Scully: 10 Travers that stand out

August 24th, 2021

Only a vague recollection remains from my first Travers S. (G1), when General Assembly romped in the slop by a 15-length margin in 1979, and I have been fortunate to attend 31 previous editions at Saratoga. It will be fun to be back this weekend, after a one-year absence.

I’ve compiled a list of my 10 favorite renditions of the Travers. All were in person, and take note that I missed a few notable winners, including Arrogate (2016) and Easy Goer (1989).

10. Birdstone (2004)

Even disgruntled bettors were happy for owner/breeder Marylou Whitney, who finally got to see her colors painted on the canoe in the infield lake. She did so much for Saratoga, through philanthropy and social events, for more than 50 years.

After he denied Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown bid in the Belmont S. (G1), Birdstone took the unorthodox approach and trained up to 2004 Travers.

The strategy worked, as the smallish colt rallied to win going away in the rain, and then the celebration was on for the “Queen of Saratoga.”

9. Chief’s Crown (1985)

Angel Cordero Jr. dominated the jockey standings at Saratoga in the 1980s, but the 14-time riding champion captured his lone Travers aboard Chief’s Crown in 1985.

The winner of the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) a year earlier, Chief’s Crown lost all three legs of the Triple Crown as the favorite — third in the Kentucky Derby (G1), second in the Preakness S. (G1), and third in the Belmont.

He made amends in the Travers, and Chief’s Crown hailed from the first crop of the great stallion Danzig.

8. Medaglia d’Oro (2002)

An odds-on favorite in seven of his last nine U.S. starts, Medaglia d’Oro held on to win the 2002 “Midsummer Derby,” which provided trainer Bobby Frankel his only Travers victory.

A five-time Eclipse Award winner, Frankel won 3,654 races and 30 training titles at individual meets. The Hall of Famer trained 10 champions and established a single-season record with 25 Grade 1 wins in 2003.

7. Will’s Way (1996)

Will’s Way made his move on the far turn and edged away to win the 1996 Travers, where he defeated a strong field that included Preakness winner Louis Quatorze (second), eventual champion three-year-old male Skip Away (third), and Belmont winner Editor’s Note (fourth).

By Easy Goer, Will’s Way ran his best races at Spa, and he returned at age four to knock off Formal Gold and Skip Away in the Whitney H. (G1).

6. Java Gold (1987)

Although he won the Whitney against older rivals two weeks earlier, Java Gold did not leave the 1987 Travers starting gate as the favorite. That honor went to Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba. Belmont winner Bet Twice, who had just edged Alysheba in the Haskell H. (G1), was also part of an outstanding field that included Cryptoclearance, Gulch, and Polish Navy.

Over a sloppy Saratoga track, Java Gold launched a furious wide rally to overtake Cryptoclearance in deep stretch. It marked the second of three consecutive Grade 1 wins that season for the Rokeby Stables homebred.

5. Forty Niner (1988)

Forty Niner outdueled Seeking the Gold in the 1988 Travers and prevailed by a nose, after a stirring stretch drive.

The duel lived up to its billing — Forty Niner edged Seeking the Gold by a nose in the Haskell three weeks earlier — and the Claiborne Farm homebred delivered trainer Woody Stephens his lone Travers win.

4. Coronado’s Quest (1998)

The connections of Victory Gallop entered a rabbit, Sheila’s Flag, but opted to scratch the sprinter from the 1998 Travers. That decision proved consequential, as Victory Gallop’s main rival, Haskell winner Coronado’s Quest, benefited from a glacial pace on the front end.

Up by a couple lengths on the turn for home, Coronado’s Quest had enough in reserve to fend off the bold late charge of Victory Gallop, by a nose. Raffie’s Majesty was also part of the thrilling blanket finish and wound up another nose back, in third.

3. Runaway Groom (1982)

All three Triple Crown race winners were assembled, but the pre-race hype for the 1982 Travers centered upon Conquistador Cielo. Syndicated for a record $36.4 million days earlier, the spectacular Belmont and Met Mile (G1) winner looked like Thoroughbred racing’s next superstar.

A turf horse from Canada, Runaway Groom had never won a two-turn dirt race and appeared hopelessly overmatched against the likes of Conquistador Cielo, Aloma’s Ruler, and Gato del Sol.

But after Aloma’s Ruler and Conquistador Cielo softened each other up with a duel for the lead, the table was set for the fast-closing longshot. Runaway Groom rallied to prevail by a half-length, which left a massive crowd in stunned silence.

2. Keen Ice (2015)

Known as the “Graveyard of Champions,” Saratoga’s moniker was in full effect after Keen Ice’s shocking upset of American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers.

I’ll never forget the somber scene afterward and the pall surrounding a departing crowd that could not believe what had just happened.

After he dueled with Frosted on the front end, American Pharoah was overhauled in deep stretch by Keen Ice, who had lost eight straight since he broke his maiden, 11 months earlier.

American Pharoah went on to be named Horse of the Year, after he rebounded in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), and his Travers setback will always be part of Saratoga’s lore.

1. Holy Bull (1994)

This was my favorite Travers and favorite race call.

A Florida-bred colt, owned and trained by Jimmy Croll, Holy Bull made short work of rivals in the Met Mile, Haskell, and Dwyer S. (G2) in his three starts leading up to the 1994 Travers, but the 1 1/4-mile distance represented a potential obstacle, because the frontrunning gray dynamo faltered when he stretched out for the Kentucky Derby.

After he dueled through fast fractions (:22.83 and :46.35), odds-on Holy Bull opened a sizable advantage on the far turn, but a threat emerged from the back of the pack as he turned for home.

“Mike Smith lets the Bull roll, he’s in front by five as they come to the quarter pole, but there is a cause for Concern,” track announcer Tom Durkin roared.

Concern, who went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic two months later, came rolling into the frame, erased a nearly a 15-length deficit, and appeared to have Holy Bull measured.

But he could not get past.

After Holy Bull dramatically held, Durkin exclaimed, “What a hero!”