08/23/2012 3:21PM

Saratoga: Travers has serious West Coast contenders

Barbara D. Livingston
Nonios gets in some exercise Thursday with Lorna Chavez riding. He will have John Velazquez in the saddle for the Travers.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – If there has been one constant in the 3-year-old division this year – aside from injuries and premature retirement – it has been the success of the horses based in Southern California.

I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister put forth two scintillating performances running one-two in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The inexperienced Paynter nearly stole the Belmont Stakes – losing by a neck to Union Rags – before dominating the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational last month at Monmouth Park.

So when scouring the past performances of the 11 horses entered in Saturday’s seemingly wide-open $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga, it seems logical to land on the two Southern California-based runners, Nonios and Liaison.

Nonios, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, has won 3 of 6 starts, including the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap over Liaison. In his first start on dirt, Nonios finished second to Paynter in the Haskell. Had Paynter not gotten sick following the Haskell, he would have been the solid Travers favorite.

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Liaison, despite being winless in seven starts this year, is the lone Grade 1 winner in the Travers field, having captured the CashCall Futurity last December at Hollywood Park. Moreover, Liaison is trained by Bob Baffert, who in addition to finishing second in all three Triple Crown races this year, has in 2012 won seven stakes restricted to 3-year-olds with six different horses.

Ridden by Corey Nakatani in the Haskell, Nonios made an early move at pacesetting Gemologist along the inside – not the best part of the track – before dropping back and making a three-wide move at Paynter, who had gotten the jump on him. Nonios was beaten 3 3/4 lengths by Paynter while finishing 4 1/2 lengths ahead of a slow-starting Stealcase.

“I thought it was a pretty good effort on that track, a pretty good effort for first time on dirt,” Hollendorfer said this week from California. “I thought he deserved a chance to run, and he ran a big enough race.”

After shipping back to Del Mar, where he worked twice, Nonios returned to New York on Monday. Late Thursday morning, the sleek-looking, near-black colt made a nice appearance schooling in the gate, touring the paddock, and galloping over a chopped-up main track.

“Most people would call the race a wide-open race,” Hollendorfer said. “If you’re going to be in the big races at the end of the year, this is an important one to do well in. That’s why there’s a lot of interest.

“If Paynter would have been in that race, I think there would have been 12 horses in the field,” Hollendorfer added. “Everybody knows Paynter ran a great race in the Haskell – he’s not in there, Hansen’s not in there, that changes the speed factor of the race. Everybody will have to dig into that Racing Form and figure out a strategy for their horse.”

One strategic move Hollendorfer has made is to retain the services of John Velazquez, winner of the 2005 Travers on Flower Alley. Velazquez, who counts seven stakes among his 23 wins at this meet, figures to put Nonios in a forward position from post 10.

Liaison broke poorly and was wide around both turns when he finished third in the Jim Dandy. He remained in Saratoga and has put in two strong workouts over the main track.

“He ran a good race in the Jim Dandy because he got away slow, was a little wide in the first turn,” Baffert said. “He’s not a horse that’s going to chase. You got to try to keep him comfortable and get him in the clear as soon as possible.”

When Hansen was not entered, it changed the pace dynamic. Speightscity, away since February, is likely to show speed from the rail. The connections of Stealcase want their horse closer than he was when he broke poorly in the Haskell. Golden Ticket, away since May, and possibly Alpha, are also likely to show speed.

Alpha won the Jim Dandy in front-running fashion under Ramon Dominguez, who is dominating this meet. Alpha hadn’t run in 12 weeks and was breaking from the rail. He has won previously from a stalking position.

Alpha is 2 for 2 over the track and has seemed to thrive since coming to Saratoga in early June after a temperature knocked him out of the Belmont Stakes.

“He ran in the Derby, and trying to get to the Belmont he was light and kind of tired,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “He came up here and it’s like he’s a different horse. He’s put on 100 pounds in the right places. He’s very happy and he’s sound and he’s just doing great and winning the Jim Dandy was not a hard race.

“He stepped up in the Jim Dandy and we still have to take another step forward,” McLaughlin added. “He’s a really nice horse and he might be the best 3-year-old [remaining] because of [horses] retiring. He’s really never been better, that’s the bottom line.”

Neck ’ n Neck finished second to Alpha in the Jim Dandy. Before that, he won an allowance race and the Grade 3 Matt Winn by a combined 13 3/4 lengths. Trainer Ian Wilkes believes a dry track and the added distance will both be pluses for his colt, who is a son of Flower Alley, the sire of I’ll Have Another.

“I’d really love to see a dry track and see what we can do,” Wilkes said. “The horse has done everything right, done everything we asked of him, and I couldn’t be happier the way he’s coming in.”

Street Life won the Curlin Stakes and is a horse who continues to improve and should like the 1 1/4 miles of the Travers if the pace scenario is right. Atigun was third in the Belmont and may have been compromised by pace when he ran sixth in the Jim Dandy. He gets a rider switch to two-time Travers winning jockey Mike Smith.

Five Sixteen, Fast Falcon, and Golden Ticket have all run second in stakes, but are all eligible for their first-level allowance condition.

The Travers will go as race 12 on a 13-race card that begins at 11:35 a.m. Eastern. It is the final leg of an all-stakes pick four with a guaranteed pool of $1 million that includes the Ballston Spa, Test. and King’s Bishop.

NBC Sports is scheduled to show all four stakes in a two-hour program beginning at 4 p.m. Eastern.

2012 Travers Field

Purse: $1,000,000; 1 1/4 miles





Watchmaker Odds

ML Odds



G. Contessa

I. Ortiz, Jr.




Five Sixteen

D. Schettino

R. Napravnik




Golden Ticket

K. McPeek

D. Cohen





M. Casse

S. Bridgemohan




Street Life

C. Brown

J. Lezcano





K. McLaughlin

R. Dominguez





K. McPeek

M. Smith




Neck 'n Neck

I. Wilkes

L. Goncalves





B. Baffert

R. Bejarano





J. Hollendorfer

J. Velazquez




Fast Falcon

N. Zito

J. Alvarado