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Saratoga Weekend: Top 10 Travers of all time

Friday, August 24, 2012
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Colonel John, on the inside and almost hidden, wins by a nose over Mamba in Seattle (9) in the 2008 Travers Stakes. (Courtesy of NYRA)
Colonel John, on the inside and almost hidden, wins by a nose over Mamba in Seattle (9) in the 2008 Travers Stakes. (Courtesy of NYRA)

— The top 10 greatest Travers Stakes of all time.

Yeah, right.

"Greatness" is a word that's so overused in sports that it has essentially had all meaning beaten out of it, but in the case of Saratoga Race Course's signature race, this characteristic drips from the ancient rafters.

Just try distilling the Travers down to a measly 10 "greatest," out of 142. Go ahead.

Well, we gave it a shot, and here, forthwith, is our list.

You'll find races that commanded our attention because of the rivalries involved. There are singular performances that warrant inclusion, either for contextual reasons or simply because they were stunning.

What you won't find is the 1874 Travers, which Attila won by three-quarters of a length over Acrobat at a mile and three-quarters ... in a runoff, after they had already dead-heated at that distance.

But it was close. There has to be a winner and some losers; here's 10 that made it to the wire ahead of everybody else:

1. Jaipur-Ridan, 1962

The official race chart describes Jaipur's trip as having involved "a torrid duel."

Ridan's involved "a thrilling duel."

OK, let's not quibble. Both.

These two were never separated by more than a head shortly after breaking from the gate, running in tandem on the lead for most of a mile and a quarter. Ridan ran a winning race in every way except that Jaipur, on the outside, just got a nose in front in the final strides in a stakes-record 2:01 3/5.

There have been nine "nose" victories in the history of the Travers, but this one gets special mention — and a permanent spot in racing lore as a whole — because the two horses were inseparable all the way around the track.

2. Alydar-Affirmed, 1978

Alydar and Affirmed enjoyed a doppelganger relationship of a more protracted sort, over the course of their 2-year-old and 3-year-old seasons. Sports Illustrated's William Leggett described the rivalry as "one of the best animal acts in history."

Affirmed beat Alydar by about two lengths, total, in the three Triple Crown races.

He finished first in the Travers, also, by a length and three-quarters, but was disqualified and placed second in the final meeting of 10 between the two.

Affirmed and jockey Laffit Pincay, replacing the injured Steve Cauthen, led heading into the second turn, but just past the half-mile pole, Alydar, ridden by Jorge Velasquez, checked badly.

Alydar had snuck up on Affirmed on the inside, and the stewards ultimately deemed that Pincay cut him off severely enough to warrant a disqualification.

Alydar, who actually made contact with the rail, hustled back into contention on the outside, but the damage was done.

3. Whirlaway, 1941

Whirlaway only beat two horses in the Travers, finishing 3 3/4 lengths ahead of Fairymant, but he gets special mention for having been the only one of 11 Triple Crown winners to also win the Travers.

Affirmed could've been the second, of course, but we all know what happened there ...

4. Man o' War, 1920

The only defeat of Man o' War's 21-race career occurred at Saratoga, when he lost to Upset in the 1919 Sanford.

He loved the place, otherwise, winning five races, including the Travers.

And he didn't just win the Travers, he blasted home in 2:01 4/5, a stakes record that lasted more than four decades, until Ridan pushed Jaipur a fifth of a second faster.

As a bonus, Man o' War vanquished his old buddy, Upset, in the process.

5. General Assembly, 1979

Another Spa-philic horse, this son of Secretariat who had just seven lifetime wins was 4-for-4 at Saratoga, including the Travers on a sloppy track.

After having lost all three Triple Crown races, he led gate-to-wire in the Travers and broke Honest Pleasure's track record in 2:00, a mark that still stands.

Among those General Assembly beat was Davona Dale, the last filly to have run in the Travers. She was fourth.

6. Holy Bull, 1994

"And there's cause for Concern!"

In one of the most memorable race calls at Saratoga, Tom Durkin captured the moment perfectly.

Holy Bull ran with Commanche Trail early through fractions that would have wilted a lesser animal, then barely repelled the late-running Concern to hang on by a dwindling neck.

Holy Bull went on to beat older horses in the Woodward to earn Horse of the Year.

7. Jim Dandy, 1930

Jim Dandy went off at astronomical odds of 100-1 and faced a Triple Crown winner, Gallant Fox.

Fortune was on his side, though, as rain made the track muddy, a new experience for Gallant Fox.

He foundered, and Jim Dandy won by eight lengths, a performance so noteworthy that the traditional Travers prep was named for him.

8. Runaway Groom, 1982

Other than his maiden-breaking win at Keeneland, Runaway Groom won just one race outside of Canada in his career.

It was a big one.

He finished a half-length ahead of Preakness winner Aloma's Ruler in the Travers, thus becoming, to this day, the only horse ever to have beaten all three of the Triple Crown winners in a race.

Also in the field were Kentucky Derby winner Gato del Sol and Belmont winner Conquistador Cielo.

Watching the race while standing on a table in the clubhouse so he could get a better view was Schenectady native Albert Coppola, who owned Runaway Groom.

9. Java Gold, 1987

Like General Assembly and Jim Dandy, Java Gold won in the slop.

Like Runaway Groom, he beat an all-star lineup that included three horses who won or finished near the top of all three Triple Crown races.

They included Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba, Belmont winner and Derby and Preakness runner-up Bet Twice and Cryptoclearance, fourth in the Derby, third in the Preakness and second in the Belmont.

Java Gold prepped for the Travers by beating older horses in the Whitney, completing a rare double that his sire, Key to the Mint, also accomplished.

10. Colonel John, 2008

In an incredibly close photo finish that is still in dispute by some who had losing tickets, Colonel John nipped Mambo in Seattle in a head bob.

It was so close that jockey Robby Albarado, on Mambo in Seattle, raised his whip in triumph after crossing the wire.

The loss was especially painful for owner Will Farish and trainer Neil Howard.

The year before, their horse, Grasshopper, lost the Travers by a half-length to Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense in another memorable stretch duel.

 
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