In a time where speed rules the horse racing world and the nation’s leading classic races have faced distance cuts to abide the wishes of speed crazed breeders and owners, only one race remains untouched...the Travers Stakes at beautiful, grand, old Saratoga. Better known by some as the Mid-Summer Derby, the Travers Stakes has seen many of its victors go on to become Champion Three Year Old at the year's end. However, despite the high prestige of the Travers has among the three year olds some seem to feel that Haskell Invitational, held at Monmouth Park, is slowly becoming the leading summer target for the leading sophomores.
The Haskell Invitation has long been considered a very reliable prep for the Travers Stakes. The likes of Forty Niner, Coronado's Quest, Holly Bull, and Point Given all won the Haskell before going on to take the Travers Stakes. Though, as of late, with the growing fragility of the breed and the trends are seeing trainers wishing to keep their stars fresh rather than having the tested and battle ready. Due to this development the two races have seen the leading contenders split down the middle. The Haskell, with its shorter nine furlong distance and speed favoring track, plays more towards the trends used by today’s owners and trainers. That said, I still believe that the Travers holds the upper hand.
While last decade the Haskell did produce slightly more champions, one can argue that the Travers was able to draw horses of the same caliber. In 2002 The Haskell prevailed when War Emblem was crowned champion, however Medaglia D'Oro, the Travers victor also had a phenomonal season, winning the Jim Dandy Stakes and running second in the second in the Belmont Stakes in addition to winning the Travers. In 2007, Street Sense won the Travers, but lost division honors to Haskell third place finisher Curlin. In that year both Curlin and Street Sense were evenly matched with the record 2-1-1 between them, until Curlin won all the marbles in the Breeders Cup. In 2008 Big Brown took the Haskell route, but in both 2006 and 2009 the champion three year old male was the winner of the Travers Stakes.
Despite its length in distance, trainers still send their best colts to the Travers Stakes and have for years. While the Haskell's prominance has indeed blossomed, its growth takes away none of the luster the Travers Stakes has garnished.
When you ask an owner or a trainer the question "What race would you most like to win with your star three year old?", they don’t tell you they want to win the Haskell, they tell you they want to win the Kentucky Derby or the Travers Stakes. That is why it still and will forever remain the most prestigious summer affair in racing.