By Gene Kershner
In the past 16 years, the winner of the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes has emerged as the Travers champion 10 times and in four of the last five editions. Last year was the lone exception, although the runner-up, Will Take Charge went on to win the Midsummer Derby and later claim the 3-year-old champion Eclipse Award.
That's some interesting statistics and will most horseplayers will have a keen eye towards the Saratoga Race Course on Saturday afternoon when six colts and a ridgling will head to the gate in the 1 1/8-mile $600,000 race. The 51st edition of the Dandy will feature the Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist (8-5) who will look to add a third straight graded stakes victory to his improving ledger.
With California Chrome off for some rest and relaxation on the left coast, this weekend will be the opportunity for several horses to step forward to start challenging his stranglehold on the 3-year-old division. The Grade 1 Haskell Invitational is on Sunday at Monmouth and has also attracted some high-end sophomores.
Tonalist's chief competition will come from Wicked Strong (2-1), the fourth place finisher in both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. The Wood Memorial winner will look to rebound for trainer Jimmy Jerkens.
Here is a look at the field (post position, trainer, jockey, ML odds in parenthesis) for Saturday's feature:
1 - Cousin Stephen (Brown, Velazquez, 12-1) Best finish in a graded stake was a third in the G2 Tampa Bay Derby for the son of Proud Citizen. He comes out of an allowance win at Parx and seems to be in over his head with this group as he is stepping way up in class.
2 - Legend (Bond, Saez, 12-1) The only ridgling in the field had a twisted testicle that was removed after he raced in Florida, and he immediately rebounded to win in New York and finished second to Kid Cruz in the Easy Goer on Belmont day. An improving 3-year-old who could be used underneath in superfecta plays at best.
3 - Ulanbator (Wilkes, Leparoux, 15-1) Longest shot in the field for trainer Ian Wilkes finished third to Kid Cruz on Stars and Stripes Day at Belmont in the G3 Dwyer after having trouble at the break. Has only one win in seven starts and is another that seems to be in deep waters here.
4 - Tonalist (Clement, Rosario, 8-5) His Triple Crown death ray went mostly overlooked in the Sunday papers after the Belmont, but after further inspection he ran a superb race. He's been off since then and training well for Christophe Clement, mainly known for his turf horses. Rosario in the irons has struggled to win so far early on at the Spa. He's giving four pounds to Kid Cruz and six to Commanding Curve.
5 - Kid Cruz (Rice, I. Ortiz, Jr., 8-1) Will be at juicy odds for trainer Rice who has loved the way her fast closing horse has responded after a dull effort in the Preakness. May be maturing at just the right time and the distance seems to suit him perfectly. May be the right price to pull the upset, just not sure if there's enough pace for him to close into.
6 - Commanding Curve (Stewart, Bridgmohan, 5-1) Disappointing ninth place finish in the Belmont after looking like a million bucks the week before the final jewel of the Triple Crown. Like the Tonalist and Wicked Strong, it will be the son of Master Command's first race back off that lackluster effort. He's rebounded off other clunkers in his career, so which Curve will we be thrown on Saturday? His workouts appear sharp, but like Kid Cruz, he'll need some early pace to run into late.
7 - Wicked Strong (Jerkens, Maragh, 2-1) Jerkens sticks with Maragh and was established as the second choice on the morning line and assigned the same weight as Tonalist. He'll wear blinkers for the first time which may have him closer to the pace. The wide post doesn't help going quickly into the first turn and he joins the other two closers in the race.
Looking at race shape, I can't see anything other than Tonalist as the lone speed in the race and he should be able to control the pace much of the way. Playing him on top of the three closers in a trifecta appears to be the best bet. Bet: $5 Trifecta Key 4 over 5, 6, 7 (cost $30).
Post Time Outlook: 1 - Tonalist; 2 - Kid Cruz; 3 - Wicked Strong; and 4 - Commanding Curve
Check back later this afternoon for the post positions and morning line odds for this year's Prince of Wales Stakes, scheduled for Tuesday July 29 at Fort Erie Race Track.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.