08/26/2010 1:01PM

Fantastic four: Crist's favorite runnings of the Travers

Michele MacDonald
Holy Bull held off Concern by a neck to win the 1994 Travers.

I didn’t know what a Travers was in 1977. I bet on my first one in 1978, watched my first at Saratoga a year later, and haven’t missed being there for one since. It may sound like a long time, but in reality, Saturday’s 141st edition will be only my 33rd.

All of which is to say that, when it was decided that I have accumulated sufficient mileage to be asked to recall my favorite Traverses, I considered only a third of a century for a race that has been run 140 times since 1864. I narrowed it down to four favorites, one from each of the decades in which I’ve been watching the race, but before getting to those I’ll mention two that just missed the cut.

General Assembly’s 15-length romp in 1979 was not only my first one at the track, but also the fastest ever run – two minutes flat for the 1 1/4-mile distance at which the race has been run since 1904. First and fastest is a powerful combo, and I’ll never forget the sight of this striking son of Secretariat splashing through the stretch by himself.
But when a horse wins by 15 lengths in the slop, two things have happened: One horse has absolutely loved the footing, and all the others have not. It’s a bit like a funhouse mirror, bending and distorting the truth. General Assembly wasn’t really 15 lengths better than Smarten, the distant runner-up, and he certainly wasn’t 28 3/4 lengths better than Davona Dale, the champion filly who finished fourth as the 5-2 favorite. And for all the majesty of his Travers runaway, General Assembly wasn’t the best 3-year-old of 1979: Spectacular Bid, probably the best racehorse the world has seen since 1979, was clearly better.

*MORE: Bill Christine looks back on the Pacific Classic.

*DRF WEEKEND: Handicapping roundups, Q&A with Shug McGaughey

Similarly, I couldn’t make Easy Goer’s Travers victory a decade later one of my top four, much as I wanted to. Yes, thanks for reminding me, I know that he lost three of his four races against fellow Hall of Famer Sunday Silence that year, and no sane person could deny Sunday Silence the 3-year-old and Horse of the Year titles in 1989. Yet too many people forget the rest of Easy Goer’s 11-race campaign that year, when he did enough between his losses by a nose in the Preakness and a neck in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to be Horse of the Year in many a season: successive victories in the Belmont Stakes, the Whitney, the Travers, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. No one has swept that quintet in one summer before or since.

But his Travers? Honestly, I had to look up who was second (Clever Trevor) and third (Shy Tom). Clever Trevor was a nice horse, a winner of 15 of 30 career starts and $1.3 million, but it wasn’t exactly like thrashing Sunday Silence by eight lengths in the Belmont or beating older horses in the Whitney, Woodward, and Gold Cup. Easy Goer was my favorite horse who won a Travers, but his Travers itself was not one for the ages.

On to the top four:

4. 1978: Alydar beats Affirmed, sort of

My first season as a racing fan was the year of Affirmed and Alydar. My very first trip to Belmont Park was by chance the day of the 1977 Futurity, where I bet $20 and cashed on Affirmed but fell for the noble stretch-runner who ran second. Nine months later, furloughed from my $157-a-week job as a night copyboy at The New York Times by a newspaper strike, I attended my first Belmont Stakes and bet $200 on Alydar, sure that he would get there this time.

As you may have heard, he didn’t, and Affirmed won the Triple Crown. Thirty-two years later, and we’re still waiting for the next one.

When it does happen, I’ll be shocked if we see what we did in 1978: a willingness, an eagerness, on both sides for yet another chapter, a fourth leg to a Triple Crown rivalry. Nowadays, a Triple Crown winner would probably be packed off to the Bluegrass before being given a chance to damage his stud value or risk losing another race. But then, a mere 10 weeks after their epic Belmont battle, Affirmed and Alydar squared off again in the Travers.

The newspaper strike was still on, the $50-a-week strike benefits from the Newspaper Guild had run out, so I did what any self-respecting unemployed horseplayer would: I scraped together another $200 to bet on Alydar, sure that this time he would get there. I experienced the race at the crowded 91st Street OTB parlor in Manhattan, where they didn’t show the races. So maybe 100 of us stood staring at a solid blue television screen, listening to the call of what sure sounded like an eventful 2:02. It was hard to tell what happened, and virtual tomes have been written since about all the intrigues surrounding the race. The short version is that Affirmed finished first by 1 3/4 lengths but played a large role in causing traffic problems for Alydar, who was blocked and stopped on the stretch turn.

An inquiry was posted, the betting letters flashed on the blue OTB screen flashed for an eternity, and of course the customers began defending the actions of whichever horse they had bet on despite not having seen a moment of the race. Finally, a disqualification was announced and the place went crazy. One Affirmed fan picked up a waist-high trash can and heaved it across the parlor. I ducked and went to collect my $400 – Affirmed had been 7-10, Alydar even-money.

