08/26/2009 11:00PM

Races with long history take on modern spin

Barbara D. Livingston
Quality Road's light preparation would have been unthinkable for a Travers starter a decade ago.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The Travers Day card at Saratoga features three important and intriguing Grade 1 races, each of them a handicapping puzzle fraught with very 21st century issues such as long layoffs and new track surfaces.

In the main event, the defections of Rachel Alexandra on Monday and Mine That Bird on Wednesday have left Quality Road the 8-5 Travers favorite to show the world what his fans had hoped he would show on Derby Day. Quality Road would have been the Derby favorite had he run instead of being knocked out of the Triple Crown with foot problems. Those appear to be behind him after the powerful colt finally returned earlier this month with a track-record victory in the Amsterdam Stakes.

He looked splendid, as he did winning the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby last winter in the style of a seriously good horse, but now he comes into a 1 1/4-mile race with a single 6 1/2-furlong sprint under his girth since March 28. If he wasn't ready for a race such as the Jim Dandy or Haskell four weeks ago, does that sprint really have him ready for 10 furlongs today?

Under those shaky circumstances, a victory will amplify his quality, and anyone who likes good horses will be rooting for him to show he's good enough to overcome such light preparation, which would have been unthinkable for a Travers starter only a decade ago. But at 8-5 or less, it may pay to look elsewhere for an upset.

Summer Bird and Kensei are the most plausible alternatives, but questions of quality surround them both. Summer Bird should thrive at the distance, and he's unlikely to receive the kind of ride he did in the Haskell, when he chased Rachel Alexandra early instead of making one run from off the pace. Maybe we'll find out how good he really was winning the Belmont Stakes: Was it a precocious victory by a horse making just his fifth career start, with more and better to come with seasoning, or did he fall into a dream scenario running down a tired and injured Dunkirk and a poorly ridden Mine That Bird?

As for Kensei, he was best and drawing away winning the Dwyer and Jim Dandy. Once considered a sprinter/miler, he keeps exceeding both the public's and his own handlers' expectations by continuing to stretch out and succeed. If he can handle one more furlong, he'll be right there. Warrior's Reward finished behind him in his last two starts but is an appealing longshot off a bad trip two back and an uncharacteristic pace-pressing effort last time. He may be a much better horse from well off the pace.

The longest shot in the field is Hold Me Back, and 15-1 looks like an underlay off his only two dirt races: a 14-length defeat in the Remsen, and a 20-length drubbing in the Derby. On the other hand, he's 3 for 4 on synthetic tracks, including a victory in the Lane's End and a second in the Blue Grass. Do those efforts mean anything in the new multi-surface world of American racing?

The issue of dirt and synthetics is a dominant one in the Grade 1 Ballerina, an otherwise compelling showdown between the outstanding 4-year-old fillies Indian Blessing, the only two-time Eclipse champion in training, and Informed Decision, seeking to unseat her this year as America's champion filly sprinter. Indian Blessing comes off one of the worst performances of her career, but that was on a synthetic track, and she's always been several lengths better on dirt. Informed Decision is almost exactly the opposite, invincible on synthetic tracks and to date less impressive on dirt. Each of them has four career Beyer Speed Figures of over 100: All of Indian Blessing's are on dirt, all of Informed Decision's are on synth. They are textbook examples of how, as American racing is belatedly realizing, form does not translate seamlessly between the two surfaces.

The King's Bishop may be the most competitive race of the day, with an all-star field of 3-year-old sprinters including Munnings, Big Drama, and Capt. Candyman Can. The race also features the return of a poster boy for the new millennium: the nearly forgotten Vineyard Haven, who disappeared after winning the Hopeful and Champagne last summer and being purchased by the Maktoums for over $10 million as a Derby prospect. With their insistence on training their 3-year-olds in Dubai, Vineyard Haven ran once at Nad Al Sheba last winter, showed nothing, and has not raced since.

So here we are on Travers Day, with last summer's leading 2-year-old making his second start in 11 months after traveling halfway around the world, and last winter's leading 3-year-old favored to win the Travers off one sprint race since March. It's the 140th Travers, but it feels like a whole new world.