Walking down the stairs from the box seats, Kiaran McLaughlin looked across the track to the big screen in the infield. He uttered one word that summed up the 143rd Travers Stakes.
The replay ran again, the crowd rising to a crescendo as McLaughlin’s Alpha and Ken McPeek’s Golden Ticket dropped their noses on the line.
“Too close to call,” McLaughlin said.
On the landing between the flights of stairs, the two trainers met. Like lights coming on at the end of a sixth-grade dance, they stood, staring, mumbling, bumbling.
“Not bad for two Lexington boys,” McPeek said.
“I’ll take a dead heat,” McLaughlin said.
The two trainers stared at the infield screen – RACE 12 in white bulbs, top left. PHOTO, blinking in red on the right. SPLIT TIMES, stacked on the bottom right. Nothing on the left side.
McPeek repeated the number 3 in his head. McLaughlin, repeated the number 6, trying to will the outcome as anybody who’s ever waited for a photo does.
“3. 3. 3. 3. 3. 3. 3. 3.”
“6. 6. 6. 6. 6. 6. 6. 6.”
Family, friends and owners stacked up, a woman lost her shoe and nearly toppled down the stairs, NBC rolled its cameras, photo-finish readers tossed out their opinions like they mattered. Still, two trainers watched, an inch away from agony, an inch away from ecstasy.
Boom – 3, 6, 11, 7 slid across the board.
McPeek thrust both fists in the air, unleashing the number which he had been silently reciting. McLaughlin stood silent, unflinching. Seconds ticked. Then, McLaughlin screamed, “Dead heat.”
And there it was, DEAD HEAT in red bulbs next to the numbers.
McPeek and McLaughlin clutched, clawed, hugged, slapped each other and anybody as the realization that there would be no losers resonated on the trainers and the massive Travers Day crowd.
“That’s wonderful,” McPeek said.
“We’ll take it,” McLaughlin said.
Lightning bolts flashed in the distance. No kidding.
Magic City Thoroughbreds’ Golden Ticket received the blanket of red carnations first, Cohen throwing the flowers in the air as the dark bay colt walked into the winner’s circle. Neal McLaughlin stood in the center of the dirt, watching Alpha and Ramon Dominguez, “That was huge. That was huge,” McLaughlin repeated as the blanket of carnations was draped over Alpha’s neck. Dominguez looked at the sky, acknowledging a higher being that certainly seemed viable.
On paper, the Travers lacked star power. On the track, it had the galaxy.
From the rail, longshot Speightscity broke cleanly and outran Stealcase into the first turn as Cohen eased longshot Golden Ticket back between the leaders. Dominguez guided Alpha, the favorite, into a comfortable spot in third, outside and stalking the leaders. Through a quarter mile in 23.51 seconds, Speightscity led with Stealcase on his flank, Alpha sat outside in third, Golden Ticket relaxed in fourth. Neck n’ Neck lost ground around the first turn but found a spot in fifth. Nonios, Five Sixteen, Street Life and Atigun made up the next phalanx. Liaison and Fast Falcon lagged well off the lead.
After a half in 48.06 and three quarters in 1:12.62, Stealcase engaged Speightscity, Alpha swung into gear on the outside, Golden Ticket waited on the rail and Neck ‘n Neck, Nonios and Atigun made big moves on the outside. Passing the quarter pole, Alpha took over four wide as Cohen made the move of the race, sliding Golden Ticket through on the rail, like a credit card down a lock, cutting the corner and instantly gaining an advantage on Alpha. The longshot rolled past the eighth pole with a length lead over the Jim Dandy winner. The rest were floundering except for Fast Falcon who blew past the tiring pretenders, but had a lot to do to catch the leaders.
Dominguez rapped Alpha right handed as Cohen implored Golden Ticket with right-handed smacks. At the sixteenth pole, Golden Ticket still maintained his advantage as Alpha appeared to stall. Fast Falcon loomed from the outside, finally getting past Atigun and getting into the peripheral vision of Alpha who surged in the final strides. The 33-1 longshot on the rail, attempting to win his second career race and the 2-1 favorite going for the Jim Dandy/Travers double on the outside.
Cohen buried his head in Golden Ticket’s mane, pushing like he was trying to drown an enemy. Dominguez stayed high above Alpha’s mane, pumping like he was trying to walk on water. The two jockeys certain of the effort, uncertain of the outcome.
“I had my head buried, trying to push the horse’s head to the ground if I had to. On the gallop out, there’s Ramon right next to me, Alpha, I knew he wasn’t far away,” Cohen said. “Ramon asked me, ‘Do you think you got it?’ When you get a question like that from a guy that knows the wire so well, you think to yourself, ‘Hold on a second, maybe it’s a little closer than I thought.’ When they announced it as a dead heat, me and Ramon just took it in stride. I accept a dead heat in a 10 claimer, let alone, a million-dollar race, the Travers.”
Dominguez wouldn’t have changed a thing either.
“I thought I got up, I really did,” Dominguez said. “I’m three wide the whole time, if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way, but he cut the corner nicely and opened up on me. By the eighth pole, I said, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get him.’ I kept after him and he kept coming. I didn’t know Fast Falcon was coming. At the wire, I heard Alvarado scream. I said, ‘thank you,’ I think that helped that last little bit.”
Golden Ticket took six tries to break his maiden, finally graduating in an off-the-turf maiden at Gulfstream in February. He returned to finish second in the Tampa Bay Derby, fifth in the Lexington in April at Keeneland and second in a first-level allowance at Churchill Downs in early May. McPeek looked for a first-level allowance, then tried an overnight stakes Friday. Neither filled so he took his third option and entered him in the Travers.
“His only bad races are when I ran him short, turf and Poly. If you look at his dirt form, he’s never done anything wrong. I’m thrilled,” McPeek said. “David gave him a fantastic ride, we had been working on it all week, talking about what he needed to do and he nailed it.”
While McPeek searched for an allowance spot for Golden Ticket, McLaughlin had two races on his mind. After a disappointing run in the Derby and a missed assignment in the Belmont when coming up with a fever, Alpha shipped to Saratoga with the Jim Dandy and Travers on his docket. The Jim Dandy was checked off with a front-running tally over a sloppy surface, there wasn’t an anxious moment. The Travers, well, the Travers came down to the last inch, the last head bob.
“At first, I thought it was 3, and it was OK, then I saw the dead heat, so it’s great. Just great,” McLaughlin said. “I liked our trip, but when that other horse squirted away from us at the three-sixteenths pole, I was concerned, I didn’t think we were going to get there. The Travers is up there with the best of them and to win it like that, in a dead heat . . .”
McLaughlin’s voiced tailed off. In the distance, Cohen rode out for the last on a pick-up ride. McPeek walked back to the jocks’ room for a press conference and Dominguez pulled off Godolphin’s silks and took a gulp from a bottle of water.
Four men, two horses, one result.