Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 25, 2013

A Trip Back In Time To The Travers

It has been two years since I made the trip west to Saratoga Springs, the little city just west of the Hudson that by population is a near mirror image of my Portsmouth home. Like my abode on the New Hampshire seacoast, the Springs comes alive in summer and the normal population swells by a multiplier of two or three, or twenty or thirty; the exact number varying by which local one relies upon for such information. In Portsmouth the tourists come for colonial era history, beaches, whale watches, local artisan shops, and a plethora of restaurants. In Saratoga Springs the hordes descend for Revolutionary War history, the spa resort, and horses, horses, and horses.

In the twenty-four months since my last trip some things have changed. Then I traveled with a friend of more than four decades who among many other talents is an accomplished general aviation pilot and part-time flight instructor. The day-long excursion to the New York racetrack doubled as valuable flying time for one of his students, whose own resume included a stint as a horseman. Two years later we three meet again at Concord Municipal Airport, but the former student is now a fully confident aviator, and he is in the front left seat as the Cessna 172 turns left off the taxiway onto runway 35 for takeoff.

The previous trip was made even as a hurricane lumbered up the eastern seaboard, and the return flight that evening turned into a race against time as my pilot friend maneuvered the little plane through gaps in dark clouds marking the leading edge of the rapidly approaching storm. On this day the weather could not be more placid. Leaving the runway behind, the plane banks to the left and begins its climb to 6,500 feet under a robin’s egg sky unmarred by even the hint of a cloud from one horizon to the other.

Twenty minutes later we cross the Connecticut River into Vermont. In another half hour we complete our traverse of the Green Mountain State as the Hudson slides beneath us. Even as it does so we begin our descent, just one of several private planes including some far more sleek and luxurious than the single-engine Cessa, that are in the landing pattern for Saratoga County Airport. Minutes after landing a short taxi ride deposits us at the main gate of the Saratoga Race Course. It’s Travers Day at the track they call the Spa.

If up to now I have been aware of how things have changed in two years, that mindset is reversed upon stepping onto the grounds at Saratoga. The oldest racetrack in the country is marking its 150th anniversary this year, and to visit is to step back in time. Here are the familiar red and white awnings lending splashes of color to the surroundings. The ancient clubhouse overlooks the 1 1/8 mile dirt oval, inside of which are both the 1 mile Mellon Turf Course and the 7 furlong Inner Turf Track, all three of which will see action as today’s card is run. At the back of the second floor of the clubhouse is the old carousel, now converted into a large dining area with tables for four surrounding the antique wooden horses. That in turn overlooks acres of picnic areas surrounding the outdoor paddock, where the thoroughbreds are saddled before each race and the jockeys await the command of “riders up” to begin the post parade.

It is only late morning, still minutes away from post time for the first race on the 14-race card and hours before the main event, but already the grounds are jammed. Every seat in both the clubhouse and grandstand has been sold, and the outdoor picnic areas are teeming. By day’s end fans will be seated in lawn chairs along walkways and as each race begins the wide outdoor apron between the stands and the track will be filled to overflowing. Nearly 50,000 people will pass through the gates, the largest Travers Day crowd in a decade. This will be the 144th running of the Mid-Summer Derby, and the huge attendance is a testament to the strong field of nine horses that will go to the gate.

Three contenders in particular stand out. Kentucky Derby winner Orb is back for his first race since June. Orb followed his impressive run at Churchill Downs with disappointing efforts in the Preakness and Belmont, after which he was shipped to the bucolic European-style Fair Hill training center in Maryland for some badly needed rest. He has returned 80 pounds heavier and is again drawing rave reviews for his workout times. Belmont winner Palace Malice is here as well. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt followed his big win on Long Island with an equally impressive run to victory at the Jim Dandy Stakes here at Saratoga last month. Then there is Verrazano, the 2-1 morning line favorite. A bad outing at the Derby last May is the only blemish on the 2013 record of this 3-year old, whose six victories include the Wood Memorial and the Haskell Invitational. The presence of three legitimate contenders for 3-year old Horse of the Year honors has led the track’s marketing department to trumpet this Travers as the “Showdown at the Spa.”

