SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Saratoga Race Course and the Travers Stakes really don't need anyone or anything. Just open the place, and lots of fans are there to watch a field with lots of quality.
And six days ago, because of an occurrence some 3,000 miles away, the historic track and its premier race got even more help.
Best Pal, a 3-year-old, beat the nation's best older horses in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar Race Course in California. With the upset, tomorrow's 122nd Travers suddenly took on added meaning: It could well be the most important horse race so far this year.
"It's the best Travers I've seen, and I've been coming up here since 1976," said Leon Blusiewicz, a Maryland native and resident who will saddle Tong Po in the race. "Everybody in the know considered these horses to be a good crop."
Six 3-year-olds were entered today for the $1 million Travers, and except for Tong Po, every colt has credentials that would not result in avictory being labeled an upset. A crowd to threaten the Travers record is expected, and added millions will watch on ABC (channels 13, 7).
Before the Pacific Classic, just how the current crop of 3-year-olds matched up with older horses was, as usual, suspect. Now that Best Pal has proved the crop's top runners to be competitive, the Travers is a critical confrontation not only within their own group, but for all horses. It is the last time the familiar rivals will clash before the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 2.
"It's a very competitive race," said trainer Frank Brothers, who will saddle Hansel as second morning-line choice to Strike the Gold. "We've got the top 3-year-olds, and if they all show up with their best races, it should be pretty special to see. It doesn't have to be that the winner is the [Eclipse Award] champion, but it could be that way."
Best Pal was one of the Big Four leading to the Kentucky Derby in May. He finished behind two of the Big Four in the first two legs of the Triple Crown -- second to Strike the Gold in the Derby, then fifth behind Hansel in the Preakness. Hansel also won the Belmont.
Although Best Pal and the other Big Four member, Fly So Free, were Triple Crown duds, they have resurfaced as bona-fide contenders for top 3-year-old honors. Fly So Free defeated Strike the Gold in the 1 1/8 -mile Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga nearly three weeks ago.
After Fly So Free ran fifth in the Derby, trainer Scotty Schulhofer said he thought the colt's optimum distance to be 1 1/8 miles, and no farther. He is still unsure whether Fly So Free can handle the Travers' 1 1/4 miles.
"If he can get the mile and a quarter, he can," he said. "If not, he'll get beat."
The Mid-Summer Derby, as the race is known, sets up rather predictably.
Fly So Free, along with Hansel, figures to stalk the early pace behind Corporate Report, a habitual front-runner who has earned $467,908 without winning a stakes event.
Behind the front flight should be Tong Po. "We'll be fourth," agreed Blusiewicz.
Tong Po, owned by Bob and Lorraine Quinichett of Silver Spring, has started just once since winning the Tesio Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in March at 31-1 odds; he finished fifth by nearly 10 lengths in the Jim Dandy. The Private Account colt bucked shins after his Tesio win, and Blusiewicz immediately began pointing for the Jim Dandy and Travers.
The colt will be ridden by Chris Antley, who flip-flopped with Angel Cordero when Cordero replaced him aboard Strike the Gold. Blusiewicz, dissatisfied with Cordero's Jim Dandy ride, said the veteran jockey "was history anyway. Chris came by the barn after Nick fired him and I gave him the mount."
Trailing the field in the early stages will be Strike the Gold and Lost Mountain.
Lost Mountain was an unheralded long shot in the Derby and ran 12th with a rough trip. He since has blossomed, sandwiching victories in the Peter Pan, Dwyer and Haskell Invitational around a loss in the Belmont Stakes. In the Haskell at Monmouth Park, he caught Corporate Report in the final strides while Hansel, making his first start since the Belmont, labored 13 lengths behind.
Lost Mountain, a prototypical late bloomer, has "always been good," said trainer Tom Bohannon. "But I think he's improved mentally. Winning his last three of four has helped in that respect."
NOTES: Although rain soaked the Saratoga area yesterday, partly sunny skies and a high of 85 is forecast for tomorrow. Good weather could help break the Travers record attendance of 50,359, set in 1978 when Alydar beat Affirmed via disqualification. The all-time Saratoga record is 53,561, set on Aug. 27, 1989, an umbrella giveaway day. . . . Of the past 121 runnings, 46 have been contested on an off track. . . . The last Horse of the Year, Derby winner and Preakness winner to run in the Travers was Alysheba, sixth in 1987. . . . The Travers is the oldest major stakes race for 3-year-olds in the United State. It is named for William R. Travers, the first president of the track. . . . Four of the 6 jockeys in tomorrow's Travers have won the race; only Antley and Jose Santos have not. Craig Perret, who rides Lost Mountain, won last year with Rhythm. . . . The Haskell has been the prior start for 3 of the past 5 Travers winners: Wise Times (1986), Forty Niner (1988) and Rhythm.