It would be their last meeting, and hardly a satisfying end to a great rivalry, but for a new fan and an Alydar devotee, it seemed pretty wonderful at the time.

3. 2004: Birdstone does it again

In February 2004, after winning his 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream on Valentine’s Day, Birdstone was the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. No one really believed in one-hit wonder Action This Day, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old champion, and few outside of Pennsylvania even knew who Smarty Jones was. Winner of the Champagne at 2, Birdstone was in the capable hands of trainer Nick Zito and looked as good a classic prospect as anyone.

By the first week of June, Birdstone had fallen off everyone’s radar after running fifth at 3-5 in the Lane’s End and then eighth, beaten 15 lengths in the slop by Smarty Jones, in the Derby. Zito had taken him back to Saratoga to regroup for the Belmont Stakes, but he might as well have been on Mars. The nation at large had fallen under the spell of the undefeated Smarty Jones. Even though eight straight horses had failed to seal the Triple Crown deal since Affirmed, and despite doubts about the colt’s stamina on a dry track, Smarty Jones was widely proclaimed a cinch in the Belmont and dispatched at preposterously short odds of 0.35-1. Birdstone was dismissed at 36-1.

When Birdstone came down the middle of the track to collar and beat a tired but gallant Smarty Jones, you would have thought you were attending a funeral. I have never seen all the air go out of a racetrack so suddenly. Zito and the colt’s owner-breeder, Marylou Whitney, who had waited a lifetime for a classic winner, spent most of their time in the winner’s circle apologizing rather than celebrating.

No one took Birdstone seriously as a deserving winner of the race, and many viewed him instead as the opportunistic beneficiary of a dastardly plot by the New York riders to tag-team Smarty Jones early and deny him sainthood. Birdstone was almost immediately forgotten, and the big story of the 3-year-old division that summer was the syndication and retirement of Smarty Jones, not the future of the colt who had beaten him.

By Travers Day, Birdstone was only the fourth choice in a field of seven, sent off at 4.80-1 behind Lion Heart, The Cliff’s Edge, and Purge. It was as if the Belmont had been some forgettable fluke. Even though Zito had gotten Birdstone to win the Belmont off a five-week layoff, he was considered half a madman for trying to win the Travers without a race since early June.

Lion Heart was done after six furlongs, Purge after a mile. Birdstone, looking like he should have been 2-5 instead of 9-2, threaded his way through the field, took over in upper stretch, and widened his margin over fellow Zito trainee The Cliff’s Edge to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Maybe a pretty good horse had beaten Smarty Jones after all.

This time his connections got to enjoy the victory without apologies, but within minutes everyone was running for cover. A severe summer storm moved in so quickly and violently that the day’s final race had to be canceled. The track had to refund millions, and the pick six paid $1,991 for each horse you were alive to in the finale.

Birdstone raced just once more, running seventh in Ghostzapper’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, and his Belmont and Travers weren’t quite enough to deny Smarty Jones the 3-year-old title. But he had proved himself more than an unworthy spoiler, and he wasn’t done surprising people as the underdog. While Smarty Jones floundered in the breeding shed, Birdstone’s first crop included an unprecedented two classic winners in Mine That Bird and Summer Bird.

2. 1994: Holy Bull holds on

Holy Bull brought a 10-for-12 career record into the 1994 Travers and was the 4-5 favorite, but most of the racing world thought he still had something to prove: that he could go 1 1/4 miles.

There was no doubt the popular gray colt was a top-class racehorse and a brilliant miler. Three months earlier he had won the Met Mile at Belmont, trouncing Cherokee Run and Devil His Due by 5 1/2 lengths in a sizzling 1:33.98, good for a Beyer Speed Figure of 122. He followed that with runaway victories in the Dwyer and the Haskell, and earlier that spring he had won the Florida Derby and Blue Grass by daylight. But his dismal showing as the 2.20-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, in which he was never in contention and finished 12th, left many wondering whether he could win at a classic distance.

Despite all those victories, he was not even the clear leader of the 3-year-old division. Owner-trainer Jimmy Croll had taken Holy Bull off the classic trail after the Derby, and the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Tabasco Cat won the Preakness and Belmont in his absence. Tabasco Cat had finished in front of Holy Bull when sixth in the Derby, and a Travers victory would have given him three classics and two decisions over Holy Bull.

Tabasco Cat had tuned up for the Travers in the Jim Dandy, falling a length short of catching Unaccounted For as the 2-5 favorite. Lukas did not want to see his colt chasing a loose-on-the-lead Holy Bull around the track in what was shaping up as a short Travers field; he decided to enter a rabbit in the race, a pure sprinter named Commanche Trail, whose sole mission was to go after Holy Bull early and soften him up for Tabasco Cat’s run in the final furlong.

A field of just five went to the post: Holy Bull, the Lukas entry of Tabasco Cat and Commanche Trail, Unaccounted For, and Concern, a late-blooming stretch-runner who had been third to Holy Bull in the Haskell.

