08/23/2008 12:00AM

Travers looking like anybody's race

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Barbara D. Livingston
The lightly-raced Harlem Rocker gets a class test in a wide-open Travers at Saratoga on Saturday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - As Grasshopper turned for home with the lead in the 2007 Travers, that colt's trainer, Neil Howard, was getting some vocal support from his friend and colleague Todd Pletcher, who was standing next to him. Grasshopper fell a half-length short of upsetting Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.

If Mambo in Seattle makes the lead at any point in Saturday's 139th running of the Travers at Saratoga, Howard will understand if Pletcher is not rooting his horse home. Pletcher will send out the intriguing Harlem Rocker in the $1 million Travers.

"I appreciated the help last year; I won't ask him this year," Howard said.

"If we can't win it, I hope he does, but naturally we'll be rooting for ourselves," Pletcher said.

With the absence of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown from the field, Mambo in Seattle and Harlem Rocker are two of many contenders in what appears to be a wide-open running of the Travers Stakes, always the marquee event of the Saratoga summer. The field includes Belmont Stakes winner Da' Tara, Louisiana Derby winner Pyro, Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John, Wood Memorial winner Tale of Ekati, Jim Dandy winner Macho Again, and Swaps Stakes winner Tres Borrachos.

The 12-horse field makes this the largest Travers field since 1990, when 13 ran. The Travers highlights a 12-race card that includes the Grade 1 King's Bishop, Grade 2 Bernard Baruch, and the Grade 3 Victory Ride. Those races make up an all-stakes pick-four wager with a $1 million guaranteed pool. ESPN will provide live coverage of the Baruch, King's Bishop, and Travers beginning at 4:30 p.m. Eastern.

Saturday's forecast calls for mostly sunny skies with a high in the low 80s.

In 2005, the New York Racing Association moved the Jim Dandy from three to four weeks out from the Travers. Since then, Jim Dandy winners Flower Alley, Bernardini, and Street Sense all came back to win the Travers. Macho Again will attempt to make it four straight.

In the race before Macho Again won the Jim Dandy, however, Mambo in Seattle won the Henry Walton Stakes by a neck over You and I Forever, in a game performance and in a faster time than the Jim Dandy. It was Mambo in Seattle's third consecutive victory. In subsequent training, Mambo in Seattle appears to have taken another forward step.

"I'm nervously excited about it, because he's doing well," Howard said. "I keep running his last race in my mind, the way he kind of dug in. That's what you need to see for these kind of races. You're playing at the highest level you can play now."

Mambo in Seattle will break from post 9 under Robby Albarado.

Directly to his inside will be Harlem Rocker, who has won all four of his starts on dirt, including the Grade 3 Withers, in which he beat King's Bishop favorite J Be K. After losing the Queen's Plate on Woodbine's Polytrack, Harlem Rocker won the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie, a 1 3/16-mile race in which he was headed by another horse in upper stretch but still managed to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

"You don't see many horses make the lead, get passed, and then come back and win by open lengths with their ears pricked," Pletcher said. "We don't know for sure how good he might be. He won all his dirt races and seemingly had something left. This is a tougher and deeper field, but we're encouraged by what we've seen leading into the race."

Both Mambo in Seattle and Harlem Rocker figure to benefit from a strong early pace. The 11th-hour inclusion of Tizbig in the field will assure that Da' Tara - who won the Belmont Stakes in gate-to-wire fashion - doesn't control the pace here.

Of course, the likes of Pyro, Colonel John, Macho Again, and Tale of Ekati all figure to benefit from a lively pace too.

Macho Again was second in the Preakness, fifth in the Belmont, then a perfect-trip winner of the Jim Dandy. Despite his credentials, Macho Again was made the 6-1 fourth choice on the morning line.

"I thought we ran well the other day," trainer Dallas Stewart said. "I think we fit well. We've got a very nice horse who is very game. I don't feel like he was all-out the other day. I think he had a little bit left in the tank, I think a mile and a quarter is within his reach, and we're hoping for some good racing luck."

Pyro got pinched back at the start of the Jim Dandy, was forced wide in the stretch, and came with a late run that fell a half-length short of Macho Again. Pyro drew post 11 for the Travers.

"He was pinched away from there the other day and left him with too much to do," trainer Steve Asmussen said. "With this post draw, looking at the field, we have similar concerns where he'll be early. It's the key to the race. It's an extremely well-matched group, and the trip's going to make the difference."

Colonel John finished sixth as the 9-2 second choice in the Kentucky Derby, and those who remain on his bandwagon figure to get handsomely rewarded if he wins this race. His trainer, Eoin Harty, believes he was too close to the pace when he finished third in the Swaps.

Tale of Ekati finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby, then got stepped on and had part of his foot torn off in the Belmont Stakes. Trainer Barclay Tagg knew the horse was going to be short for the Jim Dandy, but was encouraged by his fourth-place finish and subsequent training.

"He might be 20-1 on the morning line, but I like the way he's come up to this race, and I think he's a good enough horse to win it," Tagg said.

While trainer Nick Zito's best chance may be with Da' Tara, he has been known to hit the board in this race with longshots. Amped and Cool Coal Man will certainly be big prices.

Court Vision, who is coming off his best race on turf, will have to navigate a trip from post 12.- additional reporting by Mike Welsch