For some in Travers, the $1 million isn't only prize at stake

Menifee, Lemon Drop Kid are also racing for Eclipse as year's top 3-year-old

August 28, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- As eight 3-year-olds battle today for $1 million and the prestige of winning the Travers, another and perhaps more intriguing race is taking place among the top contenders.

Menifee and Lemon Drop Kid, and maybe even Cat Thief, will fight for recognition as the most accomplished male horse of their generation. Charismatic is the current leader, but his hold on the top spot is precarious. After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Charismatic suffered a broken leg in the Belmont and was retired.

If no other 3-year-old asserts himself, Charismatic will likely win the division's Eclipse award, the cherished year-end prize that secures a horse's place in history. If another 3-year-old does surge to the forefront, he'll likely take a giant step in the Travers.

The trainers of Charismatic, Menifee and Lemon Drop Kid have launched their campaigns. Their banter resembles gamblers arguing the merits of their picks.

D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Charismatic, says the Kentucky Derby and Preakness overwhelm the Swaps Stakes (won by Cat Thief), Haskell Invitational Handicap (won by Menifee) and Travers in significance for year-end honors.

"I cannot believe that the Haskell and Travers would ever equate to the Derby and Preakness," Lukas said. "It just doesn't happen. That would be insane.

"If you get Cat Thief winning the Swaps and the Travers, or you get Menifee winning the Haskell and the Travers, they have to go on and do something very significant in the fall. I don't think you can stop here and say, `OK, this is the new leader of the division.' I think Charismatic is still there."

On the other hand, Scotty Schulhofer, trainer of Lemon Drop Kid, presents the opposite view. He says that "one race in the fall is worth two in the spring."

In other words, one victory in the Travers or against older horses late in the year equates to springtime victories in the Derby and Preakness.

Lemon Drop Kid won the Belmont, ending Charismatic's Triple Crown bid. Schulhofer expects him to win the Travers if the track dries out after two days of rain. That appears likely. The forecast for today is sunny with temperatures in the 80s.

Finally, Elliott Walden, who trains Menifee, takes the coy approach. He doesn't really want to talk about it, he says, but then points out that if Menifee wins the Travers he will become the first 3-year-old male to win three Grade I stakes in 1999: the Blue Grass, Haskell and Travers.

Menifee is the Travers' 9-5 morning-line favorite based on his remarkable consistency: five wins and three seconds in nine starts. His only off-the-board finish came in the Belmont when, Walden said later, Menifee battled a minor illness.

Walden also will saddle Ecton Park in the Travers. The trainer considered this Forty Niner colt his top Kentucky Derby prospect back in the winter before Menifee blossomed.

After winning the Jim Dandy Stakes three weeks ago here at Saratoga, Ecton Park became a candidate for the Travers.

Asked which horses pose the greatest threat to his pair, Walden said: "As far as Menifee is concerned, Ecton Park. And as far as Ecton Park is concerned, Menifee.

"I feel real good about them. I think they're both peaking. If you've seen either of them train, you'd know what I'm talking about."

Trainer Bill Mott also will start two horses: Unbridled Jet, who finished fourth in the Haskell but might have won except for trouble in the stretch, and Vision and Verse, who finished second in the Belmont.

Mott acknowledges that either will have to run his best race to win. Lukas says his Cat Thief will be all out to carry his speed 1 1/4 miles to the Travers finish line. And Allaire duPont's Best of Luck (despite his Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens) and the long-shot Badger Gold simply seem out-classed.

Said Walden: "Hopefully the rains will stay away, the fans will come out, and it will be the great race that it is."

NOTE: Banshee Breeze lost yesterday for the first time this year, falling 2 1/4 lengths short of gate-to-wire winner Beautiful Pleasure in the Grade I $400,000 Personal Ensign Handicap.

Beautiful Pleasure, a 4-year-old filly trained by the Kentucky-based John Ward, led by as many as five lengths on Saratoga's sloppy surface. She paid $11.40 to win. The Beautiful Pleasure-Banshee Breeze exacta returned $21.80. The 5-1 Keeper Hill finished third. The trifecta paid $80.50.

Edgar Prado's mount, Unbridled Hope, faded to last in the six-horse field. But on the day, Prado won two more races and recorded three seconds. He has won 24 races at Saratoga, third best behind Jerry Bailey (40) and Jorge Chavez (29).

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