Updated on 09/15/2011 12:53PM

Stage set for Volponi; Johnson takes 2nd Travers shot

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MIchael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Trainer Phil Johnson with his 3-year-old Volponi, who takes on Point Given in Saturday's Travers

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Trainer Phil Johnson has a much better chance of winning Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes with 3-year-old Volponi than he did the last and only other time he ran a horse in the race.

In 1978, Johnson sent out Nasty and Bold in the Travers. Although it was only a four-horse field, two of the participants were Triple Crown winner Affirmed, and Triple Crown bridesmaid Alydar, who finished second to Affirmed in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.

It became one of the more notable runnings of the Travers when Alydar finally vanquished his Triple Crown nemesis, although only after Affirmed was disqualified for interference on the far turn. Nasty and Bold finished third, 5 1/2 lengths back.

The Affirmed and Alydar bumping incident gave Johnson a glimmer of hope entering the far turn. But Nasty and Bold was simply no match for those two.

"When they got themselves sorted out they came back and beat us," said the 75-year-old Johnson, who was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in 1997. "A straight run race, Affirmed wins. We were tickled to death. If that was a handicap, we're right in the middle of that."

Nasty and Bold, who died last year, was a very good horse. Purposely kept out of the Triple Crown series by Johnson, Nasty and Bold won the American Derby, then beat older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap, establishing a stakes record of 2:26 for 12 furlongs that was equaled only by Hechizado.

Now, Johnson is back in Saratoga's marquee race. And he believes he has a solid chance with Volponi, a 3-year-old son of 1987 Travers runner-up Cryptoclearance whom Johnson trains for his family-owned Amherst Stable and the Spruce Pond Stable of Ed Baier.

Volponi, means "sly fox" in Italian. Volponi was named for turf writer Paul Volponi, who in a column in the New York Thoroughbred Observer honored Johnson with a "Volponi Award" for bringing a horse back off a long layoff to win a race.

The equine Volponi seemed destined to be a turf horse after winning his maiden in the Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes at Aqueduct last October in his fifth career start. This year, he finished second in a preliminary allowance race on dirt before a trio of out-of-the-money finishes in graded turf stakes.

On July 30, Johnson put Volponi in a preliminary allowance race at nine furlongs on dirt. In the 1:48.41 it took to run that race, a Travers contender was born.

Volponi was up close while in hand under Richard Migliore before making an explosive three-wide sweep to the lead en route to a 13 1/2-length victory. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 110.

"I was thrilled and shocked," Johnson said. "I expected [to win] if he ran his race on the dirt, those were bad horses, overpriced failures. I was pleasantly surprised the way he did it. If he would have won by three-quarters of a length, whipping and driving, I wouldn't even be thinking of this."

So impressive was Volponi that Migliore chose to ride him over Free of Love, whom Migliore rode to a second-place finish in the Grade 1 Jim Dandy, the traditional Travers prep.

"I don't think you see many moves as impressive as that regardless of who he's running against or what kind of race it was," Migliore said. "It was a pretty exciting move."

Unlike 24 years ago when Johnson ran against two of the best 3-year-olds of their generation, Johnson doesn't believe Volponi is running against the best 3-year-old in training when he faces Point Given. Despite a resume that includes the Preakness, Belmont Stakes, and Haskell Invitational, Point Given is an inferior horse to Monarchos, the Kentucky Derby winner, according to Johnson.

Johnson believes Monarchos is the superior horse based on his Kentucky Derby victory - only the second Derby run in under two minutes - and he also believes the injury that has sidelined Monarchos since the Belmont Stakes probably occurred in the Derby.

"I don't think there's any comparison between the two horses," Johnson said.

After running against the likes of Affirmed and Alydar, any Travers field would be hard to impress Johnson. And beyond Point Given, whom Johnson says is the one to beat if he runs his race, Johnson does not see much else for Volponi to beat.

"I don't think there's that much of a field," Johnson said. "I'm not testing him that much for class. I just worry whether he's good enough."

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