All eyes on Big Apple this weekend

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Ted Black

August 27th, 2015

This Saturday will mark one of those very rare weekends in which both thoroughbred and standardbred fans alike will have the chance to see some of the sport's best three-year-olds compete within hours of one another and within the boundaries of the same state.

This Saturday afternoon Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York will host the latest edition of the Grade I, $1.6 million Travers Stakes, the Midsummer Derby for three-year-olds and the race attracted the best of the bunch in Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, the unofficial horse of the year for 2015.

That same evening at Yonkers Raceway, a half-mile harness racing oval just outside the shadows of Manhattan, the best three-year-old colt trotters in the land, including Hambletonian winner Pinkman will be on hand for a pair of Yonkers Trot eliminations. The top four finishers from each elim will return for the $500,000 final the following Saturday.

Slated as the 11th race on the card on Saturday and the last of six straight Grade I races the track is hosting, the Travers is undoubtedly the highlight of the weekend and the entire meet at Saratoga. Perhaps it seems only fitting that the race attracted the best horse in the land in American Pharoah, who has already secured champion three-year-old and horse of the year honors regardless of what happens this weekend and in his career finale in the Breeders Cup Classic at Keeneland on October 31.

A sophomore son of Pioneer of the Nile trained by Bob Baffert for the Zayat Stables, American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought when he captured the Triple Crown in June and he has since returned to take the Grade I, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. He has been installed as the 1-5 favorite for the Travers, although nine rivals will look to upset him.

American Pharoah has won eight of nine career outings and earned nearly $5.7 million along the way and he will bring an eight-race win streak and a hint of invincibility into the Travers. But onlookers should bear in mind that Saratoga is known as "the graveyard of favorites" for ample reason and while many in the sell-out crowd - if such a thing is truly possible for horse racing - will be rooting for American Pharoah, a small percentage of the gathering, including the connections of his nine rivals, will be seeking a shocker.

Of the nine runners slated to oppose American Pharoah in the Travers at least three have a legitimate chance of upsetting him. Texas Red, last year's Breeders Cup Juvenile champion and recent winner of the Jim Dandy Stakes over the strip, has won three of eight career outings and nearly $1.7 million for trainer Keith Desormeaux and is heading into the Travers in peak form. American Pharoah whipped him in their lone meeting in their prep for the Breeders Cup Juvenile, a race in which the Pharoah bypassed due to an injury.

Another talented colt looking to avenge a prior setback against the 'Pharoah' is Frosted, the Kiaran McLaughlin trainee who was second in the Belmont Stakes and then was second to Texas Red in teh Jim Dandy. But don't let the record for you. Granted, Frosted has only won twice and finished second six times in 10 career outings, but he is a legitimate threat to overhaul American Pharoah in the lane if the favorite falters even slightly.

Another late-running sort eager to get one more shot at the 'Pharoah' is Keen Ice, who rallied well to finish second to the favorite in the Haskell after closing well to be third behind him in the Belmont. Upstart, who performed well in Florida before his last-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, draws the rail and Tale Of Verve, runner-up in the Preakness, will break from post eight.

One race earlier on the card, Saratoga will offer the Grade I, $1 million Sword Dancer at one-mile and one-half on the grass. The race attracted the well-traveled Flintshire, the runner-up in last year's Breeders Cup Turf and Arc de Triomphe, will look to tackle Imagining, Red Rifle, Twilight Eclipse, Guardini and War Dancer. Twilight Eclipse raced in the shadows of Main Sequence last summer in these events, but has a chance to emerge this year.

One race earlier on the card the track will offer the Grade I, $700,000 Forego Stakes for older sprinters traveling seven furlongs. Among the logical contenders looking to use this event as a springboard to the Breeders Cup Sprint at Keeneland are Bourbon Courage, Wildcat Red, The Big Beast, Private Zone, Salutos Amigos and Falling Sky. The Big Beast won the Grade I King's Bishop one year earlier over this track and prepped for this event by running second in the Grade I Vanderbilt.

