08/25/2011 1:18PM

Travers: Stay Thirsty can claim top spot

Barbara D. Livingston
Stay Thirsty, with Javier Castellano riding, dominates the Jim Dandy.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Though he will be most likely be favored in the most prestigious event of the Saratoga meeting – Saturday’s $1 million Travers Stakes – Stay Thirsty will once again be racing in the shadow of his more celebrated stablemate, Uncle Mo, who makes his highly-awaited return just 33 minutes earlier in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop.

But if Stay Thirsty continues on the upward trend he has shown in his last two races, by dusk Saturday he could occupy the top spot in the 3-year-old division once reserved for Uncle Mo, last year’s 2-year-old champion.

Stay Thirsty will look to add the Travers to his dominant victory in last month’s Jim Dandy when he faces nine opponents who include Preakness winner Shackleford, Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice, and Haskell Invitational winner Coil in a race that could finally establish some clarity in what has been yearlong ambiguity in the division.

“I’m just so happy for this horse,” said Mike Repole, who spent $500,000 to buy Stay Thirsty, a son of Bernardini, as a yearling. “This horse has been so under the radar – he’s Uncle Mo’s stablemate, he’s a horse that hasn’t lived up to his potential. . . . In the Jim Dandy he told everybody ‘I’m for real,’ and if he wins the Travers come 5:45 Saturday he’ll be the top 3-year-old in the country.”

That Stay Thirsty has improved as his 3-year-old season has gone on is not a surprise to Repole or his trainer, Todd Pletcher. Given a pedigree that suggests the longer the better, Stay Thirsty’s success sprinting at 2 was a bit of a surprise. After beginning his 3-year-old season with a win in the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct, Stay Thirsty faltered in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. But he bounced back with a strong second to Ruler On Ice in the Belmont Stakes and followed that with a visually impressive four-length victory in the Jim Dandy, in which he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 106.

“I think he’s just better,” Pletcher said. “Sometimes you can’t explain why a horse just continues to get better. In his case it would be obvious that he’s bred to get better as he gets older, he’s bred to get better as the distances stretch out. . . . His Belmont Stakes was exceptional, his Jim Dandy was another step forward. He’s gotten to that level now if he can maintain those types of performances he’s at the top of the class.”

Stay Thirsty, who is 2 for 3 at Saratoga with a second in last year’s Hopeful, has the versatility to be wherever jockey Javier Castellano wants. In the Belmont, he was a close-up third along the rail-stalking Shackleford. In the Jim Dandy, he was fourth and wide before making his winning move leaving the three-eighths pole.

“His versatility has always been there, his tractability has always been there, he’s been able to polish the race off a little more and be a little more professional,” said Pletcher.

Under two-time Travers winning jockey Javier Castellano, Stay Thirsty will break from post 9, one slot inside of Shackleford, who figures to set the pace in the Travers, run at 1 1/4 miles.

If nothing else, Shackleford has proven to be the sturdiest 3-year-old male, having run seven times this year, with the last five being in Grade 1 stakes. He will likely try to use his speed to play catch-me-if-you-can under Jesus Castanon. Trainer Dale Romans believes by doing that he may take some of his opponents out of their game.

“He has a high cruising speed – he can go fast,” Romans said. “History shows when you pull a lot of horses out of their race chasing you they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they go with you they’re pulling out of [their] race, if they let you just keep on cruising they might not be able to catch you turning for home. That’s why speed’s always dangerous.”

Ruler On Ice had the speed to stay within striking distance of Shackleford in the Belmont, and he had the stamina to go past him in the stretch and hold off Stay Thirsty. Kelly Breen, the trainer of Ruler On Ice, said the horse has always had talent, it was just a question of when he would produce it. Ruler On Ice ran a little spotty when he was third behind Coil in the Haskell.

“He seemed a little more focused in the Belmont, but even in the Haskell he didn’t seem like himself until the very last part of the race,” Breen said. “I’m hoping, keeping my figures crossed that he’ll decide to run. Maybe we’ll put him into the race a little bit earlier, shake him up a little bit.”

Coil had displayed a front-running style in Southern California before he made a last-to-first move in the Haskell under Martin Garcia. Trainer Bob Baffert said Coil has the type of running style that will allow Garcia to put him wherever he wants. Baffert mentioned that Coil’s grind-it-out victory was similar to his sire Point Given’s win in the Haskell a decade earlier. Point Given came back to dominate the Travers.

“The ingredients are there,” Baffert said of Coil. “The talent is there.”

Among the longshots in with the best chance are Bowman’s Causeway, Raison d’Etat, and Rattlesnake Bridge.

Bowman’s Causeway, trained by Chad Brown, is coming off a second-place finish in the Prince of Wales at Fort Erie going 1 3/16 miles on dirt. He has had six weeks since that race, and Brown believes he is sitting on a career-best effort.

Raison d’Etat is a royally bred son of A.P. Indy and Sightseek who has just a maiden win to his credit. He was compromised by a soft pace when second to Turbo Compressor in the Curlin Stakes here on July 29.

Rattlesnake Bridge came with a strong late run to win the Long Branch Stakes by a neck over All for Thee on July 9. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has given him ample time to prepare for this.

Moonshine Mullin, Malibu Glow, and J W Blue complete the field.

The Travers will go as race 12 on a 13-race card that begins at 11:35 a.m. Eastern. It is the final leg of a $1 million-guaranteed all-stakes pick four that begins with the Victory Ride and includes the Ballerina, and King’s Bishop.

The Travers and the King’s Bishop will be broadcast live on NBC in a one-hour telecast beginning at 5 p.m.

MORE: Full Coverage of the 2011 Travers Stakes »