SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The field is set for the 153rd running of Saturday’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers at Saratoga Race Course, where three-time graded stakes winner Epicenter leads a competitive group of eight, including four Grade 1 winners.
The Travers is among the most historic and prestigious races for 3-year-olds and predates all three Triple Crown races. Inaugurated in 1864, the 10-furlong event is the Spa’s marquee race and honors Saratoga’s first president William Travers, who won the first running with the A.J. Minor-trained Kentucky.
Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Epicenter enters from a victory in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy on July 30 and will attempt to become the 12th horse to sweep the Jim Dandy-Travers double. One of five millionaires in the field, Epicenter boasts field-best earnings of $2,270,639 and a record of 9-5-3-0.
Epicenter, one of two sons of Not This Time in the Travers, enters off a string of four triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures as the only horse in the race with more than one triple-digit number.
Following a victory in the Grade 2 Risen Star on February 19 at Fair Grounds, he registered a 102 Beyer in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at the New Orleans oval. He followed with two Triple Crown placings behind returning rivals, including a 100 Beyer when second in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby beaten three-quarters of a length to Rich Strike, two weeks before running a 102 with a closing second in the Grade 1 Preakness to Early Voting.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, in search of his first Travers victory, said he believes the talented colt is at the forefront of this crop of sophomores.
“He’s arguably the best 3-year-old in the division despite not having a Grade 1 win that he needs,” Asmussen said. “We’ve all witnessed his Classic defeats with our mouths agape. But watching that happen in the Derby and the Preakness, we realize how fortunate we have to be. It looks like an incredible field, and I imagine all eyes will be on him on the grandstand and the racetrack.”
In the Jim Dandy, Epicenter was last-of-4 down the backstretch and displayed a strong kick when advancing to the lead at the stretch call and drew off to a 1 1/2-length victory. The winning effort produced his third 102 Beyer.
“I love the race that he ran over this racetrack. I like him at a mile and a quarter,” Asmussen said. “Nothing but respect for some extremely good 3-year-olds, but I think we have the right one.”
Joel Rosario, also in search of his first Travers victory, retains the mount aboard Epicenter from post 6. Bred in Kentucky by Westwind Farm, he has been installed as the 7-5 morning line favorite.
Four-time Saratoga meet leading trainer Chad Brown will unleash three contenders in Grade 1 Preakness winner Early Voting [post 7, Jose Ortiz, 8-1], Grade 1 Blue Grass winner Zandon [post 8, Flavien Prat, 5-1] and rising star Artorius [post 5, Irad Ortiz, Jr., 9-2].
Early Voting, owned by Seth Klarman’s Klaravich Stables, set the tempo last out in the Jim Dandy, finishing fourth beaten 3 3/4 lengths. Early Voting, one of two Travers entrants by Gun Runner, ran a field-best 105 Beyer for his Preakness conquest, which came following a narrow defeat to eventual Grade 1 Belmont Stakes winner Mo Donegal in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial on April 9 at Aqueduct.
Brown opted to skip the Kentucky Derby following the Wood Memorial with Early Voting in favor of more time between races, a pipeline he took with 2017 Preakness winner Cloud Computing, who ran eighth in that year’s Travers.
Early Voting was bred in Kentucky by Three Chimneys Farm.
Jeff Drown’s Zandon, bred in Kentucky by Brereton C. Jones, enters off a game second to Epicenter in the Jim Dandy, which came following a nearly three-month layoff from the Kentucky Derby. The dark bay son of Upstart, who ran fourth in the 2015 Travers, was a hard-fought third in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 1 1/2 lengths in arrears of Rich Strike. Zandon secured his first stakes victory four weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby when capturing the Grade 1 Blue Grass on April 9 at Keeneland.
Never out of the money in six lifetime starts, Zandon’s record stands at 6-2-2-2 with earnings of $1,133,000.
Artorius, a Juddmonte homebred, will attempt to make a significant rise to the top following a victory in the restricted Curlin on July 29 at Saratoga in his third lifetime start. The dark bay colt was second on debut traveling six furlongs in April at Keeneland and graduated two months later when stretched out to a one-turn mile at Belmont Park in June prior to the Curlin. He made his two-turn debut in the nine-furlong test, where he took up fourth position down the backstretch, before drawing clear to a 4 3/4-length score over fellow Travers aspirant Gilded Age.
A victory from Artorius would a special one for Juddmonte, who campaigned Artorius’ sire Arrogate – a memorable 13 1/2-length winner of the 2016 Travers in a track record time of 1:59.36. Artorius is out of multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Paulassilverlining, who was campaigned by Juddmonte in her last year of training.
The last Travers winner sired by another Travers victor was Summer Bird in 2009, a son of 2004 winner Birdstone.
Reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox will try for a second straight Travers victory after campaigning last year’s winner Essential Quality en route to Eclipse Award honors as Champion 3-Year-Old Colt.
This year, he will saddle Gold Square’s Cyberknife, who is the only two-time Grade 1-winner in the race. The son of Gun Runner was a last out-winner of the Grade 1 Haskell on July 23 at Monmouth Park against fellow Grade 1-winners Taiba and Jack Christopher. The last horse to capture both the Haskell and Travers was Point Given in 2001.
Cyberknife burst onto the scene in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 2 at Oaklawn Park, defeating eventual Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Oath while holding off a late inside rally from Barber Road. The chestnut colt finished an uncharacteristic 18th in the Kentucky Derby, but made amends with a victory in the Grade 3 Matt Winn on June 12 at Churchill Downs.
