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As summer ends, thoughts turn to Cup

8/30/2005

An hour after the Travers Stakes, darkness was falling on
Saratoga Racecourse. In the suddenly deserted backyard, among thousands
of empty beer cans and worthless tickets, the first leaves were on the
ground. The Mid-Summer Derby on the last Saturday in August had opened
the door to the Fall Championship Meeting at Belmont Park, climaxed by
the Breeders' Cup.

Summer's almost gone, which isn't bad news for horseplayers. I've
always thought that autumn is the best season to handicap because
horses' athletic personalities have been established. You have a good
feel for how far they want to go, which surface they prefer, and for the
class level that suits them.

Although I invariably vote Democratic, I'm a snobby elitist when
it comes to the thoroughbreds. Cheap claimers and minor tracks never
intrigued me, and I love high-quality cards such as the one on Travers
day. Three Grade I's, the Travers and King's Bishop for 3-year-olds and
the Hopeful for 2-year-olds, showcased some of the best runners in North
America. We'll be seeing many of them Oct. 29 at Belmont in the 22nd
running of the world championships.

In the Grade II, 1 1/16-mile Fourstardave Handicap on the grass,
Leroidesanimaux (French for "king of the animals") lived up to his name
by wiring the field for his seventh consecutive win. North America's
best miler might give the Europeans problems at Belmont.

"He's a real nice horse and he tries hard," trainer Bobby Frankel
said. "It's a little late in the year to be trying to go a mile and a
half with him, so our objective is the Breeders' Cup Mile."

In the Hopeful, First Samurai improved to 3-for-3 by handing
odds-on Henny Hughes his first defeat. First Samurai is by 2000 Kentucky
Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, so 7 furlongs was no problem, and neither
should the Juvenile's 1 1/16 miles.

On any other day, the undefeated Lost in the Fog would have
topped the bill. The country's best sprinter ran away to his ninth
victory, rocketing 7 furlongs in 1:22.56 to win by 4¼ lengths. Northern
California-based Greg Gilchrist is thinking about training him up to the
Sprint, where he would be a heavy favorite. He's even better at 6
furlongs than at 7.

"People need to realize he's shipped across the country six times
now, not counting a 14-hour van ride to Phoenix and back," Gilchrist
said. "To keep putting on those kinds of performances, it takes a
special horse to do that. He makes it look so easy."

Oddly, the hero of the Travers, Flower Alley, had to share the
spotlight with Bellamy Road, whom he wore down in midstretch and beat by
2 1/2 lengths. Bellamy Road came in off a 112-day layoff since suffering a
leg injury in the Kentucky Derby, and he showed quality and courage in
defeat.

"Bellamy Road ran his heart out," trainer Nick Zito said. "I've
said it before, he's a terrific horse. I salute Flower Alley, but I also
salute Bellamy Road. Four months coming off the bench, and he gives us
this. What a future he's got."

Perhaps, but questions remain about what kind of horse Bellamy
Road is. His reputation rests on one race, that 17½-length runaway in
the Wood Memorial in which he earned a monstrous speed figure. Not only
did he become the instant Derby favorite, but he also was heralded as
the next Seattle Slew. Please.

Could he be just another brilliant one-dimensional horse? In
the Wood, he made an easy lead against a weak field and looked like a
world-beater. In the Derby, he couldn't get to the front early and was
nowhere. In the Travers, he understandably tired but did fight back
briefly in the final furlong after being headed.

Maybe he'll move forward, and maybe not, because that was a
grueling 10-furlong paid workout. Let's see if he bounces back quickly
and trains consistently. If he does, he could light up the Jockey Club
Gold Cup on Oct. 1, his likely prep for the Classic. If not, he might be
just another one-race wonder.

With Preakness/Belmont winner Afleet Alex out indefinitely with
a leg injury, Flower Alley has a chance to bid for Eclipse Awards.
Having sat out the Preakness and Belmont, he's fresher than most of the
other top 3-year-olds, and his Jim Dandy-Travers double looks good on
the resume.

"This was a home run," trainer Todd Pletcher said after the
race. "The Jim Dandy was the kind of performance that propelled Flower
Alley to the next level."

The next morning, Pletcher said he considered his colt the No.
2 3-year-old -- for the time being.

"I think Afleet Alex has accomplished so much up to this point
that it would be hard to unseat him," Pletcher said. "But if Flower
Alley was able to step up in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders'
Cup Classic and go out with a four-race win streak, then maybe he can
make a case for himself."

Who will rise in the fall? Put your money down and find out.