08/27/2007 12:00AM

Travers wasn't the defining moment


NEW YORK - There were some "wow" performances at Saratoga on Saturday. And to the surprise of more than a few people, Street Sense's victory in the Travers Stakes was not one of them.

Perhaps it is a measure of how good a horse Street Sense is - either that, or a measure of the expectations that a Kentucky Derby winner carries with him - that he could win a race like the Travers and still leave fans with a small sense of disappointment. But that is a natural reaction after Street Sense had to work so hard to prevail following a bitter struggle with the previously unheralded Grasshopper, who was making his first start in a stakes race.

The Street Sense we got in the Travers was the Street Sense who barely edged Any Given Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby, who missed in a photo in the bizarrely run Blue Grass, and who was nailed by Curlin in the Preakness when he pulled himself up after opening a clear lead in deep stretch. It was not the Street Sense who dominated the Derby or the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall. And that was the Street Sense many of us thought we would see, as he was expected to improve significantly off his victory in the local prep for the Travers, the Jim Dandy, for which he was far from fully cranked.

Street Sense is certainly not a "one-track pony," having won at four different racetracks in his career. But as he enters the fall of his 3-year-old season, it remains more than just a small curiousity that at Churchill Downs, Street Sense won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by 10 lengths and the Kentucky Derby by a margin of 2 1/4 lengths that really felt a lot bigger. Elsewhere, however, he doesn't seem to have as large a margin for error. At other tracks, Street Sense's biggest margin of victory was his 1 1/2-length decision in the Jim Dandy. At 1-5 in the Travers - and Street Sense looked every bit of 1-5 on paper - he was able to win by only a half-length.

In any event, Street Sense certainly didn't do any damage to his status as the one to catch for this year's 3-year-old male championship. But winning the Travers didn't secure the title for him, either, and it wouldn't have mattered if he had won by 10 instead of by a half-length. It also wouldn't have mattered if Street Sense's two main challengers for the championship, Curlin and Any Given Saturday, had run in the Travers. If Street Sense had beaten those two in the Travers, it would have been huge boost for his title aspirations, but it still wouldn't have been enough to sew it up. That is because if either Any Given Saturday or Curlin were able to rebound with a convincing victory over Street Sense in the race that matters the most in cases like this, the Breeders' Cup Classic, it would carry greater weight in the minds of Eclipse Award voters.

The two "wow" performances Saturday came in the races that bookended the Travers - Hard Spun's victory in the King's Bishop Stakes and La Traviata's romp in the Victory Ride Stakes.

Hard Spun won the King's Bishop by 1 1/2 lengths, but it was the way that Hard Spun won that was so impressive. Unlike Street Sense, who enjoyed an easy trip in the Travers, Hard Spun ran hard every step in the King's Bishop. He contested fractions of 21.94 and 44.20 seconds, and the horse Hard Spun battled with through those fractions, Spin Master, wound up being beaten 37 1/2 lengths. And while it is possible Saratoga's main track was juiced before the King's Bishop by apparently being heavily watered- for evidence, check out how much dirt the back runners in the King's Bishop were wearing in the stretch - this was still an impressive display of speed from Hard Spun, who had not run in a sprint race since last December. And then, for Hard Spun to fight back after being headed in the stretch by First Defence, who has plenty of potential, well, this was just a big-time effort. In fact, it was so good that I would like to join in the chorus imploring Hard Spun's connections to reconsider their fall options and think about the Breeders' Cup Sprint or Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile instead of the 1 1/4-mile Classic.

As for La Traviata, while it is true the field she beat in the Victory Ride was not of Grade 1 quality, there were still some capable fillies in the race, and she made them look sick by comparison. Not even a stumbling start could keep La Traviata from quickly opening up a clear early lead, and from there she just poured it to score by more than nine lengths despite not even remotely being asked for her best. La Traviata has now won all three of her starts, by a total of 27 1/2 lengths. And the thing that is so scary about her, and what makes her such an exciting candidate for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, is despite the high speed she has shown, she is so relaxed on the lead that it's hard not to think she wouldn't be equally effective coming from off the pace if she had to.