07/30/2012 8:44AM

Early Travers Thoughts, and Other Stuff

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It seems a bit funny now, but it was only a couple of weeks ago, right after the retirement of Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags and the announcement that a minor illness forced Bodemeister to miss training at a crucial time, when there was much anguished handwringing over how terrible this year’s Travers was going to be. It’s amazing how quickly perceptions can change.

This Travers, at Saratoga on August 25, will have a marquee name after all. That, of course, is Paynter, and I say that as one who really likes Alpha as a race horse. But a day after Alpha prepped for the Travers with a decisive score in Saratoga’s Jim Dandy, and two days after Street Life punched his Travers ticket with a victory in the Curlin at the Spa, Paynter dazzled in Sunday’s Haskell at Monmouth.

Even if you have only been around racing for two minutes, you could tell just by looking at it that Paynter’s Haskell was a large cut above the pertinent performances that immediately preceded it. I mean, Hansen could go out and win Saturday’s West Virginia Derby by 20 lengths (which he might, but I still believe he’s a much better fit for the seven furlongs of the King’s Bishop on the Travers undercard than the 10 furlongs of the Travers itself), and that would be a big boost for Travers promotion. But that wouldn’t change the fact that Paynter is the strong Travers favorite, and strictly the horse to beat.

I still haven’t bought into Street Life yet. He is improved and he is in great hands, but I think he essentially is still a grinder who got a great set up in the Curlin. Alpha is a different story. Yes, he got away with easy fractions in his front-running Jim Dandy victory. But Alpha is best as a closer, and he actually deserves points for being good enough to adapt to a paceless situation Saturday. I loved his successful, if temporary, change of running style toward speed. To me, that is an unmistakable sign of an emerging horse, just as a horse who loses his positional speed is usually a sign of decline.

Here are some other thoughts:

I couldn’t help but wonder if Winter Memories swishing her tail and swerving around in the stretch en route to her victory in Saturday’s Diana at Saratoga wasn’t a sign that she might be getting bored with this racing thing. She clearly wasn’t focused.

It is very cool that two old, professional geldings won the two big weekend races at Del Mar – Rail Trip in Saturday’s San Diego Handicap and Amazombie in Sunday’s Bing Crosby. Great stories both, but do these performances stand up to scrutiny? Amazombie, last year’s champion male sprinter, got a perfect trip in the Crosby sitting just off a contested pace and beat a favorite in The Factor who is just not himself right now.

As for Rail Trip, he is clearly at his best back in Southern California and back with trainer Ron Ellis. But what does it say about the San Diego ‘cap that when he was in New York with a trainer (Rick Dutrow) who wins with seemingly 83% of his starters, Rail Trip wasn’t even an overnight stakes horse?

A couple of older thoughts after being off last week:

The free Wi-Fi at Saratoga is a great idea, and considering every boutique coffee shop in America has offered this for years, it’s amazing this hasn’t been a standard amenity at every track in the land. I have noticed that hand held tablets are becoming more ubiquitous at tracks with each passing week. I use one, and it felt like a luxury being able to bet with it at Saratoga. I even noticed a couple of guys walking around Restaurant Row there staring at laptops. Presumably, they were using Formulator.

Unfortunately, I can’t say anything nice about the widened, heightened Mellon turf course at Saratoga. Is it really possible that, when this project was undertaken last fall, no one at NYRA considered that the heightened outside rail on the Mellon turf would make following horses on the far turn in dirt races nearly impossible? Really? Of course, nothing important happens on the far turn, anyway. Right?

I know that Silver Max is streaking, but Summer Front is my favorite 3-year-old turf horse. He has a freakish late brush in him.