Well folks, it's all come down to this.  The Saratoga season has been a slow crescendo to this moment.  The Jim Dandy, Whitney, Sword Dancer, Alabama - all mere preludes to this Saturday's running of the 142nd Travers Stakes.

[/caption]The Mid Summer Derby is without a doubt the crown jewel of not only the Saratoga season, but of all of summer horse racing.  Year in and year out it welcomes the best three-year-olds the sport can offer.  But with no horse stepping up to stake their claim as the leader of the division, this year's Travers takes on a little extra meaning.  The winner of Saturday's race will immediately step to the front of their division, specifically if it is Haskell Invitational winner Coil, Preakness winner Shakleford (most fun name in horse racing to pronounce), or Belmont winner Ruler on Ice.


Before the Travers goes off, however, once Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Mo will take to the Saratoga track in his long-awaited return from internal injuries that cost him a shot at any Triple Crown race.  He'll race in the grade 1 King's Bishop against a strong field of sprinters.  This is a race that I'm particularly excited for.  Of the eight horses running, five are legitimate speed horses.  I'm looking for the fractions to be downright suicidal in this race.  This could open the door for a horse with a strong closing kick like the two Caleb's Posse to steal the race.  Look, I'm betting Uncle Mo.  When he's on it looks like Pegasus and Shadow Fax are the only horses that could beat him, but he's coming off a four month layoff and an injury.  Will his conditioning be there?  I can't be sure.  If it's not, look for Caleb's Posse, Flashpoint and Dominus to be there.  I also love the price we'll be getting for Poseidon's Warrior.  This horse won his last two races by a combined 16 lengths.  I love him as a long-shot...though I'd bet Uncle Mo.

Because of the return of the high profile Uncle Mo, some have suggested that the King's Bishop will be the bigger race on Saturday.  POPPYCOCK I SAY!  Pure, pure poppycock.  Look, it'll be a great race and it's one that I'm extremely interested to see, but the Travers is THE race at Saratoga.  In a normal year it wouldn't be topped, which is to say nothing of this year in which it will feature a dog-fight for division front-runner between three grade one winner's and a grade two winner.

The grade one winners are Preakness winner Shackleford, Belmont winner Ruler on Ice and Haskell Invitational winner Coil, who beat both Shackleford and Ruler on Ice in the race.  The grade two winner is Stay Thirsty.  This Todd Pletcher trained horse vaulted to Travers faverdome in July when he won the grade two Jim Dandy at Saratoga.  To me, these four make up the top tier of the field - there plenty of game horses in the race, but these four, I think, are a step above (famous last words).

Shackleford boasts an impressive resume. He's a Preakness winner and has finished 2nd, 2nd, 4th, and 5th in four other grade one races, including the Kentucky Derby.  His early speed could be tough for this field to handle if he can make the lead from the unfortunate outside starting post.  Ruler on Ice is the 2011 Belmont Champion and the only horse in the field to win at a distance longer than a mile and an eighth.  The Travers is a mile and a quarter.  Stay Thirsty finished second in the Belmont before dominating the Jim Dandy and with Javier Castellano aboard there isn't much to dislike about the horse.  Coil, however, is the only of these four to be coming off a win.  He made a great late run to win his first dirt race and has posted freakish workout times recently.  Trainer Bob Baffert says that a recent eye injury that had Coil's Travers dreams in doubt is under control and the colt is ready to go.

