08/25/2004 11:00PM

Tricky Travers will go to . . .


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - You could spend all day looking at the past performances for the 135th Travers Stakes and two bad things would happen: First, you'd end up spending less time than you should on the other 11 races on the best card of the Saratoga meet. Second, you'd end up with a headache and no closer to anything resembling confidence in your selection.

This is a Travers in which good handicappers and linemakers can't even figure out which of four horses will go to the post as the favorite among Purge, Lion Heart, The Cliff's Edge, and Birdstone. Purge, the morning-line favorite, comes off a big Jim Dandy victory; Lion Heart was second in the Derby and won the Haskell; The Cliff's Edge beat Lion Heart going shorter in the Blue Grass and should like the Travers distance; Birdstone beat Smarty Jones to win the Belmont.

And just how much do you trust any of them? There is plenty of talent among this quartet, but would you really feel secure letting any of them hold your wallet?

I won't leave Purge off any multirace tickets after his blowout victory over this track, but there are several reasons to be skeptical. He hasn't put two good races together, he doesn't seem like a genuine 1 1/4-mile horse, and his two big victories have set up perfectly for him. In the Peter Pan, he stalked a speed duel between hapless longshots and inherited the lead when they collapsed. In the Jim Dandy, he sat off Medallist, a speedball who stopped badly in front of him.

Lion Heart is going to hang in better than Medallist did in the Jim Dandy, but I can't see him actually winning the race unless everyone behind him misfires. He has been caught every time he has faced a legitimate Grade 1 field, his Derby second was aided by a sloppy track, and his two narrow victories over My Snookie's Boy at Monmouth this summer are not the stuff of classic victories. For what it's worth, his trainer, Patrick Biancone, is 0 for 29 in races at 1 1/4 miles or longer over the last five years.

The Cliff's Edge looks nicely suited to the distance, but he still has to prove he's more than a late-running sucker horse. He caught Lion Heart at Keeneland, but has fallen short in his five other starts this year, gaining late without ever actually threatening to win. Maybe he has been aching for 10 furlongs on a fast track all year, but he seems more like a dependable show bet than an inspiring win candidate.

Which leaves us with Birdstone, the most intriguing member of the field on two counts. He is the only 3-year-old left with even a minuscule chance of unseating Smarty Jones for the divisional championship, a feat that would require victories in both the Travers and the Breeders' Cup Classic. He also comes into the Travers with one of the most eccentric and audacious training regimens in Travers annals: He will be making his first start since winning the Belmont 84 days earlier.

Trainer Nick Zito, who will send out 42.86 percent of the Travers field in Birdstone, The Cliff's Edge, and Sir Shackleton, says that Birdstone is a unique horse who thrives on long gaps between races.

"His best races are with lots of time off," he said. "His debut up here was his best race at 2 and I honestly think it's because he hadn't run before then. His first start this year was off four months and it wasn't fast but it was a really good race. The Belmont, the key was not running him between the Derby and that."

The difference is that the Derby-Belmont gap was five weeks, and this one's a dozen. Similar layoffs have generally been unsuccessful ways to win other major 1 1/4-mile races such as the Derby or Classic. On the other hand, this Travers field has neither the size nor the quality those events usually attract. Also, Zito has done this before. In 2000, he won the Donn Handicap with Stephen Got Even in his first start in 118 days. In the same race the following year, Albert the Great was an excellent second to Captain Steve off a 71-day layoff.

Given the chinks in all the favorites' armor, this would be a great race to love a longshot. The problem is that Sir Shackleton, Eddington, and Suave are a bit tough to make a case for on grounds other than uncertainty and chaos. They belong at the bottom of exotic tickets, since they could be clunking up late if Purge and Lion Heart are getting weary in the 10th furlong, but it's hard to see them outfinishing Zito's top two.

There are worse ideas than taking 7-2 on the Belmont Stakes winner against two favorites with distance issues and a colt who's 1 for 6 this year. So let's make it Birdstone, The Cliff's Edge, and Purge at the wire, preferably in that order. Now stop agonizing and figure out the other 11 races on the card.