SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- It was that hazy hour of the morning, around 6 o'clock, at the Oklahoma Training Track, across Union Avenue from Saratoga, where the work starts long before sunrise; and on other side of the oval from the stable area, a horse that was reduced to an indistinct fleck of rhythmic darkness by the distance and haze seemed to be rolling rapidly around the second turn.
With the fleck of a horse moving more quickly than anybody or anything near him, the activity easily could have been mistaken for a workout. But it wasn't. Tonalist was merely galloping. He already had jogged a mile in the other direction, and now he was in the middle of a routine 1 ½- mile gallop, rolling along relentlessly and powerfully in a forceful rhythm that didn't vary.
Although just a gallop, it was telling because it displayed Tonalist's strength, his relentless grinding. He's a long train of a horse that keeps rolling. That's his style. It also happens to be the style that usually wins the Travers Stakes.
Tonalist is the 3-1 second choice in the morning line for Saturday's 145th Travers. Bayern is the 2-1 favorite, with Wicked Strong at 7-2. If any horse outside the trio of favorites wins, he would be a Jack popping unexpectedly out of the Travers box. And the field includes some potential Jacks: Mr. Speaker, a rather macho-looking sort, has won three stakes on turf, and although he ran poorly in his only race on the main track, he has trained sharply on the dirt here; Charge Now, the handsome half-brother to Derby winner Super Saver, continues to improve and is training sharply; Commanding Curve, the Kentucky Derby runner-up, has been training more aggressively since finishing fourth in the Jim Dandy; V.E. Day rallied from last to win the Curlin Stakes in his only race on a fast track; and Kid Cruz, a stretch-runner who found himself running strangely close to the early pace in the Jim Dandy, where he then dropped back before coming on again, will return to his preferred style.
But what's the winning style? That's the question. Although the Mid-summer Derby, like the Kentucky Derby, is run at 1 ¼ miles; the two races have little else in common.
The gentler turns here at Saratoga don't place such a premium on athleticism, with the larger oval playing to the advantage of powerful, long-striding horses, such as Tonalist and Wicked Strong. That's probably one reason more winners of the Belmont Stakes (29), also run around sweeping turns, have won the Travers than winners of the Kentucky Derby (10) and Preakness (8) combined. Moreover, because there's never a 20-horse field for the Travers or a frenetic rush to get position in the long run to the first turn, the pace rarely gets overheated, a black hole for speed, as it sometimes can in Kentucky. Over the last 20 years, the opening half-mile in the Kentucky Derby has been run in less than 47 seconds on 13 occasions, seven of those in less than 46 seconds and once in less than 45 seconds. On the other hand, for the Travers during the same period, the opening half-mile has been run in less than 47 seconds only five times.
And so, again, what's the winning style for the Travers? Recent history is rather lucid. Only one Travers winner in the last 20 years rallied from farther than five lengths back after the opening half-mile: Birdstone made up a deficit of 5 ½ lengths to win in 2004. And only one Travers winner in the last 20 years has rallied from farther back than two lengths in the stretch: Will Take Charge made up 4 ¼ lengths down the lane to win last year. Clearly, to win the Travers a horse should be able to stalk and persevere, finding a comfortable rhythm and letting it roll. That's how Tonalist won the Belmont Stakes. It's also how Wicked Strong won the Jim Dandy, when he raced in blinkers for the first time and flashed more early speed than he had in his previous races. The Travers rewards horses that can grind out a victory over 1 ¼ miles.
But can Tonalist or Wicked Strong catch the speedy Bayern? He looked sensational winning the Haskell at Monmouth Park, but anybody who could grab a clear, early advantage looked sensational that day, when in two-turn races only one winner emerged from farther back than a half-length, and he "rallied" from 1 ½ back. In other words, the surface favored speed, fawned over it, opened the door to the winner's circle and said, "Go to the lead and then step right this way."
Bayern could very well win Saturday, but not because a speed-friendly, accommodating surface hands him the victory. History, though, says he probably won't. Only Bernardini, among recent Travers winners, has led from the start. Yes, the race often goes to the swift, but sometimes, especially if the race happens to be the Travers, it goes to those that persevere.