I really like these four as the class of the field.  They're the only horses running whom have won a top tier race.  But hey, every graded stakes winner had to get their first at some point, and if someone is to score their first win on Saturday, I'd look for Bowman's Causeway or Rattlesnake Bridge to do it.  Roman Dominguez and John Velazquez ride each, respectfully, and with those two jockey's it's hard to go wrong.  Will it happen?  I doubt it, here's how I see the race shaking out:

At the start I see Shackleford breaking early and making the lead.  There isn't a ton of early speed here so while the outside position hurts, I don't think it will be a huge hindrance.  Frankly, I think the field will be willing to let him run a bit.  As they come down the stretch and into the first turn the Dale Romans horse will continue to lead with the field taking shape behind him.  Despite winning the Haskell while trailing almost throughout the race, Bob Baffert has said he'd like Coil to break better this race, I think he'll sit second behind Shackleford with the six Raison D'etat, the three Moonshine Mullin and Stay Thirsty right there as well.  Bob Baffert has also said that he allows jockey Martin Garcia to make whatever mid-race move he sees fit, so it's possible that Coil could again drop to the back of the pack, however, I think near the front is where they'd prefer to be.  Look for the eight, J W Blue to be the early trailer.

I don't see much changing into the back stretch.  The opening quarter may go by quickly, with Shackleford hustling up to take the lead, but I expect the pace to slow down the backstretch.  This is the formula Jesus Castanon used to guide Shackleford to the Preakness win - start strong, back off a bit, finish strong.  I don't think he'll be afforded that same luxury this time around however.  He'll slow the pace some, but Coil's presence on his heels will keep him from backing off as much as he'd like.  It's important that these two keep the pace reasonable, though.  If the two frontrunners engage in the back stretch they could have no run left in at the end.  Knowing this, I think they don't run away with it too much, but it won't be a crawl.  As they move into the final turn Stay Thirsty will begin to rally from his spot mid pack and push his way toward the front.  Malibu Glow and Bowman's Causeway may also take their shot at the lead but ultimately I think it's Stay Thirsty leading the charge to catch front runners Shackleford and Coil.

As Stay Thirsty strikes the lead at the top the stretch I think Shackleford, who has conserved a bit of energy through the back stretch, and Coil who was always game, fight back and open up on the field again.  Dueling down the stretch will come Shackleford and Coil as J W Blue begins and ends his attempt a late kick, and Ruler on Ice stirs from mid pack to make a courageous run.  As they come to the wire I think the extra half furlong costs Shackleford and he fades.  Coil hits the line first...barely.  Shackleford stays for second with Stay Thirsty close on his heels and Ruler on Ice right there for fourth in what I expect to be a very close race.

Bottom line, I'm just too impressed with Coil to look elsewhere.  Stay Thirsty is enticing, but ultimately, he beat a less than world beating field in a grade two and has been otherwise less than impressive.  Will I be shocked if he wins? Absolutely not.  But I look at a grade one winner who came from deep in the field to beat the Preakness and Belmont winners and has posted workouts that would make Secretariat blush as the horse I like to win.  Shackleford should get some play as well, but I'm just not sure he has enough to be there at the extra furlong.

Betting wise, I'd check the odds to see what is worth playing, but I think Coil will be getting a decent price. I'm tempted to bet the 4-7-9-10 superfecta box but I find it hard to believe that all four of these horses will come in on top.  Somewhere in this field there must be a long-shot who can muster a great race.  To me, that's probably Rattlesnake Bridge, who, at long odds is certainly worth a bet.

In the end, I like Coil in this race but I'm not 100% confident.  There is some real quality here and not a lot of consistency, which is why no horse enters the Travers as the favorite in the three-year-old division.  But rest assured, one will certainly leave the winner's circle as it.  This Travers features a lot of intrigue and mystery which has made it hard to handicap, but will also make it terrifically exciting.  I look for a very tight, well run race that should come right down to the wire.

Check the comments below for comments from Bob Baffert, Dale Romans and Stay Thirsty trainer Javier Castellano.  Also be sure to check out older editions of Talking Track for help on how to handicap, how to bet and what to expect when you go to the track.  And after the race come right back to 1045theteam.com for a recap submitted by yours truly - I mean, don't come right back, give me a little time.  Let's say we meet back here, oh I don't know, tenish?  Is that good for you?  Anyway, It'll be a truly great day at the Spa on Saturday and I hope to see you there for the 142nd running of the Travers Stakes.