The Travers Stakes has come down to this: no filly, one Bird and seven colts with a huge opportunity to rise to the head of their 3-year-old class.
Preakness-winning filly Rachel Alexandra is skipping Saturday's $1 million Travers to take on older boys next week in the Woodward Stakes, and Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird is out, recovering from throat surgery.
That leaves thoroughbred racing's Mid-Summer Derby with the next best lineup: Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird taking on rejuvenated Quality Road, rising star Kensei and several other graded stakes winners.
"Even if you go by what they say on paper _ you have the Florida Derby winner, the Belmont winner, the Jim Dandy winner, the Peter Pan winner, the Barbaro winner (that's us) ..." says Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito. "There are so many great qualifications in there. If you had the Kentucky Derby winner in there, it would have been special, but it's a special race anyway."
Zito should know. On his 12th try, the trainer finally came up with a Travers winner in 2004 in Birdstone, who happens to be the sire of Summer Bird.
So if Zito's 15-1 long shot Our Echo doesn't win, he would not be too disappointed if Summer Bird follows Birdstone's lead by completing a Belmont-Travers double.
"He's run a couple of big races, but I still think he has a lot left to show just how good he is," Summer Bird's trainer Tim Ice said, referring to his colt's 2 3/4-length Belmont win followed by a runner-up finish to Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Aug. 2. "I'm really happy with the way he's coming into the race."
It's Quality Road, though, who is the 8-5 morning-line favorite. Summer Bird is the 3-1 second choice, with Jim Dandy winner Kensei at 7-2, followed by Charitable Man (6-1), Warrior's Reward (8-1) and Hold Me Back and Our Edge each at 15-1.
The National Weather Service forecast for Saturday calls for a 90 percent chance of rain _ occasional showers with thunderstorms. That could affect Quality Road, who has never run on a wet track.
Quality Road would have been the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, but hoof injuries less than a week before the race forced him to miss the entire Triple Crown series.
Now he's back, and in record-setting form. After winning the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby _ with a Gulfstream Park record for 1 1-8 miles _ Quality Road returned from four months off and won the 6 1/2-furlong Amsterdam Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 3. His time was a track record 1:13.74.
Quality Road has won four of five career starts, and the big question is whether the son of Elusive Quality is ready to stretch out to 1 1/4 miles.
"He's a special horse," said Todd Pletcher, referring to the colt who was trained by Jimmy Jerkens but sent to Pletcher in June by owner Edward P. Evans. "It takes a special kind of horse, with both speed and the ability to carry that speed over a distance of ground, and I think he's that kind of horse."
Kensei comes into the 140th Travers off victories in the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont on July 4 and the Jim Dandy on Aug. 1. The son of Mr. Greeley missed the Triple Crown races, but now has a chance to move out of the shadow of stablemate Rachel Alexandra.
"This is the defining moment for him," said Stonestreet Stables owner Jess Jackson, who also co-owns Rachel Alexandra. "It won't be the final moment, but it will be the defining moment."
Chip Woolley, who trains Mine That Bird, said Quality Road was the horse he would have feared most.
"You don't know how good that horse really is. He has shown great talent," Woolley said. "He's a very fearsome sight out there."
Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Peter Pan winner Charitable Man, agrees.
"I think he is probably the one horse to beat," McLaughlin said. "I have to give Todd great credit in getting him ready to run, the layoff to win so impressively at 6 1/2 furlongs."
Warrior's Reward is another 3-year-old who could be coming into his own. The Medaglia d'Oro colt has finished no worse than third in six of seven career starts and ran second to Kensei in the Jim Dandy.
"I hope the Travers is Warrior's Reward's breakthrough race," trainer Ian Wilkes said. "He's really improving."
Hold Me Back won the Lane's End at Turfway Park and finished second in the Blue Grass Stakes, both races on synthetic surfaces. He ran 12th in the Derby and was fifth in the Virginia Derby on turf in his last start.
"We're trying him back on the dirt and we'll see what happens," Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said. "It's a big race and we want to give him a chance to show himself."
Whatever happens, the Travers winner could be a formidable presence in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 7.
In other races Saturday at the Spa:
_Munnings is the 2-1 favorite over Big Drama (3-1) in the seven-furlong, $300,000 King's Bishop Stakes. The race for 3-year-olds drew a field of nine, including Godolphin's Vineyard Haven, who will be making his first start in 6 1/2 months.
_Indian Blessing is the 8-5 favorite in a field of six 4-year-old fillies for the seven-furlong, $300,000 Ballerina Stakes. Informed Decision, winner of five in a row, is the 2-1 second choice.