Speaking of the King's Bishop, that Grade I, $500,000 stakes for three-year-old colts and gelding will take place one race prior. Competitive Edge exits the Haskell and was trounced in the Woody Stephens on Belmont Day, but should be the favorite. He looks highly vulnerable, however, as Commute, Watershed, Mr. Z., Holy Boss and March loom as serious upset prospects.

One race earlier on the card the best filly and mare sprinters, many of which are eyeing a spot in the Breeders Cup F-M Sprint, will go postward in the Grade I, $500,000 Ballerina Stakes. Dame Dorothy has won three of four starts for Pletcher and looms the favorite, but La Verdad, Room For Me, Kiss To Remember, Unbridled Forever and Street Story all have upset possibilities.

Then one race prior to the Ballerina, the older fillies and mares who prefer the longer distances will go postward in the Grade I, $750,000 Personal Ensign Stakes at one-mile and an eighth. Stopchargingmaria is listed as the tepid 2-1 morning line favorite for Pletcher, but Untapable (5-2), Sheer Drama (3-1) and Got Lucky (4-1), another Pletcher trainee, will all get serious backing. America and Tiz Windy will be longshots.

While many leaving Saratoga after the live card will head to the local pubs, serious racing fans will venture south and head to Yonkers for the two eliminations for the prestigious Yonkers Trot, the second leg of trotting's triple crown for three-year-olds.

Only five sophomores will go behind the gate in the first elim, but the race features two of the best three-year-old colt trotters in the land. Pinkman (Yannick Gingras), the afforementioned Hambletonian winner who broke stride and finished last in his subsequent start in the $500,000 Colonial at Pocono Downs last Saturday, will be the odds-on choice from post three for trainer Jimmy Takter.

But just to his inside is perhaps the main threat to the reigning division champ this weekend and next - Crazy Wow. A beneficiary of Pinkman's gallop in the Colonial, Crazy Wow (Tim Tetrick) posted a 9-1 upset in the Colonial last weekend when he scored in 1:52.3. It was his fifth win in nine starts on the season and his second lucrative stakes score, having previously captured the $250,000 Empire Breeders Classic at Vernon Downs.

Buen Camino (Trond Smedshammer), who has won three straight against New York Sire Stakes foes, Workout Wonder (Daniel Dube) and Wings Of Royalty, who earned a spot in the Hambo final, will vie for the remaining two spots in the final.

One race later on the card the second Yonkers Trot elim looks to be far more competitive. Granted, Habitat (Gingras) and French Laundry (Takter) will vie for the favorite's role from posts five and six, respectively, but the Ake Svandstedt-trained tandem of Southwind Mozart and Centurion ATM will garner plenty of respect from posts one and two, respectively.

Habitat has won five of 12 starts this year for Burke, but appears to be his third best sophomore trotter behind the phenomenal filly, Mission Brief and Crazy Wow. French Laundy has been solid for Takter but clearly among the second stringers in his barn despite earning a spot in the Hambo final.

The Svandstedt uncoupled tandem of Southwind Mozart and Centurion ATM are both peaking at the right time. Centurion ATM notched his first win of the season when he captured the $200,000 Colonial consolation last weekend, while Southwind Mozart finished fourth in the secondary $100,000 Colonial consolation. Both are expected to leave the gate along the pylons, but Centurion ATM is the better of the two.

In fact, one week after Laurel Park hosted the inaugural "Maryland Pride Day" for state-bred runners, a trio of Maryland-breds will have the chance to garner plenty of attention at the two New York ovals this weekend. The Big Beast and Kiss To Remember will seek Grade I glory in the Forego Stakes and Ballerina Stakes, respectively, while Centurion ATM looks goes postward in the second Yonkers Trot elimination seeking a berth in the lucrative final next weekend at the half-mile oval.