08/26/2010 1:32PM

Travers certainly worth taking a flyer

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The 141st Travers Stakes is not exactly a vintage edition on paper. Lookin At Lucky, the division’s leader, took a pass on the race. The remaining field of 11 has a combined record of 2 for 19 in Grade 1 company, and its two Grade 1 winners, Super Saver and Ice Box, have both finished off the board in their last two starts.

As a wagering proposition, however, it is a sparkler, perhaps the most competitive Travers in more than a decade. Reasonable handicappers can make reasonable cases for nearly anyone in the field. Only one of the 11 is listed at more than 12-1 on the morning line – Afleet Again at 30-1 – and I’m not convinced he doesn’t have a legitimate chance at least to hit the board.

You can attack the race from several different directions, each of which will lead you to different top contenders. Speed-figure devotees might lean towards A Little Warm and Miner’s Reserve, the only horses in the field to have run triple-digit Beyer Figures in their last two starts. Class guys may be all over those Grade 1 winners, Super Saver and Ice Box, who did run 1-2 in the Kentucky Derby at 8-1 and 11-1 and aren’t much shorter on the Travers morning line at 6-1 and 10-1 against fewer and less accomplished rivals. I’ve heard trip and track-bias afficinadoes make cases for First Dude and Afleet Express off their last starts.

I’m going at the race from yet another angle, one that gets talked to death at Derby time every year but may be underrated in the Travers: The 10-furlong distance of the race. It is often a profitable approach in the Travers, where horses who have useful but had flat-looking preps going nine furlongs in the Haskell or Jim Dandy often take a few steps forward, and I think the distance may be particularly relevant this year. With several committed front-runners and pressers in the field, there’s going to be an honest pace, and with a pretty evenly matched field I expect to see a big bunch of them close together in upper stretch. Those who move last and finish best may have the last laugh.

By process of elimination, I’m going to focus on five horses who will be decent prices and strike me as those most likely to flourish in the 10th and final furlong.

It may seem crazy to begin by eliminating the 1-2 finishers from the Jim Dandy from one’s Travers selections, but that’s why they call it gambling. The Jim Dandy seemed to me like a conveyor-belt race, with A Little Warm running down the distance-challenged Miner’s Reserve just as he did in a Delaware Park allowance race a month earlier. Friend or Foe was perfectly placed behind them and never gained an inch, fading to fourth late. He can improve in his fifth career start, but probably not enough to contend here.

I’m also passing on First Dude, the mid-race leader in the Preakness, Belmont, and Haskell, who will again probably run well to the eighth pole and be swallowed late. I also want no part of Admiral Alex, who will be making just his second career start, hardly a recipe for success at this level. I’ll use the aforementioned Afleet Again on the bottom of intrarace combinations because he seems capable of clunking up for third or fourth, but I can’t make him win the race.

That leaves me with, alphabetically, Afleet Express, Fly Down, Ice Box, Super Saver and Trappe Shot, and I’m hoping the winner and the exacta reside among among that quintet. All of them lost their last start and they all have their drawbacks, but they may be the ones still surging when the others aren’t.

If I had to pick one, I’d take Fly Down. I know it’s a weird selection: He’s one of only three horses in the field who has never exceeded a 97 Beyer, his connections are having dismal Saratoga meetings – at this writing, trainer Nick Zito is 2 for 30 and jockey Jose Lezcano is 5 for 113 – and he was fifth in the Jim Dandy behind four who return here. But he was far back early, troubled late, and against the flow of that race, and prior to that was a six-length winner of the Dwyer and a fast-closing second in the Belmont. In as wide-open a Travers as we’ll ever see, that’s enough to take a shot at 8-1 on the morning line.