07/25/2013 4:10PM

Steven Crist: Turning a Travers rematch on its ear


Orb, Oxbow, and Palace Malice divvied up this year’s Triple Crown races, and this weekend two of them take their next steps toward what could be a decisive rematch. All three are headed for the Travers here Aug. 24, with Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice prepping in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga Saturday and Preakness winner Oxbow slated to run in the Haskell at Monmouth Sunday, while Kentucky Derby winner Orb continues to train up to the race.

If they all stay on course, it will be the first Travers featuring three horses who won a Triple Crown race since 1982, a 31-year gap just four shorter than since the last time a horse won the Triple Crown. It was a race never to be forgotten, at least not by this reporter, who was in his second year on the racing beat.

[SARATOGA 2013: Complete meet coverage, exclusive DRF videos]

While it was recognized in the lead-up to the race as a historic showdown among a Derby, Preakness, and Belmont winner, it was considered less a contest than a coronation, and few were debating which of the three was the better horse.

Gato del Sol had won a meltdown Derby at 20-1, then skipped the Preakness, igniting fury from the operators of Pimlico, who threatened to put a goat in the stall usually reserved for the Derby winner. In his absence, Aloma’s Ruler and a 16-year-old rider named Jack Kaenel stole the Preakness from odds-on Linkage and 50-year-old Bill Shoemaker.

By Travers Day, however, the heavy favorite and biggest story in American racing was Conquistador Cielo. Held out of the Derby and Preakness, he beat older horses by 7 1/4 lengths in the Metropolitan, where he sizzled a mile in 1:33 flat, then returned just five days later to win the Belmont by 14 lengths over Gato del Sol, going the mile and a half in 2:28.20. He kept racing, as horses used to do, winning the Dwyer a month later with a powerful nine furlongs in 1:46.80, then stretched his legs with an easy Jim Dandy victory 13 days (not the current 28) before the Travers, both victories coming at odds of 1-10.

He seemed the holy grail that breeders had been waiting for – a brilliant miler who could win a classic, a Mr. Prospector who could go a mile and a half – and had been syndicated for $36.4 million. He was the 2-5 favorite in a five-horse Travers against Gato del Sol, Aloma’s Ruler, Jim Dandy runner-up Lejoli, and a Canadian shipper named Runaway Groom, who had won the Prince of Wales on a boggy turf course.

Eddie Maple, who had obtained a Travers eve injunction to delay a suspension and ride the favorite, and Angel Cordero Jr. on Aloma’s Ruler broke to the front from posts 4 and 5 and were eyeing each other from the start. Cordero seemed to take a hold for a moment and Maple sent inside him, but Cordero had been playing possum and gunned right back, determined to keep the favorite on what had been a deep rail that summer. The two of them were together in what announcer Marshall Cassidy correctly called a “very, very fast pace” of 23.40, 46.40, 1:10.60, and 1:35.80.

Runaway Groom – you would think his name was “And Runaway Groom” since he was far behind the rest every time Cassidy went through the field during his call – finally came alive as the leaders began to tire and the Derby winner sputtered in third. Jeffrey Fell swung Runaway Groom into the middle of the track and began to gobble up ground and went by them both in the final furlong, edging Aloma’s Ruler by a half-length with Conquistador Cielo another three-quarters of a length back in third.

Gato del Sol and Aloma’s Ruler both came out of the race with injuries, and the next morning it was clear that something had gone wrong with Conquistador Cielo, who had raced in front bandages for the first time in the Travers. He was soon retired with a record of 9 victories in 13 career starts and went to stud at Claiborne, where he lived to the age of 23, siring some good horses such as Marquetry and Wagon Limit but not transforming the breed.

Could the 2013 Travers play out the same way? There probably won’t be an odds-on favorite, and no one is calling Orb, Oxbow, or Palace Malice a superstar yet. But if the speedy Oxbow and Palace Malice hook up early, and it’s not Orb’s day, I probably won’t be able to stop myself from looking to the back of the pack for some big gray horse who’s just getting into gear around the far turn.

