By wiring a field led by all three classic winners and other alumni of the 2017 Triple Crown, West Coast became the latest poster boy for two Travers (G1) trends – one perhaps more significant than the other.
For the fifth time in the past eight years, the “Midsummer Derby” was taken by a horse who did not compete in any Triple Crown event.
That stat needs an asterisk given the historic dead-heat of 2012, making for actually nine total Travers winners in the eight-year span. Still, the recent trend is conspicuous nonetheless.
West Coast was emulating his stablemate, last year’s track record conqueror Arrogate. Both Bob Baffert trainees were unraced at two and not ready for the classics. West Coast at least was a graded stakes winner heading to Saratoga, unlike Arrogate who was making his stakes debut.
Over the past eight years, other Travers winners in this category are V. E. Day (2014), who likewise didn’t hit the racetrack until his sophomore season; dead-heater Golden Ticket (2012), who reached the wire in unison with Alpha, the 12th-placer in that year’s Kentucky Derby (G1); and Afleet Express (2010). That trio, like West Coast and Arrogate, was trying Grade 1 company for the first time in the Travers.
Before Afleet Express became a trendsetter, the previous 11 Travers winners had all been veterans of the Triple Crown, either classic winners themselves or battle-tested through the classic grind.
If we stopped right here, that evidence would be a misleading snapshot of the Travers data. For if you keep digging in the records back through the last 50 runnings of the Travers, all the way to 1968, the pattern is very different. The 11-year streak of Triple Crown race participants winning the Travers turns out to be the anomaly over the past half-century.
In the years 1968-98, the Travers was more evenly split: 17 classic runners won the Midsummer Derby, compared to 14 winners who hadn’t competed in a Triple Crown race. Let’s focus on the 14.
Several of those noncombatants would have been worthy classic contenders, only to miss their chance due to various circumstances – e.g., Coronado’s Quest (1998), Rhythm (1990), Java Gold (who famously upended both Alysheba and Bet Twice in the 1987 Travers), and Wajima (1975). Hence they’ve got a different profile from the upstarts we’ve seen crash the Travers party more recently.
Runaway Groom (1982), who defeated the heroes of the Derby (Gato Del Sol), Preakness (G1) (Aloma’s Ruler), and Belmont (G1) (Conquistador Cielo), was a Canadian classic winner himself. Albeit in restricted company, Runaway Groom nevertheless had classic credentials by placing second in the Queen’s Plate and capturing the Prince of Wales. And after the Travers, the gray landed the Breeders’ S. to earn two-thirds of the Canadian Triple Crown.
Willow Hour (1981) edged Derby/Preakness star Pleasant Colony while beating Belmont upsetter Summing, Will’s Way (1996) bested the victors of the Preakness (Louis Quatorze) and Belmont (Editor’s Note), and Holding Pattern (1974) just held on from Preakness/Belmont champion Little Current.
A few in those decades jumped up and seized the opportunity in years when the Travers had no classic winners in the field – i.e., Deputy Commander (1997), Thunder Rumble (1992), Carr de Naskra (1984), Annihilate ‘em (1973, in the absence of Secretariat), and Loud (1970). Jatski (1977) took his trophy only via the disqualification of Run Dusty Run, who’d placed to Seattle Slew in all three jewels of the Triple Crown.
So if non-Triple Crown runners are well established on the Travers honor roll, what about the fact that three of the last four winners were unraced at two? Although this too has precedent, the rate is increasing.
Loud was the only one in this category in the 1970s, but two emerged in the 1980s (Runaway Groom and Carr de Naskra) and three in the 1990s (Triple Crown veteran Corporate Report in 1991, Will’s Way, and Deputy Commander). After the turn of the millennium, Preakness victor Bernardini (2006) and Belmont hero Summer Bird (2009) progressed rapidly despite lacking juvenile starts, and garnered classics on the way to Travers glory.
Adding them to our decade’s aforementioned V. E. Day, Arrogate, and West Coast, that makes five Travers winners in the last 12 years who began racing at three.
To sum up: the recent vulnerability of Triple Crown race competitors in the Travers can be read as returning to the prior historical balance. But the number of Travers winners who were unraced juveniles may indeed be a more telling harbinger of future patterns.