Early-season sophomore stars retired domino-style off the Triple Crown trail this year, and that leaves the "B" team to pick up the pieces in the $1 million Travers Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 25 at Saratoga Race Course.
Jim Dandy (gr. II) winner Alpha is the 5-2 morning line favorite in an 11-horse field for the 1 1/4-mile event. He is one of just two runners coming off a victory into the "Midsummer Derby" in upstate New York.
The 143rd edition of the Travers will be run with an approximate post time of 5:46 p.m. EDT as race 12 on a 13-race card; it is preceeded by the $500,000 Foxwoods King's Bishop (gr. I), the $500,000 Test Stakes (gr. I), and the $250,000 Ballston Spa (gr. IIT).
NBC televises from 4-6 p.m. EDT, while the Horse Racing Radio Network will broadcast via www.horseracingradio.net and on Sirius 92 or HANK 96.1-FM in Lexington.
This year is the first since 2005 that a winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Preakness Stakes (gr. I), or Belmont Stakes (gr. I) will not run in the Travers. I'll Have Another , winner of the first two jewels of the Triple Crown, and Union Rags , winner of the third, were both retired to stud several weeks ago. They were joined Aug. 21 by Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister , and even more recently by 2011 juvenile champion Hansen, who actually shipped to Saratoga to run in the Travers, but was declared from the race Aug. 22 with an injured tendon signaling his likely retirement.
With these top contenders out of the picture and Haskell Invitational (gr. I) victor Paynter skipping after spiking a post-race fever in New Jersey, it is up to Alpha—winner of the Count Fleet Stakes and Withers Stakes (gr. III) earlier this year—to perk up a flagging 3-year-old division.
The son of Bernardini attempts to follow the same path taken by his sire in 2006 when he parlayed a Jim Dandy victory into a $1 million Travers score. Alpha took the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy in easy wire-to-wire fashion for trainer Kiaran McLaguhlin and Godolphin Racing July 28. It was his first race back since a 12th-place finish in the Derby, which followed a runner-up effort in the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial (gr. I).
With the absence of speedball Hansen, it is highly likely Alpha will assume frontrunning tactics similar to those he displayed last time out while breaking from post 6 under Ramon Dominguez.
"I'm sorry Hansen's out for his connections," McLaughlin said. "It's tough; those bad news items aren't fun for a trainer, owner, or connections. But it does help us on the front end, I think, and now we'll probably be a lot closer to the pace, even on the lead."
But Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is hoping Alpha won't get away with that easy scenario this time. He sent assistant Jim Barnes to Saratoga with Arnold Zetcher's Liaison , third in the Jim Dandy last time out. The Indian Charlie colt raced four-wide on the Jim Dandy turns and closed with a five-wide move at the eighth pole.
"The track was sloppy, there was no pace to close into at all, and considering that he finished very well," Barnes said. "They walked around and he finished. There should be more speed in the race, so it should be a different scenario."
Liaison is the only other runner apart from Alpha to have run in the Derby, finishing sixth. The 2011 CashCall Futurity winner (gr. I) is the lone grade I winner in the field and has been knocking on the door in three starts since his Derby bid, finishing second by a half length to Nonios in the Affirmed Handicap (gr. III) on all-weather track at Betfair Hollywood Park, then running third in the Swaps (gr. II) behind Blueskiesnrainbows and Nonios July 4. Rafael Bejarano rides from post nine.
Nonios comes off a runner-up finish in the Haskell for owner Green B. Smith, Jr. and another Hall of Fame trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer. It was his first dirt outing following five starts on synthetic surfaces; he has never been worse than third. John Velazquez gets the mount from the 10 hole.
One start before running in the Jim Dandy, Neck 'n Neck took the 1 1/16-mile Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs by 7 1/4 lengths June 16.
"There were no excuses the last time; he handled the off track but we were second-best," Wilkes remarked. "He has done very well since the Jim Dandy and I'm very pleased with him. He hasn't missed a beat, he's just grown up. If you watched him early on, he was playing around like he was a teenager. He thought it was time to go out and party and have a good time. It's like the light bulb has gone on and he has put everything together."
Leandro Goncalves rides Neck 'n Neck for the fourth straight time and fifth total from seven starts; the duo breaks from post 8.
"I know Kiaran is going out there on the lead with Alpha," Wilkes said. "He is going to put a lot of speed out there. The rider has to judge his race. He's got to judge the pace and ride his race."
One who will be keen to match strides with Alpha is Speightscity, a son of Speightstown who runs for Team Stallion Racing and McConnell Racing Stable, and trainer Gary Contessa. Unraced since a second-place finish in the Withers back in February, the chestnut ridgling returns in the rail spot under Irad Ortiz Jr.
"I don't really want the rail, but it was the hand I was dealt, and we're going to the lead," Contessa said. "Hansen's not in here. I was kind of thinking about whether I wanted to go the lead or not, or whether I wanted to go head-and-head with Hansen or not, but from the rail, if all goes well, we will be on the lead. And he won here last year at two turns at a mile and an eighth."
Speightscity broke his maiden by 11 1/2 lengths in that 2011 start. He has not won since December, when he took an optional claimer going a mile and 70 yards.
"He wrenched his knee," Contessa said of his contender's last start in the Withers. "We had to give him about 40 days off. The biggest question is, is he fit enough? I'm not sure. We were pointing for the Bernardini Stakes, the race didn't go, and here we are in the Travers. But it's exciting. He's won two turns on this track, and he looks like he's ready."
Street Life, who races for Magnolia Racing Stable and Hidden Brook Farm, is the only other runner besides Alpha to come into the Travers off a win. The son of 2007 Travers winner Street Sense won the July 27 Curlin Stakes on a sloppy track by 1 3/4 lengths over MeB Racing Stables' Five Sixteen after running fourth in the Belmont for trainer Chad Brown. Five Sixteen, trained by Dominic Schettino, was fifth in the Belmont and hasn't won since breaking his maiden at Aqueduct in March.
Shortleaf Stables' Atigun, an Istan colt who was third in the Belmont and sixth in the Jim Dandy last time out for trainer Kenny McPeek; stablemate Golden Ticket, a speedy maiden winner by Speightstown who last ran second by a neck for Magic City Thoroughbred Partners in a May 5 optional claimer going 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs; John Oxley's Stealcase, a son of Lawyer Ron who was third in the Haskell for trainer Mark Casse; and the Awesome Again colt Fast Falcon, seventh in the Jim Dandy for Richard Pell and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito after a troubled inside trip, complete the field.
$1 Million Travers Stakes (gr. I, Race 12, 5:46 p.m.), 3YOs, 1 1/4 Miles
PP., Horse, Jockey, Trainer, Odds
1. Speightscity, I. Ortiz Jr., G Contessa, 30-1
2. Five Sixteen, R. Napravnik, D A Schettino, 15-1
3. Golden Ticket, D. Cohen, K G McPeek, 20-1
4. Stealcase, S. Brigmohan, M E Casse, 15-1
5. Street Life, J. Lezcano, C B Brown, 5-1
6. Alpha, R. Dominguez, K P McLaughlin, 5-2
7. Atigun, M. Smith, K G McPeek, 12-1
8. Neck 'n Neck, L. Goncalves, I R Wilkes, 9-2
9. Liaison, R. Bejarano, B Baffert, 8-1
10. Nonios, J. Velazquez, J Hollendorfer, 4-1
11. Fast Falcon, J. Alvarado, N P Zito, 20-1