08/20/2012 4:01PM

Saratoga: Wilkes trying Travers formula again with Neck ’n Neck

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Barbara D. Livingston
Neck ‘n Neck is a son of the 2004 Travers winner, Flower Alley.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – In 2009, trainer Ian Wilkes and owner Steven Miles came to the Travers with a 3-year-old who did not run in the Triple Crown, finished second in the Jim Dandy, and was a son of a Travers winner.

Confident the horse could get 1 1/4 miles, Wilkes and Miles were disappointed when Warrior’s Reward, a son of 2002 Travers winner Medaglia d’Oro, finished fifth behind Summer Bird.

“He couldn’t get the mile and a quarter,” said Wilkes, whose horse would win the Grade 1 Carter at seven furlongs one year later. “No excuses.”

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Saturday, Wilkes and Miles are back for another shot at the Travers with a 3-year-old who did not run in the Triple Crown, finished second in the Jim Dandy, and is a son of a Travers winner. Wilkes is confident that Neck ’ n Neck, a son of 2004 Travers winner Flower Alley, will get the 1 1/4 miles.

“I don’t think it’ll be an issue for him. I think he’ll be fine,” Wilkes said Monday. “He’s a big, strong colt. It just seems like the further he goes, the better he is. This will be the first time going a mile and a quarter, but his father got a mile and a quarter, I’ll Have Another got a mile and a quarter.”

Wilkes mentioned the now-retired Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another because he too is a son of Flower Alley.

Since I’ll Have Another and Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags are retired, and Haskell winner Paynter will miss the race because of an illness, Saturday’s 143rd Travers is deemed a wide-open affair. That’s why at least 12 horses are expected to be entered on Wednesday when post positions are drawn.

The field is expected to include Alpha, Atigun, Fast Falcon, Five Sixteen, Hansen, Liaison, Neck ’ n Neck, Nonios, Stealcase, and Street Life. Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. said that Willy Beamin, who is running in Wednesday’s Albany Stakes for New York-breds, would be entered in the Travers and could run in both spots. Trainer Gary Contessa said he will enter Speightscity, unraced since finishing second to Alpha in the Withers Stakes in February, in the Travers. Contessa had wanted to run in an overnight stakes for Friday that did not fill.

Neck ’ n Neck did not show enough in the winter stakes at Gulfstream to make it onto the Triple Crown trail. In his last three races, however, Neck ’ n Neck won an allowance race by 6 1/2 lengths and the Grade 3 Matt Winn by 7 1/4 before running second to Alpha in the Jim Dandy over a sloppy track.

Wilkes said he has seen Neck ’ n Neck continue to mature throughout the spring and early summer, something he partly attributed to the addition of blinkers, which he first put on the colt in the Fountain of Youth. As an example of the colt’s maturation, Wilkes noted that Neck ’ n Neck’s three works since the Jim Dandy have all come without blinkers, including a five-furlong move Monday in 59.79 seconds in which he got his last quarter in 23.67 seconds under Julien Leparoux.

“Coming into the Jim Dandy I had blinkers on him,” Wilkes said. “It’s another sign that he’s become a little more professional about what he’s doing.”

However, Wilkes did say that he would not take the blinkers off Neck ’ n Neck for the race.

“I’m not that game,” Wilkes said.

Wilkes is eager for the Travers, especially with a long-range forecast that calls for dry weather, which should result in a fast track.

I’d like to see a good track instead of a muddy track, that’s my only thing,” Wilkes said. “Now I’ve got no excuses . . . as long as you don’t give me the one or two hole.”

Five Sixteen, second in the Curlin Stakes, worked four furlongs in 49 seconds Monday morning over the main track. Trainer Dominick Schettino added blinkers to Five Sixteen’s equipment three starts back and says he has seen gradual improvement in the gelding by Invasor.

“I see a difference from even before the Belmont the way he’s progressing physically and mentally, that’s the reason we’re giving him a chance,” Schettino said.

Rosie Napravnik will ride Five Sixteen in the Travers.

◗ On Monday, Nonios and Hansen both arrived at Saratoga.

◗ Trainer Phil Gleaves said that Csaba, second in the off-the-turf Hall of Fame Stakes, would not enter the Travers, but instead be pointed to one of two turf stakes the last week of the meet.