Having drawn post 1, Mike Smith had no choice but to send Holy Bull, and Commanche Trail did just what he was supposed to, going after him on a kamikaze mission and pushing him through a first quarter in 22.83, blistering time for a 10-furlong race with a mile still to go. Commanche Trail was half a length in front after a half in 46.35, then began to fade, having done his job to perfection. Holy Bull was three lengths clear after six furlongs in 1:10.43 and four in front after a mile in 1:35.97, but had been sapped by the early duel and the others were closing in.

The only flaw in Lukas’s plan was that Tabasco Cat came up empty and began to fall back. Unaccounted For looked like a threat for a moment, then also began to falter, but now there was a new threat: “There is cause for Concern!” Tom Durkin said in his memorable racecall. Concern, nearly 15 lengths back early, was gaining rapidly on Holy Bull, closing the gap from four lengths at the quarter pole to just a length with a furlong to go. We’ve all seen races like this a thousand times, and in roughly 999 of them, the fresh stretch-runner blows past the tiring leader and wins off by himself.

But not this time. Just as Concern got his head up to Holy Bull’s flank, he stopped gaining as Holy Bull dug back in and matched him stride for stride, “as game as a racehorse can be,” as Durkin called it. Concern made one final surge but never got there, and Holy Bull held on by a neck. He had not only won at 1 1/4 miles but had done so under circumstances only a true champion could have overcome.

Holy Bull beat older horses in the Woodward four weeks later and called it a season before the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which the outcome flattered him even more. Any question about the quality of the crop was answered when four 3-year-olds were under the wire first, beating Best Pal and Bertrando and eight others, led by the 2-3 finishers in the Travers. Concern got up by a neck over Tabasco Cat, but there was no doubt who was the champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year: Holy Bull.

1. 1987: Java Gold beats the all-stars

The 1987 Travers can’t match Holy Bull’s for drama and courage or the Alydar-Affirmed one for controversy, but it remains my favorite for two reasons: on the personal side, for its pleasing outcome, and on the historical side, for its amazing depth of talent.

Saying any particular crop of 3-year-olds is the best of an era or even a decade is a tricky exercise. By any standard, though, the 3-year-old colt class of 1987 was an exceptional one. In alphabetical order, seven of its best were Alysheba, Bet Twice, Cryptoclearance, Gulch, Java Gold, Polish Navy, and Temperate Sil – and all seven of them ran in the 1987 Travers.

I was an unabashed Java Gold fan, having fallen for him the day he finally stretched out to two turns in the Remsen as a 2-year-old and looked to me like a Derby winner in the making. A virus knocked him off the Triple Crown trail in April after he won two sprints in the slop at Aqueduct. While Alysheba and Bet Twice were carving up the Triple Crown, I was waiting for Java Gold to come back.

He raced three times in seven weeks leading up to the Travers, including a victory over Gulch and Broad Brush in the Whitney that killed any chance of getting a price on him in the Travers. When the stellar field went to the post, Alysheba – despite coming off losses to Bet Twice in the Belmont and the Haskell – was 5-2, with Java Gold a close second choice at 3-1, followed by Bet Twice at 4-1, Temperate Sil at 5-1, Cryptoclearance at 7-1, and Polish Navy at 9-1.

Oh, and it rained. And rained and rained and rained. Old-timers still call the downpours that Friday and Saturday among the heaviest ever to hit the area and recall Saratoga Lake rising and spilling over. Alysheba had never raced on a sloppy track. Java Gold, Cryptoclearance, and Polish Navy loved them, and I touted a trifecta in that order.

It was hard to make out Java Gold’s muted Rokeby silks through the downpour, but I could see him biding his time with only Cryptoclearance behind him down the backstretch. After a mile, it was Polish Navy and Bet Twice in front, and then Cryptoclearance made what looked like a winning move under Angel Cordero Jr., opening a 1 1/2-length lead with a furlong to go. But Java Gold was suddenly flying on the outside under Pat Day, caught Cryptoclearance with a sixteenth to go, and drew off by two lengths. It was nearly seven lengths back to Polish Navy in third.

It was a race where you could see what you wanted to. I saw Java Gold taking over the leadership of the nation’s 3-year-olds, while Alysheba’s fans saw it as a race that had fallen apart over a pit of mud their colt could not handle. Alas, they would never meet again. Java Gold won the last Marlboro Cup in his next start, then broke a bone in his foot while finishing second to Creme Fraiche in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and never raced again. Alysheba won the Super Derby and then ran second by a nose to Ferdinand in the Classic, winning the 3-year-old championship and then coming back even better at 4 to be the Horse of the Year.

In a game where every handicapper is more often an idiot than an oracle, the 1987 Travers had been a rare and shining moment of clarity. My horse had beaten an extraordinary group of 3-year-olds to win the Travers. But I still think, with Alysheba and Bet Twice both off the board, that the trifecta came back a little bit stingy at $526 for $2.

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