Brad Cox and Essential Quality are simultaneously chasing Travers Stakes history and running from it at the same time. This counterintuitive feat illustrates Cox’s training prowess, Essential Quality’s running prowess, and the Travers’ recent prowess as a destroyer of favorites.

Essential Quality-Travers
Can anyone stop the runaway train that is Essential Quality? Six others try derailing the 4/5 favorite in Saturday’s Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga. (Image: Joe Labozzetta/Coglianese Photos/NYRA)

Cox, who trains the prohibitive 4/5 favorite for Saturday’s headline event at Saratoga, is trying to be only the eighth trainer to win the Whitney and the Travers in the same year. He’s also attempting to be the first trainer in 79 years to win both of Saratoga’s marquee races in the same year with two different horses. That trick hasn’t been turned since John Gaver Sr. sent Swing and Sway to the Whitney winner’s circle, and Shut Out to the Travers title in 1942.

“To win the Travers and Whitney in the same year, we’ve already had a great meet to begin with. But if we can cap it off with this, it would be huge,” said Cox, who won the Whitney with Knicks Go three weeks ago.

Anytime you win the Travers, it’s huge. Known as the “Mid-Summer Derby,” the $1.25 million, Grade 1 Travers is the flagship race on Saratoga’s calendar. It is considered barely a notch below the Triple Crown races in terms of prominence for 3-year-olds, and its list of winners reads like its own wing of the Hall of Fame, featuring Man o War, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Sword Dancer, Buckpasser, Damascus, Alydar, Easy Goer, Holy Bull, Thunder Gulch, Point Given, Bernardini, Street Sense and the Travers record holder, Arrogate.

The Travers is the pinnacle of Saratoga’s season

The 1 ¼-mile Travers headlines Saturday’s 13-race Saratoga card. Six of the races are Grade 1s and a seventh is a Grade 2. The Travers factors so much into trainers’ scheduling that Cox began talking about it not long after Essential Quality finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby.

That was on May 1, five weeks before Essential Quality captured the Belmont Stakes with his career-best 109 Beyer Speed Figure. That figure is 11 points higher than the next closest figure, Masqueparade’s 98.

“My plan all along was to have him peak in this spot,” Cox told the New York Racing Association. “Our goal since the Kentucky Derby was to have him at his best Travers Day, and from a mental and physical standpoint, I feel he’s right where we want him.”

Essential Quality exudes essential tactics for victory

Cox said Essential Quality is mentally sharper now than he was before his Jim Dandy victory last month. That grinding, half-length win over Keepmeinmind as the 2/5 favorite was the Tapit colt’s fourth victory in five races this year. Again, it wasn’t a blowout, but it illustrated how Essential Quality does what needs to be done to win races, whether that’s stalk, set the pace, or press it.

That all explains why Essential Quality is your 4/5 favorite, and why Cox and company are running from history. As much as any other race on Saratoga’s glittering slate, the Travers epitomizes the Spa’s reputation as the “Graveyard of Favorites.” Since 2010, only three favorites found the Travers winner’s circle. And eight times in that span, the winner carried odds of 6/1 or greater.

This included 11.70/1 Arrogate in 2016, who set the event record at 1:59.36 en route to a 13 ½-length victory. It included 16/1 Keen Ice, who beat 3/10 favorite and Triple Crown holder American Pharoah in 2015. The year before that, it was V E Day winning at 19.50/1, beating favorite and eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern by 20 lengths.

And it included the poster child for Travers upsets this century, 33.50/1 Golden Ticket dead-heating with favorite Alpha in 2012.

Here’s where hope begins for Travers pursuers

This gives hope to the other six horses in the Travers field — a slate that includes 9/2 second-favorite Midnight Bourbon. When last we saw the gutty Preakness Stakes runner-up, he was avoiding near disaster in the Haskell. Midnight Bourbon clipped heels with Hot Rod Charlie and tumbled to the Monmouth Park dirt.

Again, Midnight Bourbon never mails in a race. He’s battle-tested, game, and figures in every event in which he doesn’t get cut off and dump his rider. Even there in that Haskell, Midnight Bourbon got up and crossed the finish line third, sans rider. But the son of Tiznow hasn’t won a race since January’s Lecomte at Fair Grounds. Expect him to once again illustrate why he’s a step below the best in his class.

So who else? Well, there’s the trendy upset pick, Dynamic One (6/1). The Todd Pletcher trainee opened all the eyes that closed in his 18th-place Kentucky Derby finish when he won the Curlin Stakes on July 30. That validated his solid runner-up finish to stablemate Bourbonic in the Wood Memorial.

Keepmeinmind returns for another stakes try

“He obviously didn’t fire in the Kentucky Derby, but his maiden races were pretty fast,” said Pletcher about the son of 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags. “He showed he belonged in the Wood. We were happy with the way he was training going into the Curlin. That appears to be his most professional race so far (a career-best 97 Beyer) so, hopefully, he’s going into his best.”

There’s also the other 6/1 choice, Keepmeinmind. The well-traveled son of Laoban is back at it again for his seventh race this year. He’s 0-for-6, but in his defense, Keepmeinmind kept graded-stakes company in all six races. And further in his defense, his last two outings put him on the board. That was a third in the Ohio Derby to fellow Travers travelers Masqueparade and King Fury, and a gritty runner-up to Essential Quality in the Jim Dandy.

“He’s getting better and better,” trainer Robertino Diodoro said. “The horse is overdue and he deserves a win. We definitely think the extra distance will help him big time.”

Don’t let Masqueparade hide from your tickets

Speaking of Masqueparade (8/1), he finished third by 2 ¾ lengths in that Jim Dandy. That seemed to take some of the gloss off his Ohio Derby win, where he was bet down from 8/1 to the 2/1 favorite. Trainer Al Stall Jr. said the Upstart colt’s outer draw here (post 6) is far more conducive to Masqueparade’s pressing/stalking style.

“Being on the outside, we can chase some speed. If there’s no speed, we can lay very close. He can be more comfortable,” Stall said. “In the Jim Dandy, he was trapped inside between speed horses, so we couldn’t get anything done because they were shuffling us back and we were last on the backside. Now, he can float away from there and see how things go.”

Grade 1 Travers Stakes/Saratoga

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Midnight Bourbon, 9/2 (Ricardo Santana Jr./Steve Asmussen)
  2. Essential Quality, 4/5 (Luis Saez/Brad Cox)
  3. Keepmeinmind, 6/1 (Joel Rosario/Robertino Diodoro)
  4. Dynamic One, 6/1 (Irad Ortiz Jr./Todd Pletcher)
  5. Miles D, 12/1 (Flavien Prat/Chad Brown)
  6. Masqueparade, 8/1 (Miguel Mena/Al Stall Jr.)
  7. King Fury, 15/1 (Jose Ortiz/Kenny McPeek)

While Masqueparade’s pedigree invites questions about his 10-furlong stamina, his last three races produced his best three speed figures.

The pick: Essential Quality. We’re going to whistle past the “Graveyard of Favorites” here. The dynamics of this race couldn’t set up better for the class of the field. There’s not much early speed, allowing him to stalk and pounce at his leisure. His well-chronicled versatility puts his rivals at a pronounced disadvantage. Do they go out fast, only to watch Essential Quality reel them in (see Belmont Stakes 2021)? Or do they let someone else set the pace, only to watch Essential Quality reel them all in going into the stretch (see Blue Grass Stakes, et-al)? Essential Quality fits the profile of a Travers Stakes winner in every way. Do keep an eye on Dynamic One and Masqueparade for exotics and upset opportunities.