SARATOGA SPRINGS You take one end, I’ll take the other, and we’ll pull to see who gets his wish.
The two Lexington, Ky.-born trainers, friends as kids, took separate career paths that curved back together and fused at the finish of the Travers Stakes on Saturday.
Their horses, Alpha and Golden Ticket, took separate paths around the front-runners that also fused at the finish.
They pulled and pulled, and, astonishingly, each got an equal piece of the biggest wishbone in Saratoga Race Course history.
The favorite Alpha and 33-1 bomb Golden Ticket dead-heated for first place, sharing the Travers for the first time since Attila and Acrobat did so in 1874.
What was supposed to have been one of the dullest Travers in recent memory due to lack of star power turned into one of the most dramatic finishes in the 143-year history of the race.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s Alpha got a head-bob inches ahead of Kenny McPeek’s Golden Ticket mere feet from the wire, but Golden Ticket bobbed back just in time for the tie, which was heralded by all involved as a joyous outcome, and an immense relief.
“The first time, no, the second time, yes, and then there was just pray for a dead heat,” McLaughlin said, of his live view, followed by the replay. “Kenny McPeek was standing right next to me, and we were both happy to take a dead heat.”
“It would’ve been gut-wrenching for me to lose it, and it would’ve been gut-wrenching for him to lose it,” McPeek said. “It worked out perfect. You’re never going to see this again.”
Attila and Acrobat dead-heated in 1874, when the race distance was a mile and three-quarters, then decided it with a runoff, won by Attila by three-quarters of a length, not an unusual practice at the time.
Like City Zip’s dead heat with Yonaguska in the 2000 Hopeful, Saturday’s result will stand for eternity.
Alpha’s jockey, Ramon Dominguez, monitored the pace-setters, 52-1 Speightscity and 23-1 Stealcase, from an outside position all the way down the backstretch, keeping an eye out for the dangerous Neck ‘n Neck and Nonios from behind.
While his bright royal blue silks and cap were easy to spot tracking the leaders, Golden Ticket, ridden by David Cohen, had the inside route covered in fourth, and he squirted through at the quarter pole to take the lead just as the field came off the grandstand turn.
Speightscity and Stealcase dropped out of the picture, and Golden Ticket made a little spurt at the eighth pole along the rail to assume command.
Alpha never wilted and dug in from the outside, and although he was still slightly more than a length behind at the sixteenth pole, he never folded and appeared to get the slimmest of noses in front at the wire.
The timing of the horses’ strides was such that Golden Ticket’s nose came back to Alpha’s just infinitessimally enough to merge with the wire at the same moment.
Like the trainers, the jockeys, one of whom, Dominguez, is running away with the meet title, and the other trying to maintain a foothold in New York, couldn’t tell who won.
It was the first Travers win for both.
“We had no clue,” Cohen said. “It was obviously very tight. When they announced it was a dead heat, we accepted it as a great victory for both of us and happy to share it with one another.”
“I think we both were afraid of asking the other what we thought, because I personally was pretty uncertain,” Dominguez said. “I’m looking at him and hoping he’d look at me and say, ‘Yeah, I think you won it,’ but that wasn’t the case. He kind of shook his head, and I wasn’t sure, either.”
There’s also a wide disparity between history, success and resources of the respective owners.
Alpha is owned by Godolphin Racing, which is used to winning Grade I’s, and Golden Ticket is the first-ever horse owned by Billings, Mont.-based Magic City Thoroughbred Partners, who bought Golden Ticket last year at Keeneland’s 2-year-olds-in-training sale, at the behest of McPeek.
McPeek tried to enter Golden Ticket, a son of former sprint champion Speightstown, in an allowance, which didn’t fill, then a stakes named after Alpha’s sire, Bernardini, on Friday, and that didn’t fill, either.
He called one of Magic City’s partners, Carter Stewart, with two more options, another allowance at the end of the meet, or an astronomically more ambitious one, the Travers.
“I said, here’s the deal, we’ve got to call an audible,” McPeek said. “He said, ‘When I played ball and called an audible, we always threw deep. Run him in the Travers.’ I said, ‘That’s what I need to hear, because that’s the way I like playing it, too.’ Let’s see how good he is.”
McLaughlin and Godolphin had no such quandary.
Alpha won the Jim Dandy and is one of the few high-profile colts who had targeted the Triple Crown trail still in training.
Somehow, these two colts wound up in the same place at the same time.
The trainers were friends as pre-teens, then went to different schools, and took different routes to prominence as trainers, McLaughlin being mentored by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas before joining the ranks of those training for the oil-rich sheikhs in Dubai. McPeek worked his way through places like River Downs and Latonia Race Track.
Like the jockeys, neither had won a Travers.
“You can’t be scared,” McPeek said. “That’s when these type of things happen. If you worry about your percentages and your ego, you’re not going to do well in this game, anyway, because it’s so humbling.”
“It doesn’t happen very often, especially in a Grade I million-dollar race, but we’re all happy it happened today,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a great result for two guys from Lexington, Kentucky.”
Among the issues raised after the dead heat was what to do about the Travers canoe, which traditionally is painted in the colors of the Travers winner.
Golden Ticket had his picture taken first in the winner’s circle, as Cohen pulled some red carnations off the winner’s blanket and flung them in the sky.
The Travers trophy was also likely to be a point of contention.
As McPeek waited for his interview session to begin, he called out on the microphone to Stewart: “Carter, track down that trophy, we’re gonna drink out of it tonight.”
“You’re dang right we are,” Stewart answered.
“Everybody was worried about this not being exciting,” McLaughlin said. “I think they got their money’s worth.”