on the pace. If it’s fast, he has a shot. His other problem is that his jock, Sonny Leon, has not ridden at Saratoga before. If the horse were mine, I’d rather have a New York jockey on him, but we can’t take Sonny off now, he’s the man who knows the horse. By the way, Sonny is 11 for his last 100 races. Part of that is the kinds of horses he draws, but those are not Ortiz brothers’ numbers.
Hit that other mystery man Cyberknife for us.
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: Since this spring, Cyberknife has not run a bad race except in the Derby. You have to kind of erase the Derby performance to like him. But he is legit. He is a Gun Runner colt, and they are smokin’ hot. He is trained by Brad Cox. Brad won this race last year with Essential Quality. I like him and always have, but right now everybody’s got to admit that Cyberknife did not beat the type of horses he is going to see Saturday when he won the Arkansas Derby, the Matt Winn or the Haskell. Plain and simple, he’s just never faced a field this deep. In fairness, none of them have, so they’re all going to be carrying bigger or smaller pieces of that question. Cyberknife’s problem is that he’ll be toting a bigger piece of that question than some of the others.
Which brings us to our other mystery man down in the favorites’ second tier, Early Voting.
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: The Preakness winner likes to be near the front. That worked in the Preakness, but in the Jim Dandy he showed that it didn’t work. The Travers is a furlongs, or a 110 yards longer than the Jim Dandy, and if you add to that the high levels of talent tomorrow, I think Early Voting’s got a problem. Can he stay up or near the front and do the distance, will be his question. What I’m saying is I think his position in the morning line is fair. You might want to box him tomorrow, but he’s a candidate to leave out of your straight trifectas and exactas.
So, who are you going to leave out?
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: I do it all on race day, so no decision yet. Given this field, thinking about leaving out Rich Strike, but it’s too early. I will say, it’s a decent health report on the sport, even just thinking about having to leave out a Derby winner.
Let’s move to Epicenter, the man of the moment. Has he erased his also-ran bridesmaid Derby and Preakness performances?
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: I get your point, but a lot of trainers, owners and jockeys would be delighted with place performances in two back-to-back Triple Crown races. I’m saying that’s something you want. But it’s tough sometimes to match high expectations of a talented horse with what he or she does on the track. That’s the pitfall of high expectations, and not, necessarily, the horse’s fault. Epicenter is deeply talented, and just maybe, like some say, he’s the most talented three-year-old racing now. Has he consistently overpowered his fields and shown that? It’s a question. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. His “comeback,” if you want to call it that, from the second place Preakness run with the win in the Jim Dandy was, technically, a Grade 2 win. It’s obvious, but it wasn’t the Derby. But in fairness to Epicenter, the Jim Dandy field was a Grade 1 field, and he beat them well and truly. I think he’s got a solid shot tomorrow. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go off as the favorite. But I do think he’s going to have to go out and get his race.
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: Look, it’s gonna take a lot of work from every one of these horses, arguably more work than any of them have faced in any of the Triple Crown races. Top favorite or not, Epicenter is going to have to have the things that he likes to happen take place, period. He’s going to want a moderate pace, he’s not going to want to get into a speed shoot-out early, he’s going to want conserve enough for the hard going in that last quarter-mile. It may sound simple, but it’s not. That didn’t happen for him in the Derby. He met a horse with too much love for Churchill in the last furlong. Who happened to come in at 80-1.