07/30/2012 3:35PM

Saratoga: Paynter going for Haskell-Travers double

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Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Paynter will try to become the first horse since Point Given in 2001 to win both the Haskell and Travers.

As much as he has dominated the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, trainer Bob Baffert has had mixed results with a smaller sample size in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

Baffert won his third straight Haskell – and sixth overall – on Sunday with Paynter, the Belmont Stakes runner-up who came from just off the pace to dominate the $1 million race by 3 3/4 lengths. Now, Baffert will be in search of his second Travers victory when he sends Paynter as well as Jim Dandy third-place finisher Liaison to the $1 million Mid-Summer Derby on Aug. 25.

A preliminary field of eight or nine is shaping up for the Travers, the signature race of every Saratoga meet. Expected to join the Baffert duo are Jim Dandy 1-2 finishers Alpha and Neck ’n Neck, and Curlin Stakes 1-2 finishers Street Life and Five Sixteen. Hansen, who will start as a heavy favorite in Saturday’s West Virginia Derby, is expected to run in the Travers. Possible starters include Haskell runner-up Nonios and perhaps either Easter Gift or Fast Falcon from trainer Nick Zito. Gemologist’s status is uncertain after coming out of his last-place Haskell finish having displaced his palate and with a lung infection.

Baffert has participated in only three Travers, all with horses that had won the Haskell. Point Given won the Travers in 2001, making him the last horse to pull off the Haskell-Travers double. Roman Ruler, who won the 2005 Haskell, finished third in the Travers, while Coil, last year’s Haskell winner, finished last in the Travers.

Baffert, often one to wait before confirming a next spot for a horse, said immediately after the Haskell that Paynter would run in the Travers, run at 1 1/4 miles.

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“The plan is to run in the Travers,” said Baffert, who did not attend the Haskell. “He’s a horse that can handle it. He’s tough, he’s strong, he can handle what you throw at him.”

Paynter handled everything sensationally Sunday, tracking Gemologist for five furlongs before taking over around the far turn and galloping home an easy winner. Paynter, who won his first stakes in the Haskell, ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.87 and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 108.

Baffert said he thought Paynter “was going to run huge,” and his confidence was boosted as the race unfolded.

“He was just cruising,” said Baffert, who watched the race from his summer home near Del Mar.

Baffert planned to bring Paynter back to Southern California, where he will train him at Del Mar. Last year, Baffert shipped Coil to Saratoga immediately after the Haskell.

“I want to get Paynter back here, then go back for the Travers,” Baffert said Monday while watching his horses train from a backside viewing stand at Del Mar. “I went up there last year right away with Coil, but it’s not a good deal with the weather.”

Baffert said he was going to leave Liaison in Saratoga “because he can get real light.”

“You can’t ship him around a lot,” he said.

The Travers status of two other Haskell starters is unclear. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer planned to ship Haskell runner-up Nonios – who ran well in his first start on dirt – back to Southern California and train him there before deciding on a Travers bid.

Meanwhile, Gemologist, had an excuse for his dismal Haskell performance, according to trainer Todd Pletcher.

“He had a lung infection, a lot of mucus, so we’re going to try and clear him up with antibiotics.” Pletcher said. “I know he’s a lot better than that. He trained so well. . . . Look at the form, the horses he ran against – he beat Alpha, he beat Currency Swap, he beat Street Life – we know he’s a lot better than that. We’ve just got to get him straightened out.”

Alpha, whom Gemologist beat by a neck in the Wood Memorial, is Travers bound after his front-running two-length victory in Saturday’s Jim Dandy, run over a sloppy Saratoga surface. Alpha ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.47 and earned a 96 Beyer Speed Figure.

Alpha, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Godolphin Racing, is trying to follow a similar path as his sire Bernardini, who in 2006 won the Jim Dandy and Travers. In fact, six of the last 11 Jim Dandy winners also won the Travers, including last year when Stay Thirsty did it. Stay Thirsty, like Alpha, is a son of Bernardini, and both Stay Thirsty and Alpha finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby.

McLaughlin said that while he was impressed with Paynter’s performance in the Haskell, it will not deter his participation in the Travers.

“I don’t worry too much about everybody else,” McLaughlin said. “We’re just hopeful that Alpha continues to train well toward the Travers, but Paynter was very impressive. Obviously he’ll be the favorite. We’ll hope that everything goes well and we’re there and run well.”

Trainer Ian Wilkes found several positives in Neck ’n Neck’s runner-up finish to Alpha in the Jim Dandy.

“He was very good in the paddock – he handled the paddock better – he ran straighter, truer,” Wilkes said Sunday morning. “I was just second best yesterday.”

In the Travers, Wilkes said, “the pace scenario will be different.”

“It’ll be a different race,” he said. “Maybe a drier track.”

On Friday, Street Life rallied from last to win the Curlin Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths over Five Sixteen. Those two horses finished fourth and fifth in the Belmont Stakes last time out. Chad Brown, trainer of Street Life, said he hopes the Curlin has Street Life set up for a career-best performance in the Travers.

“Our horse has been pretty steady,” Brown said. “He continues to improve gradually. I’m excited about him. I hope he pops that career number on the right day, and he’s got a shot to do it if everything goes good the next few weeks.”

– additional reporting by Jay Privman and Mike Welsch