08/26/2009 11:00PM

Midsummer Derby high on the list


DEL MAR, Calif. - Call it Travers envy. Whether they admit it or not, every track wishes they had one.

By the time the 1 1/4-mile drama is offered, American racing is getting to the hard edge of summer, and the novelty has worn off. Sunburns have come and gone. Flings have hit the "what next" point. Families have moved from pools and spas to school supplies.

But then, for followers of the true line of Thoroughbred racing, there is still the Travers to savor, and just as much for what it is not. It is not the Kentucky Derby, more a carnival than a horse race, so afflicted by the whims of freakish chance that confounded writers often invoke a cosmic shrug and dump the results into the lap of imagined "racing gods." It is not the Preakness, that anxious stepchild, begging hard for crumbs of classic attention. And it is not the Belmont Stakes, that graceful valedictory, whose results are usually so soon forgotten.

The million-dollar Haskell Invitational, in terms of sheer volume, gets plenty of attention, and as a stand-alone event it sets the Jersey shore alight. But it is not the Travers and serves in the grand scheme to assure a larger, competitive purse for the same class of animal in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga the very same weekend.

Without the Travers, there would be no need to name a race Jim Dandy, because losing the Travers in a spectacular manner is every bit as significant as winning the dang thing. The Jim Dandy reminds everyone, on an annual basis, that you can be Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox, with only one serious challenger in a four-horse field, and you can still be stomped over heavy, holding ground by a 100-1 shot that no one will ever forget.

Full disclosure: This reporter has never had the privilege to witness a Travers in person. It's a big country. That does not mean the Travers is ever out of mind come this time of year.

In the summer of 1967, on a family journey to my father's native Montana, I picked up a copy of the Plentywood Herald in a cousin's farmhouse kitchen to find, thanks to the Associated Press, that my hero Damascus had won the Travers by 22 lengths. After that, Yellowstone was anticlimax.

On the scene at Del Mar, during the summer of 1977, there was an encounter with a heartsick Darrel McHargue, who had been disqualified from victory in the Travers the day before aboard Run Dusty Run, Seattle Slew's whipping boy. You would have thought he'd just lost his dog.

Just one year later, again at Del Mar, Laffit Pincay returned from Saratoga playing the role of Travers victim in Affirmed's disqualification. Later, when tempers cooled, he conceded that he had let Angel Cordero bait him into a bad move. But the fact remained - losing the Travers is as awful as winning it is grand.

The field gathering for Saturday's running will not include the 2009 Derby or Preakness winners, but Belmont winner Summer Bird is there, and the favorite is Quality Road, a fine colt getting a second chance. Mack Miller knows all about it. Miller trained the 1986 Remsen Stakes winner Java Gold for Paul Mellon, a colt with classic stamped all over him. Unfortunately, by the following spring, there wasn't much there to stamp.

"He came out of winter quarters scrawny as could be," recalled Miller, 87, now retired. "I didn't even bother nominating him to the Derby.

"I ran him against older horses in an allowance in July, and I told Pat Day not to hit him, just let him do it on his own," Miller went on. "He won all right, and Pat came back beaming. He said he was the best horse he'd ever sat on, and if he'd touched him he would have won by 10."

Java Gold went on to win the Whitney Handicap, the Travers, and the Marlboro Cup in succession, adding sheen to a class of 3-year-olds that already included Alysheba, Bet Twice, Polish Navy, and Cryptoclearance. It was the Travers, though, that Miller wanted most of all.

"That is the race, the Midsummer Derby, after the horses have had a chance to recover from the Triple Crown," Miller said. "Next to the Derby, it's the race you most want to win, and I especially wanted to win it for Mr. Mellon."

Miller described Java Gold as looking like a "shiny red apple" for the Travers, which is a neat trick, since the colt was a bay.

"There'd been some bad weather, and Mr. Mellon's plane couldn't land at the little local airport, so I had to drive the 25 miles to Albany to pick him up the afternoon of the race," Miller recalled.

"On the drive there, I told him that I'd entered another one of his horses, Jack of Clubs, in an earlier race just to help the racing office. When we got to the track, the red cap opened the door and said, 'Congratulations, Mr. Miller. Your horse won and paid $40.' That was too bad. Mr. Mellon liked to place a bet."

Java Gold came through later in the day, and then six years later Mellon and Miller won a second Travers with Sea Hero. On Saturday, Quality Road and the others will saddle in a paddock adorned with a bronze statue of Sea Hero, commissioned and donated by Mellon. Miller will be watching at home in Versailles, sitting in a comfortable chair beneath a portrait of Sea Hero and a bronze of Java Gold on the mantel.