08/20/2013 12:51PM

The Travers Favorite

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We know with certainty who the betting favorite will be in one of this weekend’s mega events. Game On Dude is the best horse in America at this particular moment, and he will be a strong favorite in Sunday’s Pacific Classic at Del Mar, even though he is 0 for 2 in two previous starts on Del Mar’s Polytrack, starts that just happened to be in the last two editions of the Pacific Classic. Whether Game On Dude will win is a different matter. But he will be the favorite.

But the favorite for Saturday’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga? That is a much tougher call.

It’s obvious the favorite for the Travers will come from the trio of Verrazano, Palace Malice, and Orb. But which one will be the favorite is not at all obvious, even with only four days left until the race.

“It’s definitely not an easy call,” Eric Donovan, morning linemaker and analyst for the NYRA, said Tuesday afternoon. “You have three horses coming from opposite ends of the spectrum. You have one horse, Verrazano, who was brilliant all year in every race except the Derby. You have another horse in Palace Malice who has put it all together recently, winning the Belmont Stakes, and running a big race winning the Jim Dandy. And Orb is a fan favorite, or at least was before sub-par races in the Preakness and Belmont.”

Keeping in mind that Donovan reserves the right to adjust his thinking right up until he must release his line at the Travers draw Wednesday morning, he has a sense of what he will do with the big three.

“My gut feeling,” Donovan said, “is Verrazano the favorite, then Palace Malice, and then Orb. I have Orb at third in the line. I would have a hard time making him the favorite. Verrazano, to me, if you put your finger over his Derby, he looks like the best horse in the race. But you do have to weigh in distance. He looked in the Wood Memorial like a mile and a quarter might be a problem, but he looked in the Haskell like he should handle a mile and a quarter.”

Right now, Donovan is thinking of making the Travers favorite either 2-1 or 5-2, the second choice either 5-2 or 3-1, and the third choice either 7-2 or 4-1. “I would put some space between the second and third choice,” he said, adding, “Often, when I have horses as close together as they can be, like 2-1 and 5-2, it means I think it can go either way.”

I think Donovan is right on with Orb. I suspect his constituency has shrunk after disappointing efforts in the Preakness and Belmont, and the fact that he hasn’t had a traditional Travers prep won’t win him additional pari-mutuel support. But that makes Orb a nice play if you’re still a believer.

I do not envy Donovan having to peg a favorite between Verrazano and Palace Malice. Donovan’s points on Verrazano are well taken, but having won the Belmont and Jim Dandy, Palace Malice has no questions concerning distance, and has a big win over the track, something Verrazano does not have.

Very tough call.