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Thursday, August 23, 2012
Updated: August 24, 6:23 PM ET
Travers deserving of attention

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

I'd love to discuss it all, I really would, the decline of the thoroughbred, the rush to retirement and the difference between a racehorse and a Faberge Egg; I could easily toss a few blame bombs, too, if only because the targets are so numerous and serenely deserving; and I might even agree that some of these 3-year-olds should be racing around the Piazza del Campo instead of Saratoga, but, for the moment, I must address a more pressing issue: Who's going to win the Travers?

Ideally the Travers would bring together the heroes of the Triple Crown and any late-developing stars for a glorious divisional showdown and a lapidary finish, but that rarely, if ever, happens.

After all, it's still the Travers, even with the retirements and the defection. It's still intriguingly competitive, and the betting windows will still open, won't they? And it's not as if this hasn't happened before, that the Travers became anticlimactic, which is to say that it failed to satisfy expectations. Horse racing has a long history of dealing with expectations in much the same way that a road roller might handle saltines.

Ideally the Travers would bring together the heroes of the Triple Crown and any late-developing stars for a glorious divisional showdown and a lapidary finish, with three horses on the wire, but that rarely, if ever, happens, except in some celluloid world. Perhaps it was inevitable in this era of the Breeders' Cup, but the Travers has become more of a proving ground than a showdown.

Remember the outstanding Triple Crown of 1997, where Silver Charm, Captain Bodgit, Free House and Touch Gold put on a spectacular show, an inimitable triptych of modern racing? Well, none of them even ran in the Travers. For the most part, their Triple Crown efforts left them spent. (Captain Bodgit never raced again after the Preakness; and Silver Charm didn't race again until December. Touch Gold and Free House both finished the season with dull, losing efforts.)

But the 1997 Travers was still an outstanding race, still intriguingly competitive, and the betting windows still opened. Deputy Commander won in a photo over Behrens, with Awesome Again third -- and, yes, I know what you're thinking, and your conclusion's flawless: That was a great group of 3-year-olds.

The Travers is called the Midsummer Derby for a reason: to distinguish it from the more celebrated springtime Derby, which has become an extravaganza in excess. Some horses aim for one and some for the other, but the two groups overlap little. The quality of the Travers can't be evaluated, or at least not entirely, based on how many Triple Crown or Kentucky Derby competitors complement the field. The greatest Travers winner ever, Man o' War, never ran in the Derby. Only one Triple Crown winner, Whirlaway in 1941, ever won the Travers. (Affirmed was disqualified after sawing off Alydar going into the second turn.) The Derby-Travers nexus is tenuous, as it should be and always has been.

This year, five of the 11 horses entered in the Travers participated in the Triple Crown series, but only two, Liaison and Alpha, in the Kentucky Derby. And while that, combined with retirement and defection, might leave many disappointed, it's hardly uncommon. In fact, each of the last three years, the Travers field included only two horses that had run in the Kentucky Derby. The same was true in 1992, 1994 and 2003.

In 1998, 2002, 2006 and again in 2007, only one horse from the roseate run made the Travers lineup. (Two of them, by the way, won at Saratoga, and the other two ran second.) And in that outstanding Travers field of 1997, there was not a single horse that had run in the Kentucky Derby.

By Travers time, most Derby horses either have finally and indisputably proven they're incapable of competing at the highest level or they've earned a rest. What remains is often, well, the best. In the last 20 years, only 54 horses raced in both the Kentucky Derby and Travers. But they did remarkably well at Saratoga. The Derby graduates won 14 of those 20 races, with 11 seconds and eight thirds. Only a rare and exceptional horse, the numbers suggest, is going to earn his way into the Kentucky Derby, with all the stress and travel that involves, and still be competing at the highest level three months later.

And so the Travers has become a proving ground for horses whose outstanding talents, for whatever reason, weren't fully expressed in Kentucky, horses such as Corporate Report, Holy Bull, Lemon Drop Kid, Medaglia d'Oro, Ten Most Wanted, Birdstone, Point Given, Flower Alley, Summer Bird and Stay Thirsty. Alpha could be such a horse this year.

A huggable, little colt, Alpha "lost it" before the Kentucky Derby was ever run, explained his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin. The day was hot, the crowd overwhelming, the moment turbulent, and Alpha became a fractious dishrag. He finished 12th. But except for his two races at Churchill Downs, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile being the other, Alpha never has finished worse than second.

His recent Jim Dandy victory, accomplished in the slop at Saratoga with the benefit of a gifted lead and a slow pace, probably wouldn't recommend him for the winner's circle Saturday. But back in April, on a dull Aqueduct surface, Alpha flashed his potential. He chased a legitimate pace, overcame trouble and nearly upset Gemologist, who was unbeaten at the time. That effort said much about Alpha's talent, tenacity and courage. And since then, the little colt has added weight and improved, McLaughlin said. Yes, the Travers could be a proving ground for Alpha.

But the Travers also has become the proving ground for late-developing horses, those that hadn't yet defined themselves in the spring, weren't quite ready for 1 miles until August, and so didn't race in the Derby, horses such as Will's Way, Coronado's Quest, Deputy Commander, Bernardini and Afleet Express.

Neck 'n Neck could be such a horse. Three months ago, he was still a "teenager," as his trainer, Ian Wilkes, described him. When he went out to the track, Neck 'n Neck was looking for a good time, looking for entertainment, looking just to be looking. But then he suddenly got it, epiphanies happen, the meaning of this running in circles became clear, and since then he has won two of his three outings.

The loss came in the Jim Dandy, where he finished two lengths behind Alpha. And although Wilkes, taking the high road, made no excuse, the dawdling pace clearly compromised the stretch-runner. The Jim Dandy also put the colt on a wet track for the first time.

More indicative of his talent was the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill in June, where he sat just behind a modest pace early and then, in a blink, appropriated the race. With an explosive move -- a fourth quarter-mile in 24.05 seconds -- he opened up an advantage of five lengths and from there cruised home, to win by more than seven.

Alpha can go to the lead, stalk or rally. He can hit any pitch, and don't dare hang a curve ball. The little guy's a racehorse. If Atigun races in blinkers and that revs his engine, if Speightscity guns for the lead and if one or two others jump into the bit, the pace could at least poach an egg, and that's all Neck 'n Neck needs to find his proving ground Saturday.

Flower Alley won the 2005 Travers, Bernardini won the following the year, and Saturday, their sons Neck 'n Neck and Alpha will hit the wire together in a lapidary finish, or at least that's how it looks from here. I know, this is hardly the time to get excited, what with all these issues confronting the sport, such as the retirements of Hansen, Bodemeister, Union Rags and I'll Have Another, and I understand that the ramifications and implications of these developments are profound, especially for a sport that so desperately needs headline-grabbing stars. I'm also very aware of the game's baleful economics and its medication and perception problems, and I'd love to discuss it all with you, I really would, especially the difference between a racehorse and a Faberge Egg because I have some strong opinions, but I think I'll leave those discussions, for at least the moment, to The Grand Academy of Lagado because the Travers is still one of the great races, and it's still intriguingly competitive, and the betting windows open soon.