08/23/2012 3:02PM

Crist: Travers stacks up as appealing after all

Barbara D. Livingston
Street Life appears likely to relish the 10 furlongs of the Travers.

SARATOGA SPRINGS – Is the 143rd Travers Stakes at Saratoga Saturday one of the weakest and most meaningless editions ever, or is it a wonderfully wide-open and competitive horse race?

How about both?

Any Travers without the winner or-runner-up from any Triple Crown race is an unusual one, and this year it reflects a historic rash of early retirements among the leaders of the division. I’ll Have Another, the Derby and Preakness winner, and Union Rags, the Belmont winner, were both retired before opening day at Saratoga. Bodemeister, the Derby and Preakness runner-up, was retired Thursday. So was Hansen, last year’s champion 2-year-old. Paynter, the Belmont runner-up and Haskell winner, is on the grounds but recovering from a fever.

It is almost inconceivable that this Travers will have any championship implications. I’ll Have Another is very likely to be the champion 3-year-old, just like the last 12 3-year-olds who won the Derby and Preakness but not the Belmont, despite not racing since May. For one of the Travers horses even to enter the Eclipse discussion, he would probably have to go on and win both the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and that seems about as likely as a snowstorm on Travers Day.

Time is running out on any of these 3-year-olds to catch up to the older horses this season. I’ll Have Another, Bodemeister and Union Rags would have been interesting possibilities, but now it seems only Paynter has the potential, and he’s still got a ways to go. The big fall races seem likely to be dominated by a solid group of older horses, with I’ll Have Another and his three Grade 1’s still in contention for Horse of the Year only if there’s a lot of chaos in October and November.

So we’ve got a $1 million race for 3-year-olds without any of the year’s top 3-year-olds, and a field of 11 with just four graded stakes winners and only two horses who have won even half their starts. The most accomplished of those is Alpha, the legitimate 5-2 morning-line favorite. He was 12th at 19-1 in the Derby but won the Grade 2 Jim Dandy last month in his first start since, and has a couple of Grade 1 seconds, in the Wood Memorial and the Champagne. Usually a closer, he won the Jim Dandy from box to wire, but this seemed more like a function of a very soft early pace of 1:14.03 for six furlongs than a sudden transformation into a speed horse.

There’s nothing wrong with Alpha, who figures to move forward in his second start off a 12-week layoff, but who has no real edge on the field in terms of talent or speed figures, and reasonable cases can be made for at least four of his opponents at better prices:

◗ Nonios comes off a pair of 102 Beyer Figures and a good second in the Haskell to Paynter, who would have been favored in this Travers. The Haskell was his first start on dirt after five synthetic tries, and the Pleasantly Perfect colt should handle the distance.

◗ Street Life beat lesser 3-year-olds winning the Curlin here the day before the Jim Dandy, but got a better figure than Alpha did. Perhaps most appealingly, he is a consistently strong finisher who appears likely to relish the 10 furlongs of the Travers.

◗ Liaison is the field’s only Grade 1 winner, and twice finished within half a length of Nonios in California, but will be double that one’s price. He stumbled badly at the start of the Jim Dandy, losing all chance behind the slow pace, but ran well thereafter.

◗ Neck ’n Neck split Alpha and Liaison in the Jim Dandy in what seemed like a step backwards after two dominant runaway victories at Churchill Downs. He might get a little bit lost in the betting here, and would be a square play at 5-1 to run back to those prior races.

I’ll try to get alive to all five of them in the pick-whatevers, and emphasize Street Life and Neck ’n Neck. It’s a good Travers card, with a contentious Ballston Spa and King’s Bishop – less so the Test, where Contested seems a stickout. It’s not a vintage Travers, but when you’ve got five of them that close together, with a case to be made that all of them are poised to take a step forward, it’s a pretty good horse race.

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