There have been only occasional glimpses of Godolphin blue at Saratoga Race Course this summer.
They have been dazzling glimpses.
Today, Sheikh Mohammed’s Alpha has a chance to give racing fans a much longer-lasting view of the royal blue by winning the 143rd Travers Stakes.
He’s the 5-2 morning-line favorite after having won the Jim Dandy, and faces 10 rivals who are a little short on credentials compared to most Travers fields.
“It’d be nice to have that canoe for a year with those blue colors,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said on Wednesday, referring to the traditional paint job on the boat that sits placidly on the infield lake.
The Travers will be televised live on NBC during a broadcast from 4-6 p.m. that will also include coverage of the undercard stakes — the Ballston Spa, Test and King’s Bishop.
Post time for the Travers is 5:46 p.m.
McLaughlin, Godolphin’s primary trainer in the U.S., is in position to pull off a rare double by winning the Alabama and the Travers in the same year.
Only six trainers have accomplished that since the Alabama was inaugurated in 1872, most recently Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger, who won the Travers with Street Sense and the Alabama with Lady Joanne in 2007.
McLaughlin has only six winners from 33 starts since opening day, but three of them were towering home-run swings in some of the biggest races.
Besides Alpha’s Jim Dandy by two lengths over Neck ‘n Neck, Questing won the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks, then torched the Alabama field in a performance that still has people on the backstretch shaking their heads a week later.
There seems to be a loose consensus that the filly would have won the Travers if Godolphin had been so inclined to enter her today, but that move doesn’t make sense, considering they have the favorite, anyway, in the form of her stablemate.
Alpha is a son of 2006 Preakness, Jim Dandy and Travers winner Bernardini, who raced in the burgundy silks of the other wing of Sheikh Mohammed’s operation, Darley Stable.
The unflappable McLaughlin, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has some difficulty walking, sat on a chair in the shade of a tree after the post-position draw on Wednesday and said, “Nothing bothers me,” in reference to disparaging comments about how the 3-year-old class has been depleted by health problems and retirements.
He knows he has a fit, classy horse who has been trained to overcome some anxiety-inducing pre-race antics, like fractious behavior at the gate before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year.
“We’ve never been better,” McLaughlin said. “I haven’t watched the other 10 horses train. My job is to have Alpha at his best, and he is at his best. Never been better. So we’re happy, but you have to break clean, you have to have things go your way. You never know.”
Since the Jim Dandy, Alpha has schooled out of the gate four times, just to keep him in a routine.
He broke cleanly under Ramon Dominguez from the rail in the Jim Dandy, and quickly assumed the lead.
The field let him get through six furlongs in a comfortable 1:14.03, and by the time he got in the stretch, it was just a matter of finishing.
“The Bernardinis we’ve been around have all been great, mentally,” McLaughlin said. “He gets a little jacked up on race day, which probably makes him competitive and as good as he is, and he gets a little anxious in the gate, but he’s a lovely horse to be around 24⁄7, and most of the Bernardinis are.”
If you throw out Alpha’s races at Churchill Downs, up the track each time by 191⁄4 lengths in the BC Juvenile and Kentucky Derby, he’s never finished worse than second.
His two second-place finishes were to Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags in the Champagne last year and to Gemologist in the Wood Memorial.
After the Jim Dandy, perhaps some are expecting Alpha to crank straight to the front again, but trainer Gary Contessa said his long shot, Speightscity, will fire from the rail, for sure.
“If somebody goes, we’re happy to lay third,” McLaughlin said. “We just hope he behaves well in the paddock and in the gate. He’s perfect every time, he never moves a muscle.”
Besides Alpha, four others — Neck ‘n Neck, Liaison, Atigun and Fast Falcon — are back for the Travers out of the Jim Dandy. The Jim Dandy winner has won four of the last eight Travers, including Flower Alley (2005), Neck n’ Neck’s sire.
The other two key preps were the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and the Curlin at Saratoga, won by Street Life, who is trained by Mechanicville native Chad Brown.
The Haskell has produced what seems to be the buzz horse heading into the Travers, the California-based Nonios, a son of Pleasantly Perfect trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer. He picks up the services of newly minted Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.
Nonios finished a good second behind Paynter, who would’ve vied with Alpha as the favorite if he hadn’t come down with a fever that hampered his training after the Haskell.
Atigun, third in the Belmont behind Union Rags and Paynter, gets a rider switch from Julien Leparoux to Hall of Famer Mike Smith.
Trainer Kenny McPeek said he didn’t want Atigun as far back as he was in the Jim Dandy, which was run on a sloppy track.
“I thought he should’ve been a lot closer last time, but there were seven horses in the race that probably should’ve been closer,” said McPeek, still miffed that Alpha was allowed such an unthreatened lead through the first six furlongs of the Jim Dandy.
“All of that’s out of our hands once we leg them up. The Belmont race was a very good race for him at a mile and a half, and he needs every inch of ground he can get, and he needs pace in the race, which he didn’t get in the Jim Dandy at all. I’m going to give Mike Smith a test drive on him and see of we can get a piece of it.”
Brown echoed that sentiment, which means that the eventual Travers winner out of a mishmash of a field will need a smart, tactical ride.
“It’s [early pace] a question mark,” he said. “It’s something that I don’t dwell upon too much in races anymore because we handicap the races and get an idea of what happens, but you never know in a race like this, who’s planning on doing what when the gate opens. It’s out of my hands. I’m just going to leave it up to Jose Lezcano.”
“You can’t take anything away from Alpha,” said Ian Wilkes, who trains Neck ‘n Neck. “They took advantage of tactics, they took advantage of a sloppy track and Ramon rode a good race, so you’ve got to give them all the accolades. Yeah, I’ve still got a good horse that can beat Alpha, but that day, no, I can’t take anything away from them that day.”