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Jan 20, 2004

Up the Backstretch: Sophomores gather for Travers

By: By Don Agriss, Horse Racing Editor

(Sports Network) - The 2012 class of 3-year-old thoroughbreds has been decimated by early retirements and injury. This week alone, Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister has been retired and 2011 champion 2-year- old Hansen is on the verge of retirement.

However, races must still be run and Saturday the 143rd Travers for 3-year-olds will be conducted at Saratoga Race Course. None of the Triple Crown race winners will be starting, but 11 colts and geldings have been entered for the 1 1/4-mile "Mid-Summer Derby."

"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," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who will saddle 5-2 morning-line favorite Alpha. "It's tough to overtake (Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner) I'll Have Another, but if you happened to win the Travers and the Breeders' Cup Classic, you would have a good chance. It's a $1 million Grade 1 and a very important race Saturday."

Yes, I'll Have Another and Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags are both retired, and Belmont runner-up Paynter is recovering from illness. That leaves the division wide open for a horse to jump up and take control.

That colt could be Alpha, who posted a solid front-running two-length victory four weeks ago in Saratoga's Jim Dandy Stakes. Alpha can duplicate last year's effort of Stay Thirsty, who won both the Jim Dandy and Travers.

"I'm sorry Hansen's out for (his) connections. It's tough; those bad news items aren't fun for a trainer, owner or connections, but it does help us on the front end, I think, and now we'll probably be a lot closer (to the pace), even on the lead."

Representing the Haskell Invitational in the Travers is runner-up Nonios, trained by Hall of Fame member Jerry Hollendorfer. At 4-1 in the program, Nonios is just ahead of 9-2 third pick Neck 'n Neck in the morning line.

"We have a colt who is doing well," Hollendorfer said. "We try not to bring our horses anywhere we don't think they have a good chance, and I don't think we're being foolish or frivolous with him."

Trainer Ian Wilkes brings Neck 'n Neck back for the Travers off his second- place finish behind Alpha in the Jim Dandy. With Leandro Goncalves riding, the colt has shown marked improvement in his last three starts.

"It's maturity," Wilkes noted. "He's just grown up. If you watched him early on, he was playing around like he was a teenager. He thought it was time to go out and party and have a good time. It's like the lightbulb has gone on and he has put everything together."

Let's not forget that trainer Bob Baffett will still represented in the Travers even without Bodemeister or Paynter. Liaison is coming off a third in the Jim Dandy and is 8-1 in the program.

"The track was sloppy, there was no pace to run at all, and considering that, he finished very well," said Baffert assistant, Jim Barnes. "There should be more speed in the race, so it should be a different scenario."

Trainer Chad Brown also is hoping for a quicker early pace. His Street Life was made 5-1 in the morning line off a win in the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga on July 27.

"Hopefully, we'll get some pace to run at," said Brown after his colt drew post five. "We're taking the same approach we've taken all meet with all of our horses -- keep them happy, healthy and sound and try to run them in the right spot. The Travers is the right spot for this horse."

Look for the post-time odds to even out where the favorite will be higher than 5-2. The Travers field may not feature a superstar, but it's evenly matched, which makes it a good betting race.

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