Post positions were drawn this morning and given the long run to the first of two turns, even poor positions are somewhat mitigated.
The favorite drew right in the middle of the 11-horse field. “I’m very happy with the draw,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, trying to join Nafzger in 2007 by saddling the Alabama and Travers winner on back-to-back Saturdays.
One of the 11 will not juvenile champion Hansen, who developed an inflammation in his left leg and was declared out Tuesday.
But given his West Virginia Derby effort, slow breeze for the race, and the fact that he wasn’t introduced to the Spa surface sooner, it’s hard to believe he ever was a serious candidate.
“I’m sorry Hansen’s out for his connections,” McLaughlin volunteered, “but it does help us on the front end, I think.”
Unlike in the Jim Dandy, Alpha might not have the lead all to himself. “Without Hansen, I might have to go head-and-head with myself,” said trainer Gary Contessa, who will saddle last-minute entrant Speightscity, the 30-1 outside breaking from the pole.
“When I was first asked by the owner, the tandem of McConnell Racing Stable/Team Stallion Racing Stable, I used every [trainer] disclaimer known to man,” Contessa said. “But this is the year to do it if you wanted to misplace a two-turn horse.”
Contessa had planned to bring Speightscity back on Friday for his first start since February 4 but the race didn’t fill.
At this point, we see four serious contenders in addition to the impressive Jim Dandy winner, a colt that certainly owns Travers credentials.
Putting a line through his abominable efforts at Churchill Downs, all Alpha’s done is win four and finish second twice in his other appearances.
And those placings were a narrow defeat by then undefeated Gemologist by a neck in the G1 Wood Memorial and a very troubled second in last year’s Champagne.
On a cursory first look, Alpha has four very serious rivals for major honors; in no particular order Neck n’ Neck, Street Life, Liaison and Nonios.
Neck n’ Neck (9-2) was a very good second to loose-leading Alpha in the Jim Dandy. The late developer made a bold move to challenge the leader approaching the three-sixteenths, loomed a possible winner for an instant until Alpha re-broke a sixteenth of a mile later and widened his advantage over the sealed, sloppy track. He has trained well since.
"He has done very well since the Jim Dandy," said WIlkes, "hasn't missed beat."
After winning the G3 Affirmed in his SoCal debut at Hollywood Park, Nonios (4-1) finished second to Santa Anita Derby third finisher Blueskiesandrainbows in the G2 Swaps, prior to a very good pace-chasing placing effort in Paynter’s G1 Haskell.
He, too, is training very well back at Del Mar and will return East into the waiting arms of Johnny Velazquez for his second lifetime start on dirt.
Liaison (8-1) has improved since adding blinkers for the Kentucky Derby, where he was a sneaky food sixth of 20, beaten only 7 lengths, then came back with a second and two thirds in Affirmed, Swaps and Jim Dandy, respectively, racing wide every step in the latter.
"There was no pace to run at at all," said Bob Baffert assistant Jim Barnes. "There should be more speed, so it should be a different scenario."
And by no means least is Street Life (5-1) who’s been growing up since first running a strong-finish third in the G2 Peter Pan.
That effort was followed a wide-rally fourth in the slow-paced Belmont before his dominating Curlin score, despite the relatively narrow margin of victory. All three good efforts came after the addition of blinkers.
Of these five major contenders, he never has taken a backward step on the Equiform energy-figure scale. Currently second to Todd Pletcher in the trainer standings, the local hero clearly is having a career meet.
In fact, Brown is one of three trainers at this meet that are on a karmic roll, the others being McLaughlin and Whitney-winning Fort Larned. Let’s not forget the racing is a people sport, too.
"We're taking the same aproach we've taken all meet with out horses," said Brown, "keep them happy, healthy and sound and try to run them in the right spot. The Travers is the right sport for this horse."