Saratoga Looking Ahead to Travers Weekend

Edited from a release

W ith just 10 days until the 134th running of the grade I, $1 million Travers Stakes, the marquee race of the Saratoga Race Course meet, the question that many are asking is who will challenge Juddmonte Farm's Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker?

New York Racing Association Stakes Coordinator Andrew Byrnes released the nominations for the "Mid-Summer Derby" for 3-year-olds at 10 furlongs on Monday. Of the 18 horses nominated for the Travers, at least four others are going to take a shot at Empire Maker: Strong Hope, Sky Mesa, Eye of the Tiger and Ten Most Wanted.

Funny Cide is also nominated for the Travers, but trainer Barclay Tagg is taking a day-to-day approach with the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner competing in the race. After finishing third in the grade I Haskell, Funny Cide had developed a fever. Through the treatment of antibiotics, Funny Cide has recovered and has been galloping on the main track. He also made an appearance in the Saratoga paddock Wednesday morning as part of "Funny Cide Day," and was greeted by a throng, despite a sudden rainstorm.

Empire Maker spoiled Funny Cide's bid as racing 12th Triple Crown thoroughbred by winning the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). It was the second time that Empire Maker defeated Funny Cide. In their first meeting in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) at Aqueduct, Empire Maker won by a half-length.

Strong Hope already defeated Empire Maker 10 days ago in the Jim Dandy here at Saratoga. Purchased for $1.7 million by Eugene and Laura Melnyk, Strong Hope has won his last five races, including the Jim Dandy and the Dwyer Stakes, over just six starts.

Sky Mesa won his debut rather easily before winning his first stakes race with the grade I Hopeful here at Saratoga last year. Since going undefeated as a 2-year-old, Sky Mesa was third in the Dwyer and second in the Haskell.

Ten Most Wanted came close to defeating Empire Maker in the Belmont with his late-closing run as he finished second, just beaten three-quarters of a length. Since that race, Ten Most Wanted came back to finish second to During, who was let alone on the lead in the grade II Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park.

Eye of the Tiger has finished no worse than third in eight career starts with the exception of the Kentucky Derby where he finished fifth. He finished third in the Swaps in his last race.

THE TRAVERS FESTIVAL

The eight-day Travers festival begins Saturday with two graded stakes highlighting the day: the grade I, $750,000 Alabama for 3-year-olds fillies at a mile and a quarter and the grade II, $300,000 Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap, also at a mile and a quarter.

Spoken Fur will take a shot at a $2 million bonus by sweeping the Triple Tiara in the Alabama (gr. I). She took the first two legs at Belmont Park: the Mother Goose and the Coaching Club American Oaks, both grade I races. The Mary Lou Whitney-owned Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner Bird Town, coming off her second-place finish in the Test (gr. I), will try to play the role of spoiler.

A strong field, led by Breeders' Cup winner Volponi and multiple grade I stakes winner Harlan's Holiday, is expected in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup. Volponi overcame a troubled race in the Whitney to finish second to Medaglia d'Oro nearly two weeks ago. This morning, Hall of Fame trainer Phil G. Johnson had Volponi put in an impressive workout by drilling three furlongs in :34 3/5 over the "fast" Oklahoma Training Track.

Harlan's Holiday is coming off a second-place finish to Congaree in the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) for trainer Todd Pletcher, who has been having a phenomenal Saratoga meet with a record-trying 24 victories.

The Alabama will be televised on ESPN from 5-6:30 p.m. Post time for the Alabama, which will be race the third leg (race No. 9) of the $500,000-guaranteed Pick Four pool, is expected to be 5:44 p.m. Also on Saturday, Saratoga will be hosting the annual Chili Cook-Off contest in the backyard. For a $5 fee that will benefit the Backstretch Employee Assistance Team, fans will be able to sample perhaps some of the best chili in the area.

The second day of the Travers festival will feature Saratoga's fifth giveaway of the meet with the wall clock, which is free with each paid admissions and while supplies last. There will also be the annual Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating contest and the feature will be the $150,000, grade II Lake Placid for three-year-old fillies on the grass.

NOTES
There are three other graded stakes on the Travers undercard: the grade I, $200,000 King's Bishop Stakes for 3-year-olds sprinting at seven furlongs; the grade II, $200,000 Fourstardave Handicap for three-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles on the turf; the grade III, $200,000-added Ballston Spa Breeders' Cup Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. Early probables for the King's Bishop include Zavata, Ghostzapper, Posse, Blazonry, Trust N Luck and Valid Video. Off his grade III Amsterdam victory, Zavata was on the Saratoga main track this morning for a five-furlong work that went in an impressive :59 4/5.

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