WE KNOW THIS FAMED RACE for three-year olds at the classic distance of one and one quarter miles as the Mid-Summer Derby. It has been the main fixture here at the Spa for the last one hundred and fifty-two years. The colts that have made their way here to contest the event read like a who’s who of the American Turf. Let’s take a look at some of the great performances in this historic race.
The 1920 version brought the greatest champion of them all, the immortal Man O’ War to the Spa. A tremendous crowd came to see this eighth wonder of the world perform his magic. The fans got their money’s worth that mid-August day. The old stands were about to shake to their core. Not only did the greatest horse in the annals of turfdom win the race, he set a track record that stood the test of time. It wasn’t until forty-three years later that it would be equaled, we will discuss that shortly.
A decade later, the great Gallant Fox came here looking to add the Travers to his conquest of the Triple Crown earlier that Spring. The Fox went off as the odds-on favorite. Ridden by the great Earl Sande, he looked like a mortal cinch. In the four-horse race was a colt named Jim Dandy. He went off at the odds of one hundred to one. In a startling upset, he galloped home by eight lengths leaving a stunned Gallant Fox in his wake. Saratoga was now known as The Graveyard of Favorites. It has held that reputation to this very day.
Let’s move on to 1941. Storied Calumet Farms champion Whirlaway easily took all three Triple Crown races. He was the fifth horse to attain that feat. His trainer Ben Jones now had his eyes firmly fixed on a trip to Saratoga to add the Travers to Whirlaway’s stellar resume. Race day only two others were entered. All they would see was the long bushy tail of the champ. He got the lead early and never looked back. Whirlaway had just become the only horse to take both the Crown and the Travers. Two others would make a bid. Neither one would succeed.
Let’s go forward twelve years to 1953. This was the year of the immortal Native Dancer. Owned by Alfred G Vanderbilt, he was a once-in-a-lifetime gift to the horse racing kingdom. If it wasn’t for a horrific trip in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished a close second to Dark Star, the Big Gray would be in every conversation as the greatest horse that ever stepped on to a racetrack. The Dancer was no stranger to the Spa. He had won four races here as a two-year-old. He came back a year later with every intention of winning the Travers. And that he did. Bet down to a prohibitive favorite, Hall of Fame jockey Eric Guerin hand rode this great champion to an easy score. He returned one more time in 1954 for what would be his Swan Song. Laden with 137 pounds, he ended his career with an easy nine length romp in a special non-betting race. He is forever memorialized with a majestic statue at the onset of Congress Park, a gift from Mary Lou Whitney and John Hendrickson.
Later in the decade, the brilliant conditioner John Nerud took the 1957 version with Gallant Man. Sword Dancer closed out the 50s with his Travers score in 1959.
Three years later lightning was about to strike at the Spa. It came in the name of two horses, Ridan and Jaipur. George D Widener’s Jaipur had just come off a Belmont Stakes triumph. Ridan had earlier lost the Preakness, in the closest finish in that event’s history. They were headed for a collision course. And the Travers would be it. It was one for the ages. The immortal Bill Shoemaker had the mount on Jaipur. Ridan had the services of the great Panamanian Manuel Ycaza. The bell rang and both jockeys hustled for the lead. On the clubhouse turn they hooked up. From that point on they raced as one. Fred Capossela, America’s premier race caller of the twentieth century, saw it this way. Over and over he stated, “It’s Jaipur and Ridan”, then “It’s Ridan and Jaipur.” Up the backstretch and into the far turn they were inseparable. Down the stretch a pin could not separate them. They hit the finish line as one. After reviewing the photo finish pictures, the stewards declared Jaipur the winner. He had beaten Ridan by a nostril.
He had also equaled the track record set by Man O ‘War. The greatest Travers Stakes of all time was now etched into history.
Later in that decade, it would be Ogden Phipps’ great champion Buckpasser. He took the Travers in 1966. A year later Damascus took home the cup. On a sloppy track he made one of the greatest moves in the history of the sport. 17 lengths behind the leader on the backstretch, he blew past the field. At the finish line he was an astounding 22 lengths clear of the rest. It was an incredible performance.
1973 was the year of Secretariat. We all know his credentials. He came here looking to take both the Whitney and Travers. The dream became a nightmare. In a shocker, he was beaten by a lightly regarded Onion in the Whitney. Trainer Lucien Lauren decided against running him back in the Travers. Saratoga had seen the last of the legendary Secretariat.
Five years later, two Hall of Fame members were about to make this town rumble. It was the year of Affirmed and Alydar. They rhyme like Maris and Mantle, Dempsey and Tunney, sports names forever joined as one. In the Spring of 1978 these two went head to head in all three Triple Crown events. Affirmed won everyone by slim margins over Alydar. So close were they, that the racing public was craving for one more. What better place than Saratoga and the Travers. The race had all the earmarks of a championship match. Over 52,000 fans converged on the grounds to see the event. All previous attendance marks were shattered. The race itself was a disaster. Laffit Pincay had the mount on Affirmed. Midway up the backstretch Jorge Velasquez was making his move on the rail. Pincay did not realize Alydar was there. As he moved Affirmed closer to the inside, Alydar was banged into the rail and almost went down. He was able to recover, only to come up second to his nemesis again. It didn’t take long for the stewards to disqualify Affirmed. The race was tainted. We will never know for sure who was the better horse that day. Yet this Travers ranks high in racing lore here at the Spa.
1982 gets an honorable mention. Long shot Runaway Groom stunned the crowd when he beat the winners of all three Triple Crown events. Then in 1989 it was Easy Goer. This magnificent racehorse took both the Whitney and Travers. Five years later powerful Holy Bull prevailed on his way to Horse of the Year honors.
The second year of the Millennium brought Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Point Given here. He added the Travers to his brilliant resume and a Horse of the Year award for 2001. Saratoga’s sweetheart, Marylou Whitney, got hers when Nick Zito and Birdstone found the winners circle in 2004.
Eleven years later it was American Pharoah’s turn. He had just become America’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. He came to town looking to join Whirlaway as the winner of both the Crown and the Travers. Saratoga got a weekend to remember from this one. On Friday preceding the race, he was galloped around the oval to the delight of 15,000 fans in attendance. Then in a shocker, he was defeated the next day by Keen Ice. His bid to join Whirlaway had come up empty.
A year later it was mighty Arrogate’s turn. He simply demolished the track record for the event, with an eye-popping time of 1:59.36.
Last year turned out to be a repeat of 1982. Bob Baffert brought his colt West Coast here. He proceeded to tame all three winners of the 2017 Triple Crown events.
This Saturday 50,000 fans will be on hand to join in on the festivities of Travers day. Always a probability, a great race may be in the offing. I hope you enjoyed this look back at the many memorable renditions of The Mid-Summer Derby. If history tells us anything, we can count on many more great runnings of this spectacular event. Stay tuned!