08/26/2004 12:00AM

A decade of Travers history points to winner

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Handicappers know that straight maiden droppers are dominant in maiden claiming races, and that lightly raced horses coming off runner-up finishes are the most probable allowance winners. But what type of horse wins a Grade 1 race like Saturday's Travers?

A horse like Lion Heart or The Cliff's Edge - at least based on trends from the past 10 years.

The primary reason: They are fast. They own the top Beyer Speed Figures, with The Cliff's Edge having received a Beyer Figure of 111 for winning the Blue Grass earlier this year, and Lion Heart a 110 in the same race. That puts them within a narrow margin of the average winning Beyer in the Travers over the past 10 years: a 112.

Most did not simply run a freakish race in the Travers. All but one over the last 10 years - Unshaded in 2000 - had already earned a Beyer of 108 or higher at some point before the Travers.

Applying a top Beyer cutoff of 108 to this year's field separates the pretenders from the contenders. Eddington, Suave, Sir Shackleton, and most notably Belmont winner Birdstone appear too slow. Of those, only Sir Shackleton has come reasonably close to running a Beyer of 108, receiving a 106 for winning the West Virginia Derby in his last start.

On the basis of the top figures they have run, that leaves Lion Heart, Purge, and The Cliff's Edge as the most likely winners.

The Cliff's Edge is weak in terms of his last-race Beyer, having earned a 100 in finishing a distant second behind Purge in the Jim Dandy. That is not a reason in itself to strike him from consideration. Two of the last four winners of the Travers - Ten Most Wanted in 2003 and Unshaded - had run Beyers in the upper 90's leading into the race.

Beyond figures, class has also played a telling role. Nine of the last 10 Travers winners were already graded winners. The exception was Will's Way, who had run a close second in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy in 1996, earning a Beyer of 119. Eight of the 10 were also Grade 1 winners or Grade 1 placed heading into the race.

The class angle suggests that Eddington (no graded wins) is an unlikely winner, as is Suave (no Grade 1 experience) and to a lesser extent Sir Shackleton and Purge, both of whom have raced in a Grade 1 but have yet to place in such a race.

Sir Shackleton could also be viewed as suspect in that he has won only Grade 3 races, the Derby Trial and West Virginia Derby, races that were short on depth and quality.

Travers winners tend to come down more traditional paths, not by way of Mountaineer. Of the last 10 winners, four prepped in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga, three in the Haskell at Monmouth, and three in the Swaps at Hollywood Park. The success of Swaps runners is significant, since Jim Dandy and Haskell runners tend to account for the bulk of the starters in the Travers.

The Swaps angle makes Swaps runner-up Suave somewhat attractive as a longshot in this year's race, though, as noted, his top Beyer of 103 falls well below what it usually takes to win the race.

Of course, to look strictly at what has been effective in past runnings would overlook the big picture - Saturday's race. Like every race, it is unique.

I see Purge, the 2-1 morning-line favorite, trying to play the role of Smarty Jones in the Travers - stalking Lion Heart before launching a bid heading into the final turn. Purge, 4 for 4 in races in which Smarty Jones has not competed, is a quality horse, but I doubt he has the stamina to catch Lion Heart and then repel the closers going 1 1/4 miles.

Kentucky Derby runner-up Lion Heart, being a dual Grade 1 winner and the leading money earner in the field with a $1.38 million bankroll, is the horse to catch and beat in the 1 1/4-mile Travers.

If he is run down, it will likely be The Cliff's Edge who pulls off the upset. He closed powerfully to catch Lion Heart in the Blue Grass, and now in his third start off a layoff caused by foot problems, he should be primed for a top effort. He reminds me a bit of Unshaded, who stepped up to win the Travers after a belated rally in the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy.

Lion Heart is my choice to win the Travers, followed by The Cliff's Edge and Purge. Birdstone, lacking a recent prep and quality Beyers, appears best played against. I'll throw longshot Suave, a fresh horse who exits the Swaps, on the bottom of the exotics.