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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Winner's Circle: Preview of The Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course

By | Sports

At last, the 143rd running of the $1 million Travers Stakes has arrived. Run at 1 ¼ miles—or 10 furlongs—the Travers attracts the nation’s best 3-year-old horses. The best of who’s left, anyway.

 

Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another was retired the day before the Belmont Stakes. Union Rags, the Belmont Stakes winner, was retired. Bodemeister, the electric runner up to I’ll Have Another in the Derby and Preakness was retired this past Tuesday. Paynter, winner of the Haskell, is out with a fever.

That said, a field of 11 sophomores are set to run Saturday’s race. The favorite is currently Jim Dandy winner Alpha. He won the 1 1/8th mile Jim Dandy by going to the lead before drawing away. The question will be whether he can do the same in the Travers with the extra distance. He won’t be the only speedy horse in the race either.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Hansen, and, most recently, fourth-place finisher in the $750,000 West Virginia Derby would have been gunning for the lead. The Tapit colt has an injured front left and will be forced to skip.

Despite the defection, there are still 11 horses expected to contest for the Travers.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin will saddle the morning-line favorite in Alpha (Post 6, 5-2). With Hansen out of the race, a sure-fire speed ball will no longer be there to pressure Alpha.

“I’m very happy with our draw,” McLaughlin said. When asked about Hansen’s impact by virtue of his absence, McLaughlin felt he might inherit the lead.

“I would think so,” McLaughlin said. “I’m sorry Hansen is out. Bad news items are never fun. It does help us on the front end. Now we’ll be close if not on the lead.”

Ramon Dominguez has the mount.

On the contrary, trainer Gary Contessa, who saddles 30-1 long shot Speightscity, has something to say about that.

“We’re a long shot,” he said, whose horse will break from Post 1. “We’re going to the lead. Hansen is not in here.”

Speightscity comes into the Travers after a layoff when he “wrenched his knee,” according to Contessa in the Grade 3 Withers on February 4. In that race he finished second behind Alpha. Speightscity schooled in the paddock during the post draw and Contessa played showman as he snatched a microphone beside emcee Andy Serling.

“The biggest question is: is he fit enough? I’m not sure. He’s won [going] two turns on this track. He schools quite often. When he was a 2-year-old, he blew his mind [in the

paddock].”

Since he hasn’t had a race in over six months, Contessa breezed him a mile on the 17th and 13th at the Oklahoma Training Track. Both workouts went in 1:39 and 1:40 respectively. Most trainers only breeze their horses at four and five furlongs.

Atigun, trained by Ken McPeek, breaks from Post 7 and is at 12-1. The odds confuse McPeek as he has defeated, at the very least, Street Life (5-1) in the Belmont Stakes. His most recent effort was a sixth-place finish in the Jim Dandy on an off-track.

“The Belmont Stakes was a really good race at 1 ½ miles,” McPeek said of the third-place finish. “He needs pace and I’ll give [jockey] Mike Smith a test run. I thought he should have been closer in his last race. He’s doing fine physically.”

McPeek enters a new shooter in Golden Ticket. At 20-1, Golden Ticket is the second longest shot on the board. He’s been turning in blistering works and McPeek noted his irritation about races he entered that the horse in didn’t fill. The Travers spot is ambitious, but Golden Ticket is ready.

“He’s a fast horse,” said McPeek. “He ran well in the Tampa Bay Derby. The horse is sitting on a tilt. He’s set down every breeze. He’s hitting on all cylinders. You only get one chance at these things, so we’re going to pull away.”

Ian Wilkes is attempting to be the first trainer in over 50 years to win the Whitney Handicap and the Travers. He saddles Neck ’n Neck at odds of 9-2. In his last race, he finished second to Alpha in the Jim Dandy.

“I’d like to see a dry track,” Wilkes said. “The horse is doing everything right. I couldn’t be happier with how he’s coming in.”

Mark Casse’s son and assistant trainer, Norman Casse, will saddle Stealcase who was third in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational to Paynter. It was Paynter’s absence from the Travers that gave Stealcase’s connections confidence.

In the Haskell, Stealcase didn’t break particularly sharp and was shuffled farther back than he would have liked. Breaking from Post 4, he’ll need to be starting sharp to get in the mix early.

“We worked him twice over the main track and we couldn’t be happier,” Casse said. “We decided to run in the Travers when Paynter was out. We’re excited to see him to 1 ¼ miles. We’re happy with the post position. Hopefully he’ll break better and we’ll see him forwardly placed.”

Stealcase (15-1) worked six furlongs in 1:12 on August 13 and five furlongs in 1:00 on the 19th.

The rest of the field for Saturday’s Travers is Street Life (Post 5, 5-1), Liaison (Post 9, 8-1), Nonios (Post 10, 4-1) and Fast Falcon (Post 11, 20-1).

A brief look at the King’s Bishop

While the Travers is the biggest draw to Saturday’s card, there are several other graded stakes to watch.

The Grade 1 King’s Bishop is always a great showcase for 3-year-old sprinters. Trinniberg and Currency Swap - division leaders - will be there, but it is Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s Ever So Lucky that is making the most noise.

Third in his last race in the $100,000 Curlin Stakes, Ever So Lucky turns back to seven furlongs but bumps up to a Grade 1.

“I think we’re going to give it a shot,” Sheppard said. “We just like Saratoga; we like to run here. It’s a good distance for him. We wouldn’t ship up here for this, but he’s been here since the Curlin, and he likes it up here. We realize we’re in the deep water.”

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