By Ed McNamara
Handicapping and gambling: different sides of the same coin.
Monmouth Park guru Brad Thomas, one of the country’s best longshot pickers, recently offered this insight: Handicapping is easy; it’s the betting that’s hard.
He didn’t mean it’s a snap to select winners, because even the best are wrong two-thirds of the time. But it’s usually not hard to separate logical contenders from the no-hopers. The key is to oppose potentially vulnerable favorites and land on overlays.
Which brings us to Saturday’s 152nd running of the $1.25-million Travers Stakes. On paper, Essential Quality towers over his six opponents, and the reigning 2-year-old champion is the best horse of his generation.
Only an endlessly bad trip in the Kentucky Derby has kept him from being 8-for-8 lifetime, and he overcame all kinds of ground loss in his Travers prep, the Jim Dandy. He hadn’t run since the Belmont, when a stretch battle with Hot Rod Charlie had to take something out of him, and he wasn’t fully cranked for the Jim Dandy. A Travers victory would clinch the 3-year-old championship and improve his case for Horse of the Year.
Essential Quality tuned up last Saturday with a 5-furlong breeze in 1:01.58 under Saratoga’s leading jockey, Luis Saez.
“He seems to be a little more forward leading up to this race than he was in the Jim Dandy,” trainer Brad Cox said Wednesday after the 4-5 morning-line favorite drew post 2. “I think he’s a classic distance horse. He’s proven that already. Our goal since the Derby was to have him at his best on Travers day, and from a mental and physical standpoint, I feel like he’s right where we want him.”
A champion trainer, a brilliant colt and the country’s hottest jockey — so how can you go against Essential Quality?
Al Stall, Jr., trains 8-1 shot Masqueparade, who was third in the Jim Dandy.
“On the charts, it’s a one-horse race,” Stall said. “But I’ve always been taught, and I’ve learned every year, that you don’t duck one horse. Essential Quality is going to be a legitimate 2-5 or 3-5 shot, and if he runs his ‘A’ race and gets the right trip, he’ll be impossible to beat, but this is horse racing.”
The big negative is Essential Quality’s price. As a small bettor, I can’t play him straight at odds-on. I’ll include him in multiple-race wagers, but I’m looking elsewhere for my win bet.
Why? Because Essential Quality is overdue for a subpar performance, and I have a gut feeling this could be when that finally happens. I admire his relentless excellence, and as a fan I’d be happy to see him win, but as a player I have to go against the grain. As the late, great Woody Stephens said, “They all get beat,” and no track has taken down more “sure things” than “The Graveyard of Champions.” Remember what happened to American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers?
So, who’s my upset special? I’m going with Todd Pletcher’s Dynamic One (6-1), who still has plenty of upside and looked terrific in the Curlin Stakes. Unlike Essential Quality in the Jim Dandy, Dynamic One had to expend little energy, and I think he has another forward move in him. He’s never run 1 1/4 miles, but his pedigree (by Belmont winner Union Rags out of a mare by distance influence Smart Strike) says it won’t be a problem. He came from last in the Curlin, which he could have won by more than 1 3/4 lengths if Irad Ortiz, Jr. hadn’t saved something for the Travers.
Depending on how the race develops, Dynamic One can stalk from third or bide his time in midpack. Expect Midnight Bourbon to go for the lead from the rail, and he’ll probably be there to the far turn, but he’s lost ground late in his last eight races. He’s high-class cheap speed. I expect Essential Quality and Dynamic One to move at the top of the stretch, and we’ll see what happens.
Gambling is a faith-based initiative, yet sometimes acting like a heretic can lead to pari-mutuel salvation. Unlike in the Middle Ages, if I’m wrong about Dynamic One I’ll just lose a little money, not be burned at the stake.
Dynamic One 2. Essential Quality 3. Keepmeinmind