Updated on 09/17/2011 11:14AM

Midsummer stars fading


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Its business practices and management under attack by several government agencies, its marquee meet savaged by Mother Nature, the New York Racing Association may face one more indignity this summer.

Saturday's $1 million Travers - the showcase race of the Saratoga meet - may be losing its marquee names.

Empire Maker, the Belmont Stakes winner and probable Travers favorite, will likely be scratched from the race, trainer Bobby Frankel said Thursday morning. Meanwhile, trainer Barclay Tagg remained uncertain whether he'll run the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide.

Frankel said Thursday morning that Empire Maker had not completely eaten his dinner Wednesday night and acted "quiet' on Thursday morning. Empire Maker did not train Thursday.

"He left over a handful of feed, that's more concern to me than anything else,' Frankel said. "If he had ate up and everything I would have sent him to the track. He's probably not going to run, but it's not definite.'

On Wednesday, Frankel said that Empire Maker had coughed and had a tiny bit of mucus in his most recent endoscopic examination.

Meanwhile, trainer Barclay Tagg continued to play the waiting game with Funny Cide, saying he would most likely not make a decision before race day. Tagg had little reaction to news that Empire Maker would likely scratch except to say, "I'd rather have him out than have him in.'

Racing fans have been anticipating a rematch between the two horses ever since Empire Maker foiled Funny Cide's bid for the Triple Crown on June 7 in the Belmont Stakes. Funny Cide, a gelding and the first New York-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby, is extremely popular in upstate New York. The majority of his owners, the 10 partners who make up Sackatoga Stable, live in the region, and Funny Cide himself was born five miles from Saratoga Race Course.

Tagg said he would wait for the results of another blood test taken on Funny Cide while continuing to monitor the field status and the weather. The two most recent blood tests show an elevated white-cell count. Tagg does not want to run Funny Cide in hot weather, but temperatures are only forecast for the mid to upper 70's on Saturday.

If both horses scratch, it would leave the Travers with a field of six led by Jim Dandy winner Strong Hope and Haskell winner Peace Rules. A nice race to be sure, but a far less attractive match-up than a meeting of classic winners and rivals Funny Cide and Empire Maker.

"In that sense it's a letdown; still the race is going to hold up even if Empire Maker and Funny Cide were to scratch,' said Bill Nader, senior vice-president of the NYRA. The race was expected to provide some welcome attention for NYRA, which has been sharply criticized by the New York attorney general after 19 of its mutuel clerks were convicted of tax fraud or money laundering. NYRA is still facing the possibility of federal indictments in connection with the case. On top of all that, it has been a rainy summer.

"I still think we'd get 60,000 because it is the Travers, it is the Midsummer Derby, the weather forecast is perfect, and the undercard is strong," Nader said. "I don't think people are going to wake up and say, They're not running, I'm not going. I'm not going to say it's not disappointing if they both don't run, but it's not the end of the world. We'll survive.'

Gates open at 7 a.m. and first post for the 12-race card is 12:30 p.m. Post time for the Travers, the 11th race on the card, is 6:25 p.m. and it will be shown live during a two-hour SportsCenter on ESPN.

If Empire Maker is out and Peace Rules is in, the complexion of the Travers changes dramatically. Strong Hope, the front-running winner of the Jim Dandy, would most likely be challenged early by Peace Rules, who won the Haskell in gate-to-wire fashion.

Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Strong Hope, said he would rather face Empire Maker than Peace Rules. But Strong Hope has won five consecutive races and has dealt with pace pressure before.

"The thing that I think that should impress everybody is the horse loves to win,' said Pletcher, who has won a Saratoga record 30 races at the meet.

While Frankel would naturally be disappointed not to run Empire Maker in the Travers, Peace Rules is a more-than-capable backup. Though 10 furlongs is a question mark, Peace Rules ran a gutsy third in the Kentucky Derby, was awesome in the nine-furlong Haskell, and has trained sensationally since. Peace Rules has rated before, winning the Louisiana Derby from a stalking position.

"The way the post is, the race could set up for him,' Frankel said, noting that Peace Rules is drawn outside of Strong Hope. "The thing about him is, he's training great.'

If you believe lightning can strike twice, you will most likely bet on Ten Most Wanted. Six years ago to the day, trainer Wally Dollase won the Travers by a nose with Deputy Commander. Saturday, Dollase will saddle Deputy Commander's son, Belmont Stakes runner-up Ten Most Wanted.

Dollase is making an equipment change on Ten Most Wanted (blinkers on) as he did with Deputy Commander (blinkers off). Father and son both finished second in the Swaps prior to this race and drew post 4 for the Travers.

"I think the horse is doing great," Dollase said. "I couldn't ask him to be doing any better. He's suspect against some of the horses we haven't run against, but we've run with Empire Maker. I'll take the win by an inch.'

Sky Mesa, who finished second in the Haskell, will get plenty of support. He must pick up eight pounds while trying 10 furlongs for the first time. He will attempt to become the 10th horse to win the Travers the year after winning the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga.

Congrats, third in the Jim Dandy, and Wild and Wicked, the Ohio Derby winner, complete the field.