As the annual jewel of Saratoga's glitterati schedule, the Grade I Travers Stakes garners the majority of the racing community's focus — regardless the quality of the participants.
However, after this year's Midsummer Derby on Saturday, racing junkies won't have to wait long for another round of intriguing — and potentially more influential — contests.
Just as its lead-in races arguably boast more strength than the $1 million Travers itself, so too do the Grade I events that will take place less than 24 hours after the 11/4-mile test for 3-year-olds.
In addition to some of the nation's top sophomore sprinters running in Saturday's Grade I King's Bishop — one of three graded stakes on the Travers undercard — Sunday will see champion Royal Delta and her Grade I-winning rival It's Tricky battle for older female supremacy in the Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga. Also Sunday, Del Mar will host a particularly juicy edition of the Grade I Pacific Classic for 3-year-olds and up.
With Grade I winners Richard's Kid, Game On Dude, Rail Trip and 3-year-old Dullahan all among its 10 entrants, the $1 million Pacific Classic didn't need help in getting people talking.
But when two-time Pacific Classic winner Richard's Kid was sold by Zabeel Racing last Saturday to an ownership group that includes Santa Anita Park CEO Mark Verge and subsequently shifted from the barn of Hall of Famer Bob Baffert to the shedrow of trainer Doug O'Neill, a TMZ-like dustup resulted.
Baffert — who will still saddle Game On Dude and fellow Grade I winner Jaycito in the race — said the sale "was handled very unprofessionally," with the San Diego Union-Tribune reporting that Verge and Baffert's wife, Jill, got into a heated verbal exchanged during Wednesday's post-position draw.
While the humans around them bicker, the horses as usual will have the definitive word.
With three wins from four starts this year, including his most recent triumph in the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup, Game On Dude is the front-runner of the older male division and could strengthen a Horse of the Year bid should he make amends for his fourth-place finish in last year's Pacific Classic.
The 7-year-old Richard's Kid has won two of three outings in the States this summer after a year spent racing in Dubai. The venerable Rail Trip has regained his fire since being reunited with trainer Ron Ellis following a stint with Rick Dutrow, taking the Grade II San Diego Handicap at Del Mar on July 28.
"My only concern is will he handle this racetrack," said Chantal Sutherland, jockey for Game On Dude. "The track is playing so weird lately that it's favoring closers. I won't change my style or how I'm going to ride him, but it's going to make me more concerned about who's closing."
Both Royal Delta and It's Tricky know how to handle Saratoga's main track, with the former winning the Grade I Alabama last August over It's Tricky after previously losing to that one in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks.
The tale of the tape shows It's Tricky unbeaten in three starts this season — including the Grade I Ogden Phipps Handicap — while Royal Delta has won two straight since her ninth-place run against males in the Dubai World Cup.
Royal Delta, the 4-5 morning-line pick, is probably at her best going 11/4 miles, but the Personal Ensign is run over 11⁄8 miles, which might allow the stalking It's Tricky a chance to withstand the kick of the reigning 3-year-old filly champion.
"Hopefully we have the jump on (Royal Delta) at the half-mile pole and if we move ahead of her hopefully we can stay in front of her," said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of It's Tricky. "But she's a very good filly and tough on the day."