The retirement of Hansen earlier this week further gutted this crop of three-year-old males and left us with a largely paceless field of 11 in the Travers Stakes (G1).
The mid-summer Derby will be a far cry from the Kentucky Derby, where we had Bodemeister ripping along in 45-2 and 1:09-4, with a field of pursuers that included I'll Have Another, Went the Day Well, Union Rags, Creative Cause, Hansen, and others. It appears only sixth-place Liaison and 12th-place Alpha will make the gate in Louisville and Saratoga Springs, along with Derby 17th-place finisher Trinniberg, who goes in the King's Bishop Stakes (G1).
The Travers, a 1 1/4-mile dirt race for three-year-olds, is the highlight of Saratoga's 13-race Saturday card, which includes four graded races. The Ballston Spa (G2), Test (G1), King's Bishop and Travers were carded as races 9-12 and make up a competitive all-graded stakes pick four, which carries a $1-million guaranteed pool.
I see six of the 11 entrants in the Travers as win contenders: Street Life, Alpha, Atigun, Neck 'n Neck, Liaison, and Nonios. Alpha is the deserving morning line favorite, and the more I dug into the race, the more I pictured him hitting the exacta, and probably winning.
Alpha goes second off the layoff for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who wins 33% in this scenario with an ROI of $2.42, according to DRF stats. Alpha showed a new dimension when he went right to the lead and took control of the Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) back on July 28. Neck 'n Neck had clear run at him, but Alpha finished with great energy, running his final three furlongs in 36-2 to draw off by two lengths. By Bernardini and out of an English grass stakes winner at 12 furlongs, Alpha is bred beautifully to handle 1 1/4 miles. A clean trip on or near a soft pace appears to be there for him again, as there is hardly any speed in this field. If Alpha moves forward even a little, he will be very tough for the other members of this field to handle.
From a figure standpoint, Neck 'n Neck regressed a bit in the Jim Dandy from his pair of sparkling wins at Churchill Downs. Possible excuses for that loss include a bounce or the sloppy track. Or maybe he just wasn't on Alpha's level.
Street Life finally stayed in touch with a field early, and the result was a nice 1 3/4-length win in the Curlin Stakes. Perhaps it just took him three races to learn how to run with blinkers on. He climbs back up the class ladder here and is playable off the confidence-building win, his first since March.
Atigun can be excused for his sixth-place finish in the Jim Dandy. He was hard held in traffic behind a slow pace and was covered in mud. If he can run back to his third-place finish in the Belmont, he can certainly compete in here.
Liaison also faced a tough pace scenario when he rallied for third in the Jim Dandy. He is in good form, but he is winless in seven starts at age three and will have to run the race of his life to get top honors.
With just six lifetime starts and an ascending speed figure pattern, Nonios could still have some upside. He finished a distant second in the Haskell behind Paynter, who might be the most gifted member of this crop still in training. Nonios gets a positive rider switch to John Velazquez, who won this race in 2005 aboard Flower Alley.
Del Mar has not drawn the full Pacific Classic card as of this writing, but Sunday should be a great betting day too.