Aiken-trained Alpha favored in Travers Stakes

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SARATOGA SPINGS, N.Y. — Not much buzz to the buildup for the $1 million Travers Stakes, and it’s no wonder since nearly every top 3-year-old has either been retired or sidelined with some sort of ailment.

“A lot of the best horses are on the shelf, and that’s unfortunate,” said trainer Ken McPeek, who will send out long shots Atigun and Golden Ticket in today’s 143rd running of the Travers. “Everybody’s always looking for superstars.”

They won’t find one in the Travers, but there could be a rising star in Alpha, who was trained in Aiken. The colt is the 5-2 morning-line favorite thanks to his wire-to-wire win in the Jim Dandy at the Spa on July 28. Owned by Sheik Mohammed’s Godolphin Racing, Alpha will try to match his sire Bernardini with a Jim Dandy-Travers double.

“We couldn’t be any happier with Alpha going into the race,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who also trains top 3-year-old filly Questing, winner of last week’s Alabama. “He’s really blossomed, and is doing fabulous.”

Alpha will take on 10 challengers in the 11/4-mile Travers, including Haskell Invitational runner-up Nonios (4-1) and Jim Dandy runner-up Neck ‘n Neck (9-2).

Some are calling this the weakest Travers field in memory, maybe ever. There’s only one Grade 1 winner in Liaison (8-1), who won the CashCall Futurity last year. Alpha and 5-1 choice Street Life are the only horses coming into the race off a victory. It’s also the first time since 2005 there won’t be a winner of a Triple Crown race in the starting gate.

And, all the big guns are gone. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another was retired with an injury the day before the Belmont Stakes. Belmont winner Union Rags was retired shortly thereafter, and earlier this week Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister was retired. Haskell winner Paynter is recovering from an illness, Wood Memorial winner Gemologist is recovering from an injury, and 2-year-old champion Hansen was declared out of the Haskell with a torn tendon.

“There are some nice horses that aren’t in,” McLaughlin said. “So for us, it’s hard to say whether it’s real weak or strong, we don’t know. People always say the 3-year-old crop is weak and then you look up and it’s November 7 and they’re winning the Breeders’ Cup. It’s hard to say, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s a $1 million Grade 1 and a very important race.”

That it is. Since 1936, 18 Travers winners went on to be voted champion 3-year-old, most recently Summer Bird in 2009. Alpha, with Saratoga’s leading rider Ramon Dominguez aboard, is probably the only horse in the field with a chance to make it 19.

“It’s tough to overtake I’ll Have Another, but if you happened to win the Travers and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, you would have a good chance,” McLaughlin said.

The field may lack pizazz, but it has emboldened several trainers to enter horses in the Spa’s showcase race they otherwise wouldn’t.

Gary Contessa, for example, is sending out Speightscity after the owners paid a $20,000 supplemental fee because the horse wasn’t nominated for the race. Speightscity, 30-1, has not run in more than six months, finishing second to Alpha in the Withers on Feb. 4 and wrenching his knee in the process.

“We’re a long shot but we’ve got the rail,” said Contessa, who hopes his horse will go right for the lead. “The biggest question is, is he fit enough? He looks like he’s ready.”

McPeek decided Tuesday to enter Golden Ticket, a 20-1 shot with one win in nine career starts.

There also are horses rounding into top form just about now. Neck ‘n Neck fits that bill.

A Derby contender at one point, Neck ‘n Neck ran out of the money in the Sam F. Davis, the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby. Trainer Ian Wilkes regrouped and skipped the Triple Crown races. He brought the colt back slowly. Neck ‘n Neck won an allowance race in May, the Grade 3 Matt Winn in June and was beaten two lengths by Alpha in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy.

“He’s just grown up,” Wilkes said. “If you watched him early on, he was playing around like a teenager. He thought it was time to go and party and have a good time. It’s like the light bulb has gone on and he has put everything together.”

Also trying to put it all together is Hall of Famer Nick Zito. The two-time Derby winning trainer who sat out the Triple Crown races this year is going for his second Travers win with his record 28th entry, 20-1 choice Fast Falcon.

“If you don’t run,” Zito said, “you can’t even lose.”

Who could argue with that?

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