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As the dog days of summer evaporate, we - or at least I - begin the buildup to the Breeders' Cup.
If nothing else, its prevents overdosing on the NFL - good medicine in these parts - and provides an opportunity to fine-tune handicapping on horses we've seen most of the year.
This week, we have what I think is annually one of the top races, The Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Saturday, it's the 141st edition of the "Mid-Summer Derby."
Everybody knows about the Kentucky Derby. And while the Breeders' Cup Classic is much richer than the $1 million Travers, the cachet that the Classic and other Breeders' Cup races enjoy as arbiters of the best horses of the respective divisions is overwrought. In what-have-you-done-for-me-lately America, the Breeders' Cup holds too much sway in the Eclipse Awards.
The Breeders' Cup is a single race, not the end of the "playoffs," leaving the best horse standing. To me, it's the full season that counts, and the Travers is one of the high points of the year.
It's for three-year-olds, and this is the one where they paint the colors of the winning stable on a carved canoe that's mounted in the middle of the infield pond. Cool.
The bad-and-good of this year's race is that while it features a fairly lackluster group of sophomores, that's what makes it a very bettable affair. Both alumni and refugees from the Derby Trail.
A Little Warm is your mild 7-2 favorite. He missed the Derby with low graded stakes earnings and bled (lungs) just before the Preakness. But after a tuneup claiming win, he bested the Jim Dandy field, which included Travers runners Miner's Reserve and Afleet Express.
Late entry Trappe Shot is the second favorite at 4-1. I dunno. He ran a respectable race in time to get up for second in the Haskell but ran into a razor-sharp Lookin At Lucky that day and lost by four lengths. His only other stakes win was in the ungraded Long Branch at Monmouth. If you like him, it will have to be because he might be able to grind out a closing run. I said might.
Habitual wiseguy First Dude should be part of the early speed and could help set it up for the closers. He gets a lot of attention, but has won only once in his career, a maiden special weight (MSW). I'm not sure his style is suited for this race and I don't like the way Ramon Dominguez is riding these days. While they're putting the blinkers on First Dude, maybe Ramon should take his off.
You could debate all day that Gio Ponti was not going to win the Arlington Million last week, not with Debussy's shot-from-a-cannon finish on the rail, but Dominguez never saw him coming and assumed he had the race in his pocket.
"I thought I had enough to hang on," Dominguez said. "Once I got clear, the horse was idling a little bit, maybe looking at the stands or something. I had a great trip."
I ain't buying it, Ramon. Euro turfers always save it for a mad stampede in the final 300 yards.
Coming into the Belmont, Fly Down was another wiseguy, based on a win in the Dwyer. But he was unable to get it done in a glacially run Belmont and finished fifth in the Jim Dandy. He's one of three Nick Zito entries.
Miner's Reserve comes in with two gaudy three-digit Beyers in his last two but I'm not sure he's up to these at all. His only two wins were an MSW and an allowance race. An in those last two, it seems to me A Little Warm looked him in the eye and 'Reserve backed down. That is a concern.
Afleet Express is the James Jerkens trainee who suffered a bad trip in the Jim Dandy. But open lengths victories in his previous two, including the Grade III Pegasus, suggest he'll do okay at the 10-furlong distance. But J.J. Castellano is going to have to get him a good trip.
Ice Box, the Derby runner-up, may take some action based on name recognition, but he hasn't done much since two grueling wins at Gulfstream, including the Florida Derby. He was rested after the Belmont, but finished a difficult sixth in the Haskell.
Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver with Calvin Borel up, drew the outside post and continues to bear the burden of proving that his Derby win was not a slop fluke. He hasn't shown he belongs, not after clunkers in the Preakness and the Haskell.
And keep a close eye on the tote board at Admiral Alex. The son of Afleet Alex - out of a Kingmambo mare - has run only once in his life. But that was an MSW win at Saratoga a month ago. He recorded a very respectable 87 Beyer, and at 9 furlongs at that.
Owner/trainer Leon "Blue" Blusiewicz, who apparently succeeds with quality over quantity, is sky-high over this horse. And apparently Leon is a bettor.
I like A Little Warm, Trappe Shot and Afleet Express. And I just told you about Admiral Alex.
Rachel's Big Day
Is Sunday still Ladies' Day anywhere on Earth?
It will be at Saratoga as we'll have a chance to watch Rachel Alexandra in her most important and probably most difficult race of the year so far.
She'll run in The Personal Ensign, a $300,000 Grade I.
And by virtue of the fact she'll face the estimable Life At Ten, the race should give us a very good idea if the reigning Horse of the Year is back in form in the run-up to the Breeders' Cup.
Back in form? What's a girl gotta do? Looking at her past performances from 2010, she has maintained triple-digit Beyers, including a 109 in the Fleur De Lis. She lost her first two races of the year by a total of less than one length and has won her last two by open lengths. Trouble is, her level of competition has been deemed subpar. Not this week.
Life At Ten, the five-year-old daughter of Malibu Moon, is on a six-race winning streak. She beat Unrivaled Belle, who beat Rachel earlier this year, and has shown a versatility that results in one thing: winning.
But her Beyers pale next to Rachel's - tops was a 101 in the Sixty Sails Handicap at Hawthorne in April - and she most certainly has not faced the class Rachel has. Nevertheless, she's a quality opponent.
Whatever you want to say about Rachel's record this year, she has run her race every time and nobody knows her like Calvin Borel.
And no horse in the world has more heart.
Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes (nearly) every Friday. He welcomes your comments.
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