08/23/2012 12:46PM

Weekend Warrior for Aug. 25: Neck ‘n Neck can stalk his way to Travers win

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NEW YORK – This is the weekend for our premier summer race meets. On Sunday, Del Mar presents its signature event, the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic. But on Saturday, Saratoga offers the Grade 1, $1 million Travers Stakes, and for the 143rd time, I might add. The Travers, also known as the Midsummer Derby, is supported by a pair of Grade 1, $500,000 races for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs – the King’s Bishop, and the Test for fillies – as well as the Grade 2, $250,000 Ballston Spa Stakes on the turf. Saturday’s feature at Del Mar is the Grade 2, $200,000 Del Mar Handicap.

Travers Stakes

The defection of Hansen on Wednesday because of a likely career-ending injury was a significant one, as he figured to be the race’s main speed. But there is a chance that even with the loss of Hansen the Travers pace will be more active than it was in the Jim Dandy, the main local Travers prep which was won in front-running fashion by the erstwhile closer and Travers favorite Alpha. Right after the Travers draw, the connections of Speightscity, who is certainly every bit the 30-1 he is on the line, announced to the world that he would be sent to the lead. I also suspect that Stealcase might be more prominent early, as he was in the Derby Trial four starts back. And considering the nice middle move he made when he was second last time out in the Haskell Invitational, Nonios might be a forward early factor, too.

A pace scenario different from the one he encountered in the Jim Dandy should not affect Alpha. While Alpha deserves credit for being versatile enough to capitalize on the situation in the Jim Dandy, he is still probably more effective coming from off the pace, the style he employed to win the Withers and Count Fleet, and finish a close second in the Wood Memorial. On the other hand, the Jim Dandy was Alpha’s biggest victory to date, and it came in the slop, a surface he is bred to relish and footing he will not get this time. That, combined with the fact that he won’t be much of a price, is reason enough to take a shot against him.

A different pace should help a couple of horses who were beaten in the Jim Dandy, namely, Neck ’n Neck and Atigun. Atigun, a good, if surprising third in the Belmont Stakes two starts back, finished sixth in the Jim Dandy in an effort that is best forgiven considering how pace-compromised he was. Atigun has worked lights out since, but he will have to come up with a career-best performance to win. Neck ’n Neck, second in the Jim Dandy, is my win pick.

Neck ’n Neck tried a stalking trip in the Jim Dandy, which just wasn’t going to work, what with the way that race unfolded. But Neck ’n Neck still performed very well, making a big run at Alpha in the stretch before winding up being beaten two lengths. Most importantly, Neck ’n Neck’s effort in the Jim Dandy confirmed the dramatic improvement he demonstrated in runaway triple-digit Beyer Figure romps in his prior two starts at Churchill Downs. And this time, a stalking trip might work nicely.

Nonios is not without a chance, either. Nonios has never run a bad race, and he was game finishing second in the Haskell to Paynter, who would have been Travers favorite had he not gotten sick. But in truth, someone had to finish second in the Haskell, and Nonios simply wasn’t in the same league with Paynter that day.

Del Mar Handicap

Dhaamer ran away with the Sunset and Round Table in his last two starts, and might certainly win again. But the field Dhaamer faces in Saturday’s 1 3/8-mile turf race has a lot more firepower in it than the ones he has crushed lately. And Interaction is certainly logical, too, off his second most recently in the Eddie Read to champion Acclamation. But though Interaction was successful at extended distances early in his career in his native Argentina, the horses he finished ahead of in the Read really didn’t do a lot of running.

I’m going with Worth Repeating. Worth Repeating ran a huge race last time out off the Michael Machowsky claim, finishing second in the Cougar II Handicap. He moved way too early in that 12-furlong race, and yet was overtaken only late by the high-class Richard’s Kid, who has an excellent chance to win Sunday’s Pacific Classic, and who had an absolutely perfect trip. Worth Repeating moves back to turf now, the surface on which he has done most of his winning. Notably, Worth Repeating was a good third in this race two years ago, beaten only a little more than a length by Champ Pegasus after having the lead in the stretch.

Ballston Spa Stakes

Zagora won the Grade 1 Diana on Saratoga turf last year, but the strong sense is she isn’t quite as good this year, although she still can win this race. Hungry Island was also a turf stakes winner at Saratoga last summer, winning the Lake Placid. But my read on Hungry Island is she really prefers cut in the ground, and she’s not going to get it this time. Summer Soiree was a Grade 1 stakes winner last year at 3, but she will be making her first start in nine months, and winning a race like this off a layoff that long is a tall order.

I like Tapitsfly, and not just for reasons of process of elimination. Tapitsfly ran huge when she wired the Grade 1 Just A Game two starts back, whipping subsequent Diana winner Winter Memories and Hungry Island. Tapitsfly tried another front-running gambit last time in the Diana, but failed while going a longer distance. This slightly shorter race is a better fit for her at this stage of her career. Moreover, while Tapitsfly is obviously capable of winning on the engine, she is also very effective when someone else can carry her early. She is perfectly capable of allowing the speedy Summer Soiree to make the pace here and then getting first jump on everyone else whenever she chooses.

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