07/25/2013 3:10PM

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.