Champion looks to emerge in Travers

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- It is generally agreed that the winner of Saturday's 144th Travers Stakes will eventually be crowned champion 3-year-old male of 2013 -- as long as it is Verrazano, Orb or Palace Malice. Had not injury befallen the Preakness winner, Oxbow would have been part of this equation but he is the lone absence of note.

There is a sense that we are overdue the stunning upset for which the Spa is renowned.

This is, however, Saratoga -- legendary as the "Graveyard of Champions," and after Princess of Sylmar's crushing, never-an-anxious-moment victory at odds-on in last Saturday's Alabama Stakes clinched the title of champion 3-year-old female, there is a sense that we are overdue the stunning upset for which the Spa is renowned.

It is no more than logical that the Travers would come down to one of the three principals. Verrazano has been nothing sort of sensational since firing a blank in the Derby. Palace Malice substantiated his Belmont victory with another in the Jim Dandy Stakes, run here. Both are training well in the hands of Todd Pletcher. Orb has not raced since the Belmont but while in the relative quiet of Fair Hill, Md., has apparently thrived according to trainer Shug McGaughey. Orb launched his career here last year and had no apparent difficulty with the surface. Verrazano has trained superbly here. So, the stage is set. People love showdowns be they gun fights or horse races.

But the Travers is frequently not the race that secures a championship for its winner. Since 1936, when national championships were first established, only 18 Travers winners have been voted the 3-year-old title. Thirteen of those predate the Breeders' Cup, first run in 1984, which of course changed everything.

Summer Bird, in 2009, is the most recent colt to win the Travers and 3-year-old championship.

More often than not, the champion male 3-year-old is not the Travers winner, but an alternative is not evident in this group. No other 3-year-old has made a statement in support of his inclusion among the division leaders and there is no basis for expectation that this will change on Saturday.

There is greater potential that the Travers will be a coronation of Verrazano than an upset that will become a part of Saratoga lore.

Early support for Orb as a potential Triple Crown winner after the Derby was overly optimistic but his class and quality is undeniable. Palace Malice is workmanlike, lacks charisma but wins. Verrazano's two recent wins have been electric. The question of distance lingers but trainer Todd Pletcher said, is of no concern to Verrazano's connections.

"With the way the racetrack [at Monmouth Park] came up that day in the Haskell, I think any horse that could handle a mile and an eighth and finish up as strongly as he did that day can handle a mile and a quarter at Saratoga," Pletcher said of Verrazano. "That was a very deep, demanding track that day. I think a mile and a quarter shouldn't be an issue."

Perhaps not, but a Travers that appears this cut and dry brings to mind that this is a race that happens at Saratoga and that people have written books about the upsets that have happened here and the word "Graveyard" is integral to the story.

This has, however, not been the typical summer at Saratoga. Wise Dan and Princess of Sylmar have made the place the "Playground of Champions" in recent weeks. There will be no 1-2 favorite in the Travers, good news for supporters of one of the leading figures or any of the others. The only true upset would be an appearance by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to present the Travers trophy.

That's easily 200-1 on the morning line. Right now, Verrazano is about 2-1.