The well-travelled Cyberknife, bred in Kentucky by Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey, owns victories at four different racetracks. In addition to the trio of ovals where he garnered graded stakes success, he won twice at Fair Grounds Race Course at maiden and allowance level.
Cox, who secured Grade 1 success at Saratoga with Monomoy Girl  and Covfefe  en route to Eclipse Award honors in their respective years, said Cyberknife should handle the Spa surface based off his three breezes over the main track.
“We’ve had luck shipping in here. The likes of Covfefe never really breezed here. Monomoy Girl never breezed here prior to their races, so it just depends on the horse,” Cox said. “With his situation, having run at Monmouth, the owner being a local Saratoga guy, I thought it made the most sense for him to come up here. He’s had three works over the track. The first we weren’t looking to do much, just let him skip over it. The second one we were looking to do a little more, but the track was a little deeper last week, it was a good move in 1:01. [On Saturday], he was a minute flat. I actually had him a little quicker myself, but regardless the track was much tighter, and he did it the right way. More important is how he’s come out of it – he looks fantastic, so we’re set up. We’re ready.”
Installed as the second choice at morning line odds of 7-2, Cyberknife will break from post 1 under Florent Geroux.
RED TR-Racing’s Rich Strike will seek his first win since his memorable 80-1 upset victory in the Kentucky Derby for trainer Eric Reed. The son of Keen Ice, who upset Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, skipped the Preakness in favor of the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on June 11, where he finished a distant sixth. The last Kentucky Derby winner to capture the Travers was 2007 winner Street Sense.
Rich Strike was haltered for $30,000 out of a 17 1/4-length maiden claiming score in September at Churchill Downs and found his best form at Turfway Park, finishing third in the Leonatus in January, fourth in the John Battaglia Memorial in March, and third in the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks in April to qualify for the Kentucky Derby field.
Rich Strike, bred in Kentucky by Calumet Farm, arrived at Saratoga over one week in advance of the Travers and recorded a five-eighths breeze under exercise rider Gabriel Lagunes on Friday morning in 59.82 seconds over the main track.
“I asked Gabriel, who is always on the money, for 49 or 50 and 1:02, and that would make me tickled to death,” Reed said. “He went in 46 and 59 but he did it so easy. He skipped across the track. Now, we just have to get a trip and see if he can do what he did all year and that’s finish strong.”
Sonny Leon, the pilot in his last six starts, will return to the irons aboard Rich Strike, who will leave from post 2 at 10-1 morning line odds.
Grandview Equine and Don Alberto Stable’s Gilded Age is only horse in the field without a stakes victory, but arrives off a late-closing second to Artorius in the Curlin for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.
The royally-bred son of 2002 Travers winner Medaglia d’Oro, out of Grade 1 winner Angela Renee, completed the Curlin exacta at 10-1 odds, which came nearly four weeks following a triumph against winners going nine furlongs at Churchill Downs. There, he was 19 lengths off the pace down the backstretch and advanced from sixth at the stretch call to defeat next-out stakes-placed Brigadier General by a head.
A fourth-out graduate in his juvenile swan song at Churchill, the Don Alberto Corporation Kentucky-bred made his sophomore debut when third to Early Voting in the Grade 3 Withers on February 5 at Aqueduct.
Junior Alvarado will retain the mount from post 4 aboard Gilded Age, the longest shot in the field at 30-1 morning line odds.
Completing the field is RPM Thoroughbreds’ Iowa homebred Ain’t Life Grand for trainer Kelly Von Hemel. The son of Not This Time owns five lifetime wins in eight starts, including wins against his Hawkeye State-bred counterparts in last year’s Iowa Cradle and the last out Iowa Stallion on July 23, both at Prairie Meadows. He also defeated open company in the July 9 Iowa Derby as well as last year’s Richard Radke Memorial at the Altoona, Iowa oval.
“He’s settled in really well,” Von Hemel said. “He’s trained well over the track, he’s keeping his weight good, his energy level is really good. Everything’s been great. He’s trained great and like I said he’s carrying his weight well and he’s very happy right now, so everything’s been good.”
Von Hemel said he is hopeful that Ain’t Life Grand will pass the class test on Saturday.
“We don’t know what quality, but he is a mile-and-an-eighth, mile-and-a-quarter horse for sure,” Von Hemel said.
Tyler Gaffalione will pick up the mount from post 3 aboard Ain’t Life Grand [20-1].
The Runhappy Travers headlines a blockbuster program, which also includes the Grade 2, $400,000 Ballston Spa, the Grade 1, $600,000 Forego, the Grade 1, $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial, the Grade 1, $600,000 Personal Ensign, and the Grade 1, $750,000 Resorts World Casino Sword Dancer Invitational – a “Win And You’re In” qualifier for the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf.
The Runhappy Travers on FOX, with the Grade 1 Runhappy Travers slated as Race 11 at 5:44 p.m. Eastern, will air as part of a 90-minute broadcast from 4:30 – 6:00 p.m. First post on Saturday’s 13-race card is 11:35 a.m.
Saratoga Live will present daily coverage and analysis of the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course on the networks of FOX Sports. For the complete broadcast schedule, visit https://www.nyra.com/saratoga/racing/tv-schedule.
NYRA Bets is the official wagering platform of Saratoga Race Course, and the best way to bet every race of the summer meet. Available to horse players nationwide, the NYRA Bets app is available for download today on iOS and Android at www.NYRABets.com.
NYRA Press Office
Main Photo: Epicenter winning the Jim Dandy (NYRA/Coglianese)