SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y., AUG. 21 -- The Travers Stakes has stimulated as much interest and excitement as any race in recent years, but of all the participants there is one who figures to feel more tension and apprehension than anyone else: jockey Chris McCarron.
Although he is one of the best in his business, McCarron has been widely criticized for his last two rides on Alysheba -- and deservedly so. He got into trouble in the Belmont Stakes, costing the colt second place (and a $1 million bonus). He was outridden by Craig Perret in the Haskell Invitational, and Alysheba lost a photo finish to Bet Twice as a result.
Earlier this week, the colt's owner Clarence Scharbauer told the audience at a chamber of commerce function in Midland, Tex.: "We're going to let Chris ride one more time, but we won't let him ride anymore if he doesn't give a good ride in the Travers."
That's pressure. McCarron shrugged it off, saying, "It won't bother me a bit. I'm confident I'm riding the best horse." But his main rival, Perret, also is confident, and is as loose and relaxed as an athlete can be.
The McCarron-Perret duel is just one of the many aspects of the Travers that make it such an intriguing race. It is one of the richest races in history, with $1,123,000 in prize money available. It tests not only the best jockeys in the country but also the best trainers -- including four men already enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Its nine-horse field has impressive depth. "I don't know when I've ever seen as many good 3-year-olds get together in one race," said trainer Charles Whittingham.
Only one thing could spoil the Travers: rain. And although today was clear and sunny, the forecast for Saturday predicted a 70 percent chance of showers.
Not only would rain make the day miserable for the expected record crowd of 55,000, it would confuse the Travers considerably. Java Gold and Gulch are proven mud-lovers and their chances would probably be improved, though success on wet tracks elsewhere doesn't necessarily mean that a horse will take to Saratoga slop. Neither Bet Twice nor Alysheba has any proven mud form. Alysheba's trainer Jack Van Berg, however, professed to be unworried about the possibility of an off track.
"Some horses may run better or worse because of it," he said, "but I don't think it makes a difference to us."
Said Bet Twice's trainer Jimmy Croll: "I hope it doesn't rain. He's breezed in slop once or twice before and he's handled it okay, but he's never raced in it."
If the track is fast, however, the Travers should be a definitive championship event, proving the relative merits of the country's best 3-year-olds.
Alysheba and Bet Twice are the known quantities, after their spirited battles in the Triple Crown races and the Haskell. Alysheba may be a bit more effective at the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Travers, but Bet Twice has been improving through the year and he comes to Saratoga in razor-sharp condition. He worked brilliantly for the race.
The other known quantities in the lineup are Gulch and Cryptoclearance, both of whom proved in the Triple Crown that they weren't good enough to beat the top two.
But there are significant newcomers here who have not faced Alysheba or Bet Twice this year: Java Gold, Polish Navy, Temperate Sil and Fortunate Prospect.
Java Gold has been highly touted in New York for months, and he lived up to the ballyhoo when he won the Whitney Handicap here over a field that included the country's top 4-year-old, Broad Brush.
Polish Navy was as good as any 2-year-old in America last season. After undergoing surgery to remove a bone chip, he hasn't looked especially impressive this year, though he did win his last start, the Jim Dandy Stakes.
Fortunate Prospect has won all six of his career starts at Arlington Park, but his competition hasn't been top-class. It is a measure of the quality of the Travers that an unbeaten colt might go to the post at 20 to 1 or more.
Temperate Sil's major recommendation is that trainer Charles Whittingham has brought him here. Whittingham was well-known for his antipathy to the Kentucky Derby until he showed up at Churchill Downs with Ferdinand in 1986 and scored a stunning upset. Whittingham hasn't been to Saratoga in 20 years, but he chose to bring Temperate Sil here from California and, Van Berg observed, "Charlie Whittingham wouldn't fly from one end of the country to another with an empty gun."
Temperate Sil won his last start, the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood, after what should have been a suicidal head-and-head battle for the early lead, with a half mile in :45 flat. He has trained astonishingly fast for the Travers, cruising five furlongs in :57 1/5 here on Tuesday.
Temperate Sil will have a problem shared by Polish Navy and Fortunate Prospect, however. There is an abundance of speed in the Travers, and the presence of Gulch's stablemate Gorky as a "rabbit" will further ensure a hot early pace. Whittingham said he is confident that Bill Shoemaker, 56, will judge the pace intelligently, but all the speed horses figure to be hurt by fast early fractions.
The front-runners are likely to tire by the time they turn into the stretch, and the attention of the whole racing world will turn to Chris McCarron on Alysheba and Craig Perret on Bet Twice.