Holybull More than 1 year ago
Mr. Crist: I love the job you have done at DRF since you came on board. Yet there continues to be daily problems with the logistics of your site. When I log on to your site and go to race of the day to do my handicapping or just to watch the video I often find nothing. Just like today. No race of the day info. No PP's, no video. Then I try to call your customer service at your toll free number and I get left on hold for 15 minutes and no one ever comes to the phone. Your DRF needs significant improvements. Particualrly in the .com part. Just an observation. Best. Holybull.....
John Holcomb More than 1 year ago
That was my first Travers, on my first trip to Saratoga at age 17. I flew up from Cincinnati with my dad, and we found ourselves sitting next to the great equine photographer Tony Leonard on the plane. In retrospect, it's hard not to see that Travers as the start of a disturbing trend that has since drained much of the excitement from the sport: the racehorse that can't last an entire season, much less two, three, or four. Did any of those Travers horses go on to compete in the Woodward, Marlboro Cup, or Jockey Club? If so, I don't remember them, nor can I recall any of these horses ever winner another major stakes. It seemed an aberration at the time, but such is now par for the course, and it's killing public interest in the sport. It worth noting that Runaway Groom went on to become, arguably, the best sire of the bunch. I do think that racing is less provincial today, and if the '82 Travers could be rerun, Runaway Groom wouldn't be sent off as the exorbitant longshot that he was then.
B More than 1 year ago
I remember this shocker quite well. Gato del Sol wasn't much of a Grade I horse, Aloma's Ruler was a nice enough horse, but Conquistador Cielo was the real deal. He made history with brilliant wins facing older horses at a mile in the Met and five days later going a mile and a half in the Belmont, however, I think that five day span is what did him in. I believe in racing our best much more than they do these days, but what he did in those five days was a bit too much. As great a trainer as he was, I don't think Stephens used good judgment here. Nevertheless, that five day span did win him HOY.
Ann Ferland More than 1 year ago
Gato del Sol would have been a natural for the Marathon distances, not available in that era. Although he only won the listed Cabrillo H at Del Mar after he came back from his injury, he placed in the Oak Tree Invitational (G1-12fT), the San Luis Rey S (G1-12fT), the Santa Anita H (G1-10f), and the Budweiser Million (G1-10fT). The galling thing about that Travers is that the connections had decided to try to get Gato more involved in the race early, since his deep-closing style often left him with too much to do. So he was hustled along to be keep in touch with the leaders and got hurt, while a horse with a deep-closing style got all the marbles.
Ann Ferland More than 1 year ago
Conquistador Cielo sired Marquetry (Hollywood Gold Cup-G1, etc. $2.8 million), Conquistarose (Young America S-G1), Wagon Limit (Jockey Club Gold Cup-G1, etc.), Taste of Paradise (Vosburgh H-G2, etc.), millionaire G2 winner Forty Niner Days, Lexicon (Ancient Title H-G2, etc.), and many other graded/group winners. Runaway Groom sired Cherokee Run (BC Sprint-G1,etc.), Wekiva Springs (Gulfstream Park H-G1, etc.), The Groom is Red (Champagne S-G1), Down the Aisle (UN Hcp-G1, etc), .Alexine (GP Internacional Copa de Plata-G1 in Argentina), March Groom (won Hungary's biggest wfa, the Kincsem-dij), plus other SWs. I'd call it a wash between them.
Blaine MacMillan More than 1 year ago
Aloma's Ruler was as game as they come. When he made the lead you had to fight real hard to get past him. Conquistador Cielo found that out in the 1982 Travers.
Ken Wiener More than 1 year ago
Runaway Groom: a great memory for Candian racing fans! Jeffrey Fell was from Hamilton, Ontario. Thanks to YouTube we can still enjoy these great races from the past.
Reed Galinac More than 1 year ago
Steve, It's hard for anyone who was there that day not to wax poetic about the experience. It was my first day at 'Toga, at age 17. Along with my lifelong racing brother, we drove up from Central PA (Penn National being our home track), after having already watched Cielo crush the Belmont field -- also my first -- against a gloomy, rainy backdrop. In awe of Saratoga from the moment we hit Broadway, we stood shoulder to shoulder with the throng in what I recall was a narrow wooden hallway somewhere in the clubhouse behind the reserved seats. The thing I'll remember most is that thunderous roar -- the grandstand shaking as if alive -- as Cielo and Aloma' battled bit and bridle through the stretch, with the (seemingly impossible) upset looming at the eighth pole. It was a once-in-a-lifetime racetrack experience (and we've since been to all the biggies). Fast forward 30+ years -- I'd be happy if these three just made it into the gate for the Travers.
[removed] More than 1 year ago
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Gene Cirillo More than 1 year ago
Stop posting scammer!
Philip Conforti More than 1 year ago
online hooker?
Leslie Burke Fernandes More than 1 year ago
DrSmoke120 More than 1 year ago
That was some day. I grew up outside of Saratoga, same high school as a certain present day DRF photographer who was always on the wrong side of the Affirmed - Alydar debate, though to this day she will never admit it! After the race I went up to Eddie Maple as he was walking back to the jocks room (keep in mind for those who haven't been to the Spa that the jocks run the gauntlet through the crowd from the grandstand back to the jocks room and back then no Pinkerton escorts). He was she'll shocked as you might imagine, I asked him what happened fully expecting him to ignore me and keep going. To my surprise he answered, going mom about Conquistador floundering down the backside. I really felt bad for him, and just said to him, " don't worry about it, at least next time I will get a price on him". Will never forget him looking up at me and having a quick laugh. Maple was a good guy and a solid rider. Cielo was done, I was at his Jim Dandy and he struggled to put away Lejoli. A hand ride so to speak, but it wasnt like he could shake the Lejoli (Cassidy's stretch call of that one still rings in ears, the way he would draw our Lejoli and snap of Cielos's name) What a great place to grow up as a race fan. Only 24 days back them but unbelievable the what would be packed into it. Driving up to the Spa from Philly today, will be my first Jim Dandy in many years and a race I never missed going to growing up (was run midweek years ago, my first one was 1977 - the year I really got hooked on the sport and Affirmed. Rode my bike the 15 miles from my house to watch Affirmed the next year rally in the final yards to beat Sensitive Prince, a race years later Laz Barrera told me personally he felt was his greatest race. I know that is hard to believe but like the Maple discussion it happened in the area outside the saddling ring. That is what is so unique about Saratoga, you can have a discussion about racing 24 hours a day if you want during racing season. In a day when you get 5k people show up for a grade 1 race at Belmont, less than the Reading Phillies draw on a Wednesday night, it is so invigorating to be at a race track with a full house roaring at the best in the business putting on a show.
Bill Robb More than 1 year ago
Great story. Thanks for posting it. I made my first trip to Belmont in '77 so your story really resonates with me. I agree about Eddie Maple too. A good rider and a good guy as well.
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Gene Cirillo More than 1 year ago
Stop posting scammer!
Slew32A More than 1 year ago
John Stevelberg More than 1 year ago
Good job