SARATOGA SPRINGS, Aug. 20--Iâ€™d love to be Aaron Ditch. Iâ€™d hate to be Aaron Ditch.
Ditch is the winner of the opportunity to bet $15,000 of Marylou Whitneyâ€™s money to win on the Travers. Iâ€™d love to be him for obvious reasons, a shot at a super score without risking a dime. Iâ€™d hate to be him because I wouldnâ€™t get a minuteâ€™s sleep the rest of the week agonizing over the possibility of blowing this once in a lifetime chance.
Two of the first three winners of the weekly Saratoga drawing had easy choices: Adam McNeil let it ride on Wise Dan in the Fourstardave. Deborah White put it down on Princess of Sylmar in the Alabama. The mutual payoffs were puny but the $15,000 kick made it a windfall anyway; $21,000 for McNeil, $22,500 for White.
A third weekly winner narrowed his selections in the Whitney to just two, Fort Larned and Cross Traffic and went the wrong way. How ironic that the only non-winner came in the race that carries Marylouâ€™s family name.
There is no easy choice in the Travers, not even a chance to narrow it down to two. Ditch should get the money if he can merely name the post-time favorite among the big three of Palace Malice, Verrazano and Orb. This year's Travers is not only a great race, it is a great betting race.
The latter is the least likely to go favored but the magic of â€śKentucky Derby winnerâ€ť should never be under-estimated. Also, Shug McGaughey is telling anyone who will listen how, after a freshening at bucolic Fair Hill, Orb looks as good or better than he did before winning the Florida Derby, then the big one on the first Saturday in Mayâ€”at the same 10 furlongs as the Travers.
I made a friendly man-to-man bet after the Jim Dandy and Haskell that Verrazano will be favored over Palace Malice. I didnâ€™t say Verrazano would beat Palace Malice, just that he would break from the gate at lower odds. Bettors love horses who have crushing margins in their past performances. Verrazano has a boat load of those, most recently in the Haskell.
But he still has to prove he can get a mile and a quarter against Grade 1 opposition. The only stinker in his resume was in the Derby, although he was out of it by the midway point for myriad reasons beyond distance limitations. He wasnâ€™t going to be threatened in the Haskell if they ran 2 ÂĽ miles. Moreover, that was a superior field to the Jim Dandy.
Palace Malice, of course, has gone the distance and then some in winning the Belmont. He also has the crucial race over the track.
If Ditch wants to reach for a real life-changer, he could take a look at Will Take Charge, who was closing on Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy. The price will be right, somewhere between 12-1 and 20-1 and possibly higher if the holiday crowd gets carried away with the big three. D. Wayne Lukas can never be overlooked in a big race. Remember Oxbow in the Preakness.
Letâ€™s not forget War Dancer. The winner of the grassy Virginia Derby at the Travers distance gave Ken McPeek all kinds of turf options, including the Secretariat last Saturday at Arlington and the Hall of Fame last week at the Spa. But McPeek held him out of those races to take another shot at the Midsummer Derby on dirt, where his 33-1 Golden Ticket shocked everyone last year by dead-heating with 2-1 favorite Alpha.
Thereâ€™s also Golden Soul, who rallied for the place in the Derby, well ahead of Verrazano and Palace Malice. Whoâ€™s to say it canâ€™t happen again?
In all likelihood, Iâ€™ll go at least three deep in multi-race wagersâ€”Orb, Verrazano and War Dancer for a price. If I can afford a fourth horse, Iâ€™ll throw in Palace Malice, who I donâ€™t feel will be value. But I still wonâ€™t feel safe.
What would I do if I were Ditch and had to narrow it to one? At this point, I canâ€™t say. But I can say what I wouldnâ€™t do: sleep a wink all week pondering the question.
More than the $600,000 winnerâ€™s purse is at stake Saturday. If any of the big three win, he would be tough to overtake for 3-year-old Eclipse honors. Anything less than a win in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic by one of the Travers runnersup probably wouldnâ€™t do it.
The 3-year-old filly championship is already decided. Princess of Sylmar clinched it with her dominant victory in the Alabama, after scores in the Kentucky Oaks and Coaching Club American Oaks. There simply arenâ€™t enough major races left on the calendar to top that triple.
Alas, Princess of Sylmarâ€™s owner/breeder Ed Stanco indicated after the Alabama that he is thinking of putting her away until her 4-year-old campaign. A major factor is that the she is not Breedersâ€™ Cup nominated.
Putting her on the shelf is disrespectful to the filly, who certainly has earned enough to be supplemented (which also would make her eligible to future Breedersâ€™ Cup races), and to racing, which has experienced its highest of highs in recent years when outstanding distaffers Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra captured Americaâ€™s fancy.
If Princess of Sylmar is finished for the year, it would not only deny her the opportunity to show how good she is in the Breedersâ€™ Cup, it also would rule out a showdown with older champion Royal Delta, another match that would capture uncommon interest.
Todd Pletcher is as gifted a diplomat as he is a trainer. But see if you get the same between-the-lines interpretation that I did from Pletcherâ€™s statement on Princess of Sylmar not racing again this year.
â€śThereâ€™s plenty of reasons to stop on a lot of these as you go along. So you hate to stop on one when thereâ€™s not a reason to.â€ť
Pletcher could not have made his opinion more plain. Letâ€™s hope Stanco pays heed.