08/28/2005 11:00PM

What Travers Day taught us


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Last Saturday's four important stakes races at Saratoga came close to perfection on two different fronts. They not only showcased outstanding horses in two hours of sublime sport, but also raised plenty of intriguing questions for the fall championship season ahead. Leroidesanimaux, First Samurai, Lost in the Fog, and Flower Alley were decisive and deserving winners, but each will face tougher tasks in the weeks ahead up to and including the Breeders' Cup Oct. 29.

Leroidesanimaux, making his first start since March 5 and his first appearance outside Brazil or California, was thoroughly professional winning the Fourstardave Handicap by 1 1/4 lengths from the consistent Silver Tree. While his winning time of 1:39.92 established an inner-turf course record, the grass was so hard (ordinary maidens ran nine furlongs on the outer course in 1:46.37) that it translated to a Beyer Speed Figure of 108, a slight dip from his usual level. On the other hand, he won without being fully extended and his rider briefly dropped the reins in midstretch.

He now heads for the Breeders' Cup Mile, where the question will be less a matter of quality than tractability. He appears to be as good a horse as the Europeans likely to show up for the Mile, but he will undoubtedly face more and better early pressure than he did in the Fourstardave, and it remains to be seen if he can be as effective without getting things his own way on the front end.

First Samurai's 4 1/4-length Hopeful victory over Henny Hughes put him at the head of the juvenile class but was not the sort of performance that summoned the aroma of roses in May. After chasing Too Much Bling through a quick half-mile in 44.81 seconds, he pulled clear through six furlongs in 1:09.25 but then needed exactly 14 seconds for his seventh furlong and lugged in while doing it.

The Travers card featured another remarkable 2-year-old performance, the winning debut of Discreet Cat, a son of Forestry and half-brother to Pretty Wild trained by Stan Hough. Discreet Cat ran six furlongs in 1:09.76 after a moderate opening half-mile in 45.41, scoring by 3 1/2 lengths over the promising Superfly (a full brother to Andromeda's Hero) and earning a lofty 106 Beyer. If he can rate and stretch out, he's going to make a lot of noise this fall.

Lost in the Fog ran his record to 9 for 9 winning the King's Bishop by 4 3/4 lengths, running the field off its feet with an opening half in 44.61 and six furlongs in 1:09.09, then tiring through a final eighth in 13.47. The performance earned him a Beyer of 105, a 10-point decline from his romp in Calder's Carry Back last time out and a function of setting much faster early fractions.

The race again proved that he is a special colt and by far the best sprinting 3-year-old of this and many other years, but did not address the question of what will happen when he faces true Grade 1 pace pressure from top older sprinters, as he will in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. That's going to be a fascinating test.

The 136th Travers was a satisfying race in several respects, separating the wheat from the chaff while confirming the quality of both the victorious Flower Alley and the gallant Bellamy Road. Flower Alley earned a Beyer of 110 winning by 2 1/2 lengths over Bellamy Road, who lost little stature in defeat running a strong nine furlongs on the lead while making his first start in 112 days. Either colt would probably have to win both the Jockey Club Gold and the Breeders' Classic to unseat the sidelined Afleet Alex as the nation's leading 3-year-old, but both should be major players in those races.

Another interesting and instructive result from the day was in the handle. There had been some business concerns that while the sporting quality of the stakes was high, the parimutuel appeal might be low, given the profusion of likely low-priced winners. Instead, the public unloaded to the tune of $35 million on the card, second highest in track history..

The all-stakes pick four, which was odds-on to pay less than $100, attracted a record $1.6 million for a sequence that returned just $62.50 for $2. The pick six, which bookended the chalky quartet with a pair of open grass races, paid $2,043 after attracting a handle of $423,099, a huge sum for a non-carryover day in New York.

There may be two lessons here. The first is that maybe, just maybe, people actually like betting on really good horses. The second is that horseplayers do not necessarily want pick-whatever sequences of one impossible race after another, and may prefer to have some reliable anchors in their multirace plays, for both confidence and affordability. The Breeders' Cup will not announce the order of its races this year until the races are drawn, presumably to put the smaller fields with heavier favorites earlier on the card and out of the multirace bets. That's not necessarily the best way to go.