08/23/2009 11:00PM

Travers deeper than it looks

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The resounding victory by Careless Jewel in the Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama stakes at Saratoga on Saturday inspired many to wonder whether the all powerful Rachel Alexandra might have escaped her stiffest test to date by skipping that 1 1/4-mile race against her own age and sex.

Although most critical observers probably remain convinced that Rachel would have handled the challenge, Careless Jewel's excellent performance certainly adds depth to any race down the road involving both fillies, with or without the undefeated 5-year-old mare Zenyatta.

Speaking of Rachel's next race, owner Jess Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen ended speculation that Rachel would run in the $1 million Travers Stakes after a sharp six-furlong workout on Monday. Instead, stablemate Kensei, who worked a leisurely half-mile on the same day, will go in the Travers. Rachel is going to run at Saratoga too, in the $750,000 Woodward at 1 1/8 miles against older male rivals on Sept. 5.

Aside from the general weakness of this year's handicap division, the decision to run against older males adds still another dimension to one of the most ambitious seasons by a 3-year-old filly since the 1940s. Yet, at the same time it could be argued that the toughest horse she might have had to face at Saratoga this summer would have been the rejuvenated Quality Road, the Florida Derby winner who is going in the Travers.

Absent since enduring a quarter crack while preparing for the Kentucky Derby, Quality Road returned with a solid victory in the 6 1/2-furlong Amsterdam Stakes at Saratoga for new trainer Todd Pletcher. While the son of Elusive Quality certainly has the talent needed to win the Travers, he faces an unusual, historic challenge. Very few, if any, 3-year-olds have ever won a 1 1/4-mile Grade 1 off a single sprint prep.

As for Kensei, he is a worthy horse to carry the Stonestreet Stable banner in the 10-furlong Travers. In his most recent start, the nine-furlong Jim Dandy, on Aug. 1, the late-developing Kensei drew off from two probable Travers contenders - Warrior's Reward and Charitable Man. Only his leisurely and relatively light training schedule since that race fosters doubt about his chances to handle Quality Road, or the horses he beat in the Jim Dandy.

Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, who came the closest this year to beating Rachel Alexandra in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, also will have to overcome a recent dilemma. On Aug. 18 he had epiglottis throat surgery designed to free up his breathing. Although trainer Chip Woolley has been optimistic since the operation, part-owner Mark Allen said twice on TVG last week that he is inclined "not to run" the popular gelded son of Birdstone "so soon" afterwards.

Added together, the questions surrounding the high-profile Travers contenders leaves the door open to others who might have been left to fight for minor finishing positions.

Quality Road will be the probable betting favorite over Kensei and Mine That Bird, and both Warrior's Reward and Charitable Man figure to improve somewhat after their respectable Jim Dandy performances. Moreover, there is no way to eliminate Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird from consideration - not after he ran second to Rachel Alexandra when he shortened up from the 1 1/2-mile Belmont to nine furlongs in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Two horses, trained by Hall of Famers could be longshot factors: Nick Zito intends to run Our Edge, an improving winner of the Grade 3 Barbaro at Delaware Park, and Billy Mott has Hold Me Back, who made a premature but eye-catching move in the Kentucky Derby.

Of course Travers Day means a veritable smorgasbord of graded stakes, including the $200,000 Ballston Spa, a Grade 2 for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the turf, and three sprints - the $300,000 King's Bishop, a Grade 1 for 3 year olds at seven furlongs; the $300,000 Ballerina, a Grade 1 for fillies and mares at seven furlongs; and the $100,000 Victory Ride, a Grade 3 for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs.

In the King's Bishop, Munnings, who set a fast pace before fading to third in the Haskell, will be turning back to his best distance. Big Drama, the beaten favorite and pacesetter in the 1 1/8-mile West Virgina Derby (in which Mine That Bird finished third), also will drop back from nine furlongs for this high-octane sprint. They could be joined by Capt. Candyman Can, Captain Cherokee, and Everyday Heroes, second, third, and fifth in the Amsterdam.

Godolphin's Girolamo and Lael Stable's Just Ben, each a winner of a seven-furlong allowance race at the meet, could add depth to this intriguing race, which would be even more compelling should Bob Baffert suddenly decide to ship in two-time Grade 1 winner Zensational.

In the Ballerina, Baffert will run the defending Eclipse Award-winning filly sprinter Indian Blessing. Her recent works have been encouraging and she won the seven-furlong Test at Saratoga last summer.

Game Face, winner of the Grade 1 Princess Rooney at Calder and the Grade 2 Honorable Miss over this track Aug. 9, figures to be a major contender. But trainer Todd Pletcher might be inclined to wait another few weeks to run her at Belmont Park.

Otherwise, local allowance winner Tar Heel Mom deserves a chance to step up to this level, and Eddie Kenneally's speedy charge should be part of the pace. But, the best gambling value may lie with those who recently made bids in longer stakes.

Two in particular could be intriguing plays if their connections opt for the turn back: Spritely and Music Note. Spritely has sharp seven-furlong form and was third in the Grade 1 Go for Wand at 1 1/8 miles, and Music Note is a four-time winner of one-turn races at Belmont and Aqueduct last year (including two Grade 1's). Since tiring badly in the 1 1/16-mile, Grade 1 Ogden Phipps at Belmont in June, Music Note has worked well at Saratoga.

In a contentious Ballston Spa, Christophe Clement will run the hard-hitting millionaire Rutherienne, who was third in the Diana. Among the large group of turf pros who are potential starters are Graham Motion's improving Cherokee Queen; Tom Proctor's multiple Grade 3 winner Closeout; Saeed bin Suroor's multiple Grade 1 winner Cocoa Beach; Michael Matz's stretch-running Tejida; and Angel Penna Jr.'s Grade 1 winner Diamondrella, who has won six straight from six furlongs to one mile.

Weather permitting, this turf stakes will be one of the deepest, most contentious races of a great afternoon. And, if there is one overriding approach for horseplayers to follow in all of these races it is this: Except for protection in multi-race wagers, forget the short-priced favorites. There will be plenty of sharp horses going to the post at good odds in every race.

Steve Davidowitz will be signing copies of his newly released "Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century" on Friday, Aug. 28 and Saturday, Aug. 29 at Saratoga Racetrack's paddock area gift shop near the clubhouse entrance.