Updated on 09/17/2011 6:22PM

Post-time favorite anyone's guess


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - For the ninth consecutive year, the Travers field lacks the Kentucky Derby winner, as the retired Smarty Jones has already settled into his new Kentucky home in Lexington. Unlike many of the last nine runnings, however, Saturday's 135th Travers Stakes does not want for intrigue.

The debate surrounding the seven runners in the $1 million began at Wednesday's post-position draw when Jim Dandy winner Purge was installed as the 2-1 favorite on the track's morning line. Many believe that Haskell winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Lion Heart or Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone - the only horse to beat dual-classic winner Smarty Jones - could be favored come post time at 6:25 p.m. Eastern.

The Grade 1 Travers tops a 12-race card that begins at 12:30 and includes the Grade 1 King's Bishop and the Grade 2 Fourstardave. Those three stakes plus the ungraded Victory Ride make up a $1 million guaranteed pick four wager. A once-promising forecast has disintegrated into one calling for cloudy skies with a chance of thunderstorms.

Questions abound among the top three contenders. Purge and Lion Heart are both front-running types who will try to get the Travers distance of 1 1/4 miles. They must also try to maintain the top form they displayed winning prep races just 20 days ago. Birdstone, owned by Saratoga socialite Marylou Whitney, is trying the Travers off an 84-day layoff. Trainer Nick Zito feared a regression in the Travers had he run Birdstone in a prep.

"He would have fired his best shot," Zito said. "So if he's going to fire, I'm hoping it's Saturday. He's trained pretty good for it. He should run big."

Birdstone is one of three horses Zito will saddle in this year's Travers. Blue Grass winner The Cliff's Edge and West Virginia Derby winner Sir Shackleton are the others. Zito has sent out 11 runners in 10 editions of the Mid-Summer Derby dating back to 1980, but has yet to take home the top prize.

Though many handicappers will focus on Birdstone or The Cliff's Edge as the ones to give Zito his Travers, an undercurrent of support is building for Sir Shackleton.

Birdstone and The Cliff's Edge were graded-stakes winners at 2, while Sir Shackleton didn't make his first start until February. Sir Shackleton won three of his first four starts, including the Grade 3 Derby Trial, but was overmatched in the Preakness and finished sixth, beaten 14 3/4 lengths. Considering Smarty Jones won that race by 11 1/2 lengths, Sir Shackleton was hardly embarrassed.

Sir Shackleton finished third in the Dwyer after chasing the hot pace set by Medallist. He came back with a strong late run to win the Grade 3 West Virginia Derby three weeks ago and has trained brilliantly since.

"I think he's going to do extremely well in the race," said Zito, who has the nation's leading jockey in wins, Rafael Bejarano, in the saddle. "He's a dangerous horse because he's getting good at the right time."

Even Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Purge, fears Sir Shackleton, who figures to be the fifth choice in the wagering.

"I think Sir Shackleton is a very interesting horse," said Pletcher, who also seeks his first Travers. "He's gotten very good; he's a developing horse. I would certainly throw him into the mix."

Pletcher finds himself in a similar situation as last year. Pletcher brought Strong Hope to the Travers after upsetting Empire Maker in the Jim Dandy. Strong Hope could not carry his speed 10 furlongs, and faded to third after dueling for the lead.

Twenty days ago, Purge ran the best race of his life winning the Jim Dandy by 4 1/4 lengths. In that race, Purge stalked the runaway speed of Medallist before taking command around the far turn. If Purge can relax again early under John Velazquez, he will try to stalk Lion Heart.

"I think Lion Heart is going to clear us, and we're going to stalk and take it to him when Johnny thinks it's time," Pletcher said. "Watching the Jim Dandy, I wouldn't think the mile and a quarter would be a problem."

Lion Heart will try to win the Travers from on the pace, something Holy Bull did in 1994. Lion Heart finished second to Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby and, after a poor effort in the Preakness, rebounded with two graded-stakes wins. His trainer, Patrick Biancone, sees a stronger 3-year-old than in the spring.

"He's so much a running machine," Biancone said. "He likes to run; he likes to gallop. He wants to win the race in the first quarter-mile."

After running down Lion Heart in the Blue Grass, The Cliff's Edge threw two front shoes in the Kentucky Derby and finished fifth. He suffered a bruised foot that forced him to miss the Preakness and Belmont. The Cliff's Edge was too far back in both the Jim Dandy and the Dwyer, but he should appreciate the 1 1/4 miles.

Suave won the Grade 3 Northern Dancer at Churchill in the slop and finished second to Rock Hard Ten in the Swaps. He gets the services of Pat Day, who has won this race four times, including last year with Ten Most Wanted.

Eddington finished third in the Jim Dandy, but was disqualified to fourth for interference in the stretch. He has been somewhat of an underachiever, but he could flourish at the distance.

The field

Travers Stakes
Purse: $1 million; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

1EddingtonR. Migliore20-1
2Lion HeartJ. Bravo2-1
3PurgeJ. Velazquez5-2
4Sir ShackletonR. Bejarano R 8-1
5BirdstoneE. Prado4-1
6The Cliff's EdgeS. Sellers3-1
7SuaveP. Day20-1

* All starters carry 126 pounds
* Odds by Steve Grabowski
* Television: Saturday, 5-7 p.m. (Eastern), ESPN