We settle into lawn chairs in a spot in the picnic area that will go from shade to sun and back to shade as the day wears on. Nearby is one of the numerous television monitors placed throughout the grounds from which we can see the odds and, if we don’t feel like moving, watch the races. For most though we make our way through the milling crowd to trackside. I watch the first race standing on one of the many benches on the concrete apron in front of the grandstand. For the second I am in a prime position in the first row of spectators at the fence as the field thunders by down the stretch. Eventually we figure out that given the crowd the easiest way to obtain a good view is to climb to the second floor and watch from the back of the clubhouse reserved seating.

As morning turns to afternoon and the races are run it is generally a good day for favorites. Time and time again as results become official and the payouts are posted on the electronic tote board in the infield, the punters who are holding winning tickets are making only a modest return on their successful wagers. The ninth race is the 88th running of The Test, a Grade I race that is the first of four successive graded stakes leading up to the Travers. Consistent with the day, the morning line favorite Sweet Lulu leads the three-year old fillies across the finish line to claim the winner’s share of the $500,000 purse. Next is the $250,000 Grade II Ketel One Ballston Spa, and jockey Jose Lezcano guides Laughing to another short money win on the Inner Turf Track.

But in what could later be seen as a sign of things to come, the 29th running of the Foxwoods Kings Bishop Stakes has an unexpected outcome. Capo Bastone, sent off at 28-1 and trailing the field down the back stretch, swings three wide on the far turn and charges down the lane to win the $500,000 Grade I race by two lengths. And so the moment arrives.

Twin horns add some extra flourishes before sounding out the familiar notes of the call to post as the Travers Field takes to the track. There are shouts and cheers in equal measure for Orb, Palace Malice, and Verrazano, and the other six who will try for an upset have their supporters as well. The field trots up the front stretch to complete their warm ups, and the starting gate is wheeled into position at the eighth pole in front of the grandstand. As the horses return and begin to load a collective roar goes up from the assembly, and now everyone is standing in anticipation.

The roar redoubles as the gates open and the nine thoroughbreds spring into daylight. Palace Malice stumbles at the start, and will spend the rest of the race trying to make up ground. Into the lead is Moreno, a speed horse sent off at 31-1. Verrazano is third as they head into the first turn, but is forced three wide both there and then again as they swing onto the back stretch. The extra distance he is forced to run will prove fatal to his chances. Moreno remains the unlikely leader even as the horses move to the far turn. He only broke his maiden in June, on his eighth attempt as a three-year old. But the fractions are not especially fast, and the assumption that he will tire and be caught may be faulty.

Now they are turning for home, and every fan is screaming for their choice to seize the day. There on the inside is Orb, making his move at last. In mid-stretch he puts his head in front, and for a moment one recalls the greatness that seemed promised back in May. But the long shot will not yield, and the Kentucky Derby winner has fired his best shot. Suddenly, for all eyes have been on the battle between Moreno and Orb, another horse flashes into view. Closing ground with each stride, Will Take Charge is surging to the fore. Sent off as the fourth choice behind the three stars, the D. Wayne Lukas entry is now even with Moreno. Side by side the two come to the line, and at the last moment Will Take Charge puts a nose in front to claim the Travers. Orb is third, Palace Malice fourth, while a tired Verrazano beats just two horses.

Add handicapper to the many talents of my long-time friend, for before we can depart we must stop at a betting window so he can cash his winning ticket. Then it’s another taxi ride with an aggressively voluble driver, and soon we are back in the air. The sun is setting and the horizon is losing definition as we retrace our morning route. The Cessna settles onto the runway in Concord just as the western horizon blazes with the last light of day. Out there in the direction of Saratoga, nicknamed the Spa but also known as the Graveyard of Champions. Man O’War lost his only race in 21 starts there. Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, but lost later that year to Onion at the old-time track in upstate New York. Many Travers ago, Gallant Fox was beaten by a 100-1 long shot in 1930, a result stunning enough to name a stakes race after winner Jim Dandy. On Saturday, at a place lost in time, three more champions came to rue their visit to the Spa.

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