08/20/2012 9:57AM

Travers Thoughts

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Saturday’s Travers at Saratoga doesn’t look nearly as sexy as it did the Monday morning after Paynter dominated the Haskell because, of course, Paynter won’t be running due to illness. And this Travers has a lot of work to do to match what transpired at Saratoga this past Saturday, which, thanks to Questing and Point of Entry, was one of those unforgettable days Saratoga has long been known for. But this is the Travers we are talking about, a truly great race that is still worthy of our time and attention.

Alpha will be the Travers favorite as he attempts to emulate stablemate Questing. Questing swept the meet’s two premier events for 3-year-old fillies – the CCA Oaks and Saturday’s Alabama – and Alpha is in position to sweep Saratoga’s two top races for 3-year-old males, at least races  going long, after he won the Jim Dandy earlier in the meet.

Alpha’s Jim Dandy score seems to be a polarizing one. There are those who downgrade it because he had an easy early lead through slow fractions on a sloppy track he is bred to adore, and all of that is true. But I really liked Alpha’s effort because he’s a closer at heart, and yet he showed the versatility to adapt to a situation that would have been compromising if he stuck with his most effective running style.

But the potential pace scenario in the Travers, in view of the probable field as of Monday morning, should be different than it was in the Jim Dandy. For one, the Travers has Hansen, and the Jim Dandy had no such speed horse. Now, I like Hansen as a race horse, but I don’t like him going the Travers distance of 10 furlongs, especially since he is 0 for 3 in races beyond a mile and a sixteenth. In fact, I think Hansen is in the wrong race Saturday. I think he should be in the seven furlong King’s Bishop, a race that is also well worth winning as it’s a Grade 1 worth $500,000. That Hansen isn’t in the King’s Bishop could be emblematic of his somewhat questionable handling, which many doubt trainer Mike Maker has much to do with.

Anyway, Hansen is the main speed in the Travers, and we might also see a little pace from Stealcase, since closing hasn’t worked for him lately and who did show positional speed in the Derby Trial, and perhaps Nonios, who made a nice middle move when second in the Haskell. The potential Travers pace can’t hurt, and might only help Alpha. But the good news for those who like alternatives to the chalk, it helps other horses, too.

This pace set up is good for a group in the Travers who I will still be leaning against, namely Street Life, Liaison, and Fast Falcon. Although he was second in the Dwyer two starts back, Fast Falcon just isn’t good enough. Liaison, a son of Indian Charlie, hit the board in the Affirmed, Swaps, and Jim Dandy in his last three starts, but I don’t back horses by Indian Charlie to stay 10 furlongs. Street Life has certainly improved since getting blinkers, and he does come off a win over the track in the Curlin Stakes, the local “B” prep for the Travers. But Street Life got a perfect set up in the Curlin, and he beat a horse in Five Sixteen who is still eligible to an entry-level allowance race.

The potential pace scenario also helps Neck ‘n Neck and Atigun, who are, for me, more dangerous Travers horses. Atigun’s sixth in the Jim Dandy is a complete throw out as he is a dead closer who was compromised by the pace, but he is certainly in the mix off his close, if surprising third in the Belmont Stakes two starts back.

Neck ‘n Neck is very intriguing. He was a game second in the Jim Dandy after a stalking trip that just wasn’t going to work under the circumstances, and was turned back only late after making a run at the unmolested Alpha. Neck ‘n Neck really came to hand in his prior two starts with big triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure romps, and he hails from an Ian Wilkes barn that won a major race earlier in the meet, the Whitney with Fort Larned.

Although it’s old news by this point, here are a couple of thoughts on what happened last Saturday:

Let me echo what everyone else has said, which is Questing was astonishing in the Alabama to win the way she did after setting a pace that fast. She was erratic again in the stretch, though not as bad as she was in the CCA Oaks, and it is frightening to think that she could actually even be better if she ever improved her focus in the stretch. But there is no need to mess with her. She is a monster.

Point of Entry is pure class. And after his show of authority in the Sword Dancer, he is, for me, and with all due respect to Acclamation, Wise Dan, and Arlington Million winner Little Mike, the best turf male in the country right now.

As for Little Mike, yes, of course, he stole the Arlington Million. But I can think of more than a few horses would have been incapable of capitalizing on setting as slow a pace as Little Mike did at Arlington, so he deserves his due.