SARATOGA SPRINGS They’re so eager to jump into the Travers this year that trainer Gary Contessa actually brought his horse to the paddock for the post-position draw on Wednesday.
OK, that was merely a coincidence (Speightscity was scheduled for a schooling session), but it was symbolic of how there are no superstar horses scaring anyone away from Saratoga Race Course’s $1 million crown jewel, which will be run for the 143rd time on Saturday.
Trainer Kenny McPeek admitted as much.
He was going to run Atigun, anyway, but in light of a spate of health problems and retirements from the ranks of the 3-year-old colts — Hansen being the most recent — he’ll also saddle long shot Golden Ticket, who will be making just the third stakes start of his career.
“A lot of the good horses are on the shelf,” McPeek said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s more of what’s survived as opposed to what were the best ones.”
Among the survivors is Alpha, who is the 5-2 morning-line favorite off his win in the Jim Dandy under meet leader Ramon Dominguez.
He finished up the track in the Kentucky Derby and missed the Belmont Stakes with a fever, but suddenly remains as one of the best 3-year-old colts in training.
Hansen, the 2011 champion 2-year-old colt, was supposed to run in the Travers and would have brought some sizzle, but he suffered a tendon injury to his left front leg and likely will be retired, Dr. Kendall Hansen said Wednesday morning.
It’s hard to ignore the list of who didn’t make it to the Travers, including I’ll Have Another, Union Rags, Bodemeister, Hansen, Paynter and Gemologist.
Also hard to ignore: Only four of the 11 entered have won a graded stakes, and one of those, Liaison, hasn’t won one this year.
Still, Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Alpha for Godolphin Racing, isn’t selling the field short, especially since it’s a pretty big one, and there’s plenty of prestige and money on the line.
“Obviously, there are some major players that aren’t here, like Paynter, Hansen and a few others, Gemologist,” he said. “To us, it’s hard to say whether it’s a real weak or strong crop. We still don’t know. A lot of people say the 3-year-old crop’s weak, and then you look up on Nov. 7, and they win the Breeders’ Cup. It’s hard to say, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s a million-dollar Grade I and a very important race.”
The field includes just five who ran in a Triple Crown race.
Since 1998, there have been two Travers winners who did not appear in one of those races — Coronado’s Quest and Afleet Express.
The Travers field does include the three horses — Atigun, Street Life and Five Sixteen — who finished third, fourth and fifth behind Union Rags and Paynter in the Belmont.
Paynter had been pointed to the Travers, but had his training waylaid by a fever after the Belmont.
His absence opened the door for such horses as Stealcase, who was third in the Haskell behind Paynter and Nonios.
“We decided to run in the Travers after it was official that Paynter was out,” assistant trainer Norm Casse said.
After Alpha, the top picks on the morning line are Grade III Affirmed winner Nonios (4-1) for Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer; Street Life (5-1), who will be the second Travers starter for Mechanicville native Chad Brown as a head trainer; Grade III Matt Winn winner Neck ‘n Neck, who was two lengths behind Alpha in the Jim Dandy; and Liaison (8-1), who gives Hall of Famer Bob Baffert a Travers starter, despite the recent retirement of Bodemeister and the absence of Paynter.
Alpha will break from post pos-ition 6; 30-1 Speightscity has the rail, and another long shot, 20-1 Dwyer runner-up Fast Falcon, will break from the outside for Hall of Famer Nick Zito, who has started 27 horses in the Travers and won it with Birdstone in 2004.
“I’m sorry Hansen is out, but it does help us on the front end, I think,” McLaughlin said. “Now, we’ll probably be a lot closer or even on the lead. If they let us go three-quarters in 14 [1:14] again, I like our chances, but I’ll leave that up to Ramon.
“To me, the horse to beat is Jerry Hollendorfer’s, and then Ian Wilkes [Neck ‘n Neck]. And then Chad Brown. Paynter would’ve been even money had he made it, but the horse that was second to him is in here, and the horse that was third to him. So it’s a good group.”
“Without Hansen, it probably changes the whole complexion of the race,” Wilkes said. “It was always a question of whether Hansen could get the mile and a quarter. And so, yeah, it changed the complexion. But you don’t know the tactics of these other horses. I don’t know the form of a couple of horses I need to look at. It just depends on what the connections want to do.”
Contessa promised that Speightscity, one of two sons of sprint champion Speightstown in the field, would fire out of the gate for the lead, and McPeek said 20-1 Golden Ticket could be an early pace factor, too.
Golden Ticket was being considered for an allowance against older horses this weekend, and McPeek said that race may have come up just as tough as the Travers, so why not just jump into the million-dollar race instead?
Another option was the $100,000 Bernardini for 3-year-olds on Friday, but that stakes race didn’t fill.
“It’s not a terrible group of 3-year-olds, but at the same time, there’s not a horse in there that’s unbeatable,” McPeek said. “Ian Wilkes’ horse started his career very lackluster and he picked it up a little bit, I picked it up quite a bit, but who knows if that’s a reflection of the defections, as opposed to the talent.
“If you study the sheets, there really isn’t a star, numbers-wise, in the race. If you can get a horse to run a career best Saturday, then you can sneak in there and win the thing.”