08/27/2009 12:00AM

Quality Road plays catch-up

Barbara D. Livingston
Quality Road, shown working under jockey John Velazquez on Monday, may be the horse to beat in the Travers, despite having made only one sprint start in the last five months.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - He was on the short list of 3-year-olds most feared by horsemen in the spring, before foot issues forced Quality Road to miss the Triple Crown series. Now, with Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes fast approaching, Quality Road is once again striking fear into the hearts of his opponents.

Despite having run just one 6 1/2-furlong race in five months, Quality Road enters the 140th Travers Stakes, run at 1 1/4 miles, as perhaps the horse to beat and the probable favorite in a likely eight-horse field.

"I think he's probably the one horse to beat," said Kiaran McLaughlin, the trainer of Travers hopeful Charitable Man. "I know there's a Kentucky Derby winner and the Belmont winner, but I would think Quality Road would be close to the favorite."

"He's the horse that I've said all along is a horse I haven't faced that you don't know how good that horse really is," said Chip Woolley, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. "He's shown great talent. His 6 1/2-furlong race was phenomenal, and if you look back at it, his Florida Derby was phenomenal. He's a very fearsome sight out there."

Edward Evans, the owner/breeder of Quality Road, certainly hopes his rivals are right. He's hoping Saturday's Travers can make up for an extremely frustrating spring in which he went from having the Derby favorite to not even making the race.

Following back-to-back victories by Quality Road in the at Gulfstream Park, Evans had his sights set on the Kentucky Derby, a race his father, the late Thomas Mellon Evans, won in 1981 with Pleasant Colony.

But six days before the Derby was run, Evans had to announce that his horse would miss the race due to a quarter crack that wouldn't heal properly. Evans, who makes his home in Casanova, Va., but who also maintains a Fifth Avenue office in Manhattan for his general investment business, had spent three mornings at then-trainer Jimmy Jerkens's barn watching equine hoof specialist Ian McKinlay try to get Quality Road right for the Derby.

"That was no fun dealing with the blacksmith a week before the Derby," Evans, 67, said. "This is the Midsummer Derby, delighted that we're going to get a chance to run in that. Everything I hear about the horse is he's going well right now."

In mid-June, Evans moved Quality Road - who had lost just one race from four starts - from Jerkens to Todd Pletcher.

"I've known him 20 years, he's done a marvelous job with the big-time colts that he's had and he's got a tremendous analytical mind," Evans said of Pletcher. "It's hard to say he isn't in the top in that area."

While Evans was hopeful that Pletcher could get Quality Road fit enough to run in the Jim Dandy, a two-turn 1 1/8-mile race run on Aug. 1 as a prep for the Travers, Pletcher analyzed the situation and deduced it would be too tall a task. So Pletcher came up with the idea of running Quality Road in the at 6 1/2 furlongs as a stepping-stone to the Travers.

"I could see Todd's point. He hadn't had a chance to do much with him," Evans said. "A shorter race was something he could prepare him for. He thought if he did well in the Amsterdam, he could prepare him for the Travers."

Quality Road did quite well in the Amsterdam. In beating a solid field of 3-year-old sprinters by 2 1/4 lengths, Quality Road ran 6 1/2 furlongs in a track record 1:13.74. The time was changed after originally being designated at 1:13.53.

"I knew he was a fast horse from his early races at a short distance," Evans said. "I was delighted to see he broke the clock, even when they went back and rewound it."

The big question is even though Quality Road ran so brilliantly, will he be able to stretch out an additional 3 1/2 furlongs to the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Travers. He has worked twice since the Amsterdam.

"I don't think it's as big a stretch as some people are making it out to be," Pletcher said. "He's got a good race under his belt and a good breeze with a strong gallop out. We're giving up recency and seasoning to horses that have been running in the Triple Crown and the Jim Dandy. Talent-wise, we're as good as anybody. It's just a matter of whether one prep is going to be enough."

For Evans, who owns the 3,000-acre Spring Hill Farm in Casanova, Va., a Travers victory would likely vault to the top of an already pretty impressive list of accomplishments. In 2002, Evans won Grade 1 races on back-to-back days here with Summer Colony in the Personal Ensign and Gygistar in the King's Bishop. He was the leading owner at the 2000 Saratoga meet when he campaigned the impressive juvenile fillies Raging Fever and Gold Mover.

"I don't know if it's harder to win the Derby or the Travers - I know the Derby gets 30 times the amount of attention - but at least we got a chance to try," Evans said.

And to listen to his opponents, Evans has a very good chance to win.