08/25/2004 11:00PM

Sellers gets chance to silence critics

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Biancone (left) keeps an eye on Lion Heart, whom he will send as one of the favorites in Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In the days following the Jim Dandy, after The Cliff's Edge finished second as the favorite, jockey Shane Sellers feared he would lose the mount for the Travers. His connections were upset that The Cliff's Edge was so far back early in the race, and Jerry Bailey was available.

Though owner Robert LaPenta called it "a tortuous decision," he and Nick Zito decided to stick with Sellers for Saturday's $1 million . Sellers says he hopes to reward their faith by giving Zito and LaPenta their first Travers trophy.

"That's the game of horse racing," said Sellers, who won the 2000 Travers aboard Unshaded. "I've been replaced on a lot of horses. Bailey was trying hard to get on him, I knew he didn't have a mount, and when you have Jerry Bailey nipping at your heels trying to ride the horse, I'm sure it was tempting for the owners. Again, it was Nick Zito pulling for Shane Sellers in that situation, which helped me keep the mount, and I'm appreciative to everyone involved, Nick and Mr. LaPenta, they are some great people."

Sellers has been aboard The Cliff's Edge for all 11 of his races. That includes a victory in the Grade 1 Blue Grass, in which The Cliff's Edge ran down Lion Heart, who may very well be the horse to beat in the Travers.

Sellers says he has been unfairly criticized for his ride aboard The Cliff's Edge in the Jim Dandy, in which he finished 4 1/2 lengths behind Purge. The Cliff's Edge was 18 lengths off the early pace, and when Sellers moved into the stretch he encountered a little traffic trouble.

"He was 18 lengths off the pace because they went 45, 1:09 and change, and they never went those kind of fractions in his other races," Sellers said. "I wish everybody would give me a little bit of credit and quit knocking me for it. Having said that, he came running like he always does, and I'm going to take a little credit for that because I gave him a chance to win."

Sellers said it is the natural style of The Cliff's Edge to fall well off the pace. He believes the presence of Lion Heart and Purge in the Travers will provide enough pace to make The Cliff's Edge's late kick more effective.

"If they go fast enough and they come back to me and I give him a chance to finish, he's going to win," said Sellers, who is 2 for 42 at Saratoga since winning the Amsterdam Stakes aboard Bwana Charlie on Aug. 7.

Bailey's 15-year Travers streak snapped

Joe Bravo, who will be aboard Lion Heart, is riding in his first Travers, as is Rafael Bejarano, who rides Sir Shackleton. Bailey rode in his first Travers in 1985 and has only missed two since then. Saturday, Bailey will be in the jockeys' room for the Travers for the first time since 1989.

"I'm not jumping for joy over it, I'm very disappointed," said Bailey, who is a three-time Travers winner. "It makes it difficult when a lot of the horses are coming in off of wins. Changes are less likely to be made."

Asked which horse he would prefer to ride if he could choose one, Bailey leaned toward The Cliff's Edge.

"The Cliff's Edge has the most room to improve," Bailey said. "I think it's more his distance, and he didn't have the ideal trip that day. Lion Heart, it's probably stretching his limitations, but the horse is coming off a great race and Patrick [Biancone] has done a great job.

"How can you not like [Todd] Pletcher and [John] Velazquez at Saratoga?" Bailey said, referring to the connections of Purge. "It's very, very wide open."

Frankel weighs options for Midas Eyes

Midas Eyes made a spectacular return to the races Wednesday, winning a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race by 5 3/4 lengths. His final time of 1:14.82 was just .42 of a second off the track record set by Topsider in 1979. Midas Eyes earned a 110 Beyer Speed Figure for the effort.

It was Midas Eyes's first start since Feb. 7, when he finished fourth in the Strub Stakes. Trainer Bobby Frankel was slightly kicking himself for running Midas Eyes in an allowance race rather than waiting for next weekend's Grade 1 Forego Handicap.

Frankel said he isn't sure where Midas Eyes will run next. There is a possibility he could simply train up to the Breeders' Cup Sprint, though if he did that he may not have enough points to get into the race if it oversubscribes, as the Sprint typically does.

Frankel said he is planning on running last year's BC Sprint winner and champion Cajun Beat in the Grade 1 Vosburgh at Belmont Park on Oct. 2. Frankel is also planning on running Toccet in the Forego.

One race that interests Frankel for Midas Eyes is the Grade 1 Cigar Mile run on Nov. 27 at Aqueduct. Midas Eyes ran second in that race last year.

Harmony Lodge seeks Ballerina repeat

A year ago, Harmony Lodge thwarted Shine Again's bid for a three-peat in the $250,000 Ballerina Handicap by charging to the front and holding off Shine Again to win by a nose.

Sunday, Harmony Lodge will try to join Shine Again as the only two mares to win the Ballerina in consecutive seasons, when she heads an eight-horse field expected for the seven-furlong race.

Harmony Lodge captured her first Grade 1 victory in last year's Ballerina, and it began a three-race winning streak that included the Grade 2 Gallant Bloom Handicap at Belmont and the Grade 3 First Lady Handicap at Gulfstream. This year, Harmony Lodge has had the misfortune of running into monsters such as Randaroo, Ema Bovary, and Bear Fan.

Harmony Lodge runs in the Ballerina off a bad effort at Calder for the second year in a row.

"I tried to make a case the race last year wasn't that bad - she got hooked in a speed duel and still finished third," Pletcher said.

"Jerry [Bailey] said she didn't take to it that well," he said, referring to the Calder track. "She's always run well here. Basically we're duplicating what we did last year and hoping for the same result."

Harmony Lodge will carry 119 pounds, the same as Lady Tak. Others expected to run include My Boston Gal (117), My Trusty Cat (116), Smok'n Frolic (115), Molto Vita (114), and Final Round (113). Our Josephina (111) is possible.

Sugar Punch still perfect this year

Sugar Punch ran her 2004 record to 4 for 4 in Thursday's $66,500 Union Avenue Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares.

Sugar Punch, the 3-2 favorite ridden by Edgar Prado, held on for a neck win over Beautiful America in the six-furlong Union Avenue. Cologny, the pacesetter, faded to third, 4 3/4 lengths behind Beautiful America.

Trained by Richard Dutrow Jr., Sugar Punch ($5.10) covered six furlongs in 1:09.81 over a fast track.

Sugar Punch is owned by a partnership that includes IEAH Stables and Joe Torre, the manager of the New York Yankees.

Don Zimmer, a former bench coach with the New York Yankees, was in the winner's circle after Sugar Punch's victory.

Sugar Punch, a 3-year-old daughter of K.O. Punch, was purchased by IEAH Stables earlier this year. The Union Avenue was Sugar Punch's stakes debut.

- additional reporting by Karen M. Johnson