08/20/2007 11:00PM

Get ready for Travers Day

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As far back as any living person can remember, the Travers Stakes has been labeled the "Midsummer Derby" because it has provided America's top 3-year-olds with a chance to validate the results of the Triple Crown races.

In most years the Kentucky Derby winner would be joined in the Travers field by the Preakness or Belmont winners and a few late-developing 3-year-olds who might have missed the spring classics due to training setbacks.

While this year's $1 million Travers lacks the depth of many of its previous 137 runnings, the scenario actually resembles the historic model.

We may not have Preakness winner Curlin, or the Belmont-winning filly Rags to Riches. We will not even have Hard Spun, who ran second, third and fourth in the three Triple Crown races - and we definitely will not have the most compelling late-season development, Any Given Saturday, an impressive winner of the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Aug. 5.

But all those defections notwithstanding, the 2007 Travers will have Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, fresh off his victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes over the track on Aug 4. It also is expected to attract C P West, fourth in the Preakness and second in the Jim Dandy, plus a few late-developing colts that fit the profile of improving horses that usually deserve a much closer look - Sightseeing, Grasshopper, and Loose Leaf.

Sightseeing, a stretch-running winner of the Peter Pan at Belmont Park in May, skipped the Belmont and will come into the Travers with improving workouts following a pair of third-place finishes to Any Given Saturday in the Dwyer and Street Sense in the Jim Dandy. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey has shown extreme patience with this son of Pulpit, but now McGaughey is ready to take off the wraps. He has hinted more than once that he believes Sightseeing is ready to take the necessary forward leap to seriously challenge the Derby winner.

"He's stronger and more mature now," McGaughey said last week.

"I liked his third-place finish [in the Jim Dandy]," McGaughey said. "He galloped out past the winner, which was an encouraging sign."

As for Loose Leaf and Grasshopper, both have impressive victories over the track.

Trained by Ken McPeek, Loose Leaf won a restricted nine-furlong stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 6 and has trained forwardly since.

"His breeding says he should prefer middle distances, but the way he finishes, I think he'll love 1 1/4 miles," McPeek said.

Grasshopper, so promising winning a maiden route at Churchill Downs last fall and a winner of a nine-furlong allowance race over the Saratoga racing strip July 30, may have the best chance to add another chapter to the Saratoga legend as the "Graveyard of Favorites."

His trainer, Neil Howard, one of the best in the game, is a pure horseman with a history of success despite limited opportunities. In fact, Howard has been building an excellent career resume. Among his accomplishments, Howard trained 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall and 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, and dozens of stakes winners in New York, Florida and Kentucky. Most recently he developed Student Council, who was sent to Vladimir Cerin about a week before he posted a 23-1 upset victory in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 19, mostly off of Howard's training.

"Grasshopper has always been a top prospect," Howard said. "But we had to take our time to get past a few little problems that kept him out of the Triple Crown preps. Now he is coming back strong and has a chance to live up to what we thought he might become."

Howard added that Grasshopper's improvement in each of his three starts this year has been "very encouraging," and that his latest training moves suggest "that he deserves a shot in the Travers."

As for the three other graded stakes on the Travers Day card, it will be interesting to see if the 6-year-old Shakespeare can reproduce the eye-catching late surge he uncorked to win a one-mile allowance race on the Saratoga turf course Aug. 2.

Likely to run in the nine-furlong Bernard Baruch on the turf, Shakespeare was last seen suffering his first and only career defeat - a 45-length thrashing in the 2005 BC Turf at Belmont Park. Following several attempts to get the solidly built son of Theatrical straightened out, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott gave up and recommended retirement. Apparently, though, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin was given an opportunity to resolve Shakespeare's problems, and now with his powerful winning return as a foundation, the sky is the limit.

In the Victory Ride, a six-furlong Grade 3 sprint for 3-year-old fillies, it might be wise to go longshot hunting as there are no standouts and few to toss as non-contenders. That stated, it will be the other sprint on the Travers Day card - the seven-furlong King's Bishop - that will attract nearly as much attention as the Travers itself. That is because the familiar Hard Spun will be playing a new game.

Second in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Preakness, fourth in the Belmont Stakes, and second in the Haskell, Hard Spun is skipping the Travers to challenge a deep field of proven sprinters at their own specialty.

Trainer Larry Jones may insist this is just a "temporary cutback in distance" before Hard Spun is pointed toward the 1 1/4-mile BC Classic. But a solid performance in the King's Bishop probably will persuade Jones to look more seriously at the new BC Dirt Mile (which will be run at one mile and 70 yards this year because of the configuration of BC host track Monmouth Park), or the traditional six-furlong $2 million BC Sprint.

From what I saw in the Triple Crown races and the Haskell, Hard Spun is unlikely to win a 1 1/4-mile race against Haskell winner Any Given Saturday, or Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, or Preakness winner Curlin, much less the top older horse Lawyer Ron. So this attempt to shorten up Hard Spun makes plenty of sense, even though he will face a stiff test.

Among the experienced sprinters scheduled to challenge Hard Spun are the Nick Zito-trained Most Distinguished, winner of the six-furlong Amsterdam over the track on July 30; the Bobby Frankel-trained First Defence; the Todd Pletcher-trained King of the Roxy; the Bob Baffett-trained E Z Warrior; and possibly the Jamie Sanders-trained Teufelsberg, winner of the Riva Ridge on the Belmont Stakes undercard on June 9. All five of these proven sprinters have solid stakes victories this year and will offer some value as win and place candidates in the exactas and trifectas. The general betting public tends to go overboard for a name horse like Hard Spun, whom they have seen perform so admirably in all three Triple Crown events.