As summer ends, thoughts turn to Cup

Updated: August 30, 2005, 3:12 PM ET
By Ed McNamara | Special to ESPN.com

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 4 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 17-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.