LITTLE ROCK — Contrary to popular belief, this year’s prestigious races exclusively for 3-year-old thoroughbreds did not end when a Hall of Fame jockey made a rookie mistake and Union Rags won the Belmont on June 9.
On the horizon is the Aug. 25 Travers Stakes, first run in 1864 — 11 years before Aristides won the initial Kentucky Derby. In the eyes of many horsemen who know all too well that the Derby winner is not necessarily the best 3-year-old of his generation, the Travers is on par with the Triple Crown races.
For good reason, the Travers is called the Mid Summer Derby. Since 1984, the Travers has been won 11 times by horses who were champions or would become champions. Chief’s Crown, Forty Niner, Easy Goer, Point Given, Bernardini and Street Sense are in that group.
By the time the 1 1-4-mile race rolls around, many of the 3-year-olds who made headlines in the spring are on the sideline and the stage is clear for the late bloomers and those who disappointed in the Triple Crown. Such is the case this year. Scratched from the Belmont, Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another has been sold and will stand at stud in Japan. A few days ago, Union Rags was retired with a tendon injury in his left front foot. Bodemeister, second in both the Derby and the Preakness and the Derby favorite because of his smashing victory in the Arkansas Derby, has a fever and his next start is up in the air.
Today at famed Saratoga Race Course, Arkansas-owned Atigun and seven others will prepare for the Travers by running in the Jim Dandy. Unraced since a dismal 16th in the Kentucky Derby, previously unbeaten Gemologist and Paynter and four others will get ready by racing in New Jersey on Sunday.
John Ed Anthony, who won the Preakness twice and the Belmont once, did not waver in his faith in Atigun after the colt was way back in the Rebel and fifth in the Arkansas Derby. He blamed jockey error for the showings in Arkansas, and admitted nobody was going to beat Bodemeister in the Oaklawn finale.
All along, Anthony said his horse was bred to run long and that he would do well in 1 1-2-mile Belmont. That day, he moved to the outside of front-running Paynter and Union Rags stayed on the rail. Atigun was third; Union Rags was first.
"I would have loved to have seen Julien (Leparoux) stay inside a little longer and have the inside trip Union Rags ended up with," Atigun trainer Ken McPeek said earlier this week. "It might have been the difference in winning and losing."
Somebody who invested $2 across the board on Atigun sent Anthony an e-mail, congratulating him and admitting to a rush when the colt took aim at Paynter.
"We’ll get ‘em in the Travers," Anthony responded.
A few days later, Anthony and his adviser tossed around the West Virginia Derby, Sunday’s race in New Jersey and the Jim Dandy as possible paths to the Travers. At one point, Anthony mused that Atigun’s unique triple crown could be the derbies in West Virginia, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. He also thought Union Rags, Paynter and Gemologist might be headed to the Jim Dandy and seemed to be leaning towards the race next week on grass in West Virginia where the purse is $750,000 and the field is weaker.
The morning line favorite for the 1 1-8 mile Jim Dandy is Alpha, who had some success in New York early in the year but has not run since finishing 12th in the Kentucky Derby. McPeek says Atigun is in good form for the Jim Dandy, "but he needs a lot of distance."
Like the extra eighth of a mile in the $1 million Travers.
(Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org).