The first one I remember watching, really watching, was 1982. Joey and I finished watering off at the barn and drove the farm truck to the racing office at Delaware Park. There, we watched the Travers. It was the first time we had watched a race from another track at a track. We walked past shiny white trailers in the parking lot. Somebody said something about simulcast trucks, whatever that meant.
We watched from the racing office. Just a few diehards.
The Kentucky Derby winner, the Preakness winner, the Belmont winner, Lejoli, a horse who ran every Saturday and a Canadian shipper. Yeah, you know what happened, Jeffrey Fell galvanized Runaway Groom to sweep past Gato Del Sol, Aloma’s Ruler, Conquistador Cielo (and Lejoli).
I’m sure I watched previous editions of the Travers but that was the one that burrowed and held. I watched the next 18, either live or by simulcast. In 2001, we began writing about the Travers in The Special.
They go like this.
The first was Point Given. The big horse from California stood on his hind legs in the morning just because he could, awing us with his power, his brazenness. The day before, I conjured up the nerve to ask Gary Stevens if we could chat. He asked how much time I needed, I stammered, “Only a minute or two.” We sat atop a picnic table outside the jocks’ room and talked horses, my tape recorder ran out of tape. It was the first moment I felt The Special might have a place here. The Travers recap came easy after that.
Medaglia d’Oro dominated the Travers buildup the following year, winning the Jim Dandy and holding off Repent in the slop 20 days later. I had just begun to chip away at Bobby Frankel’s veneer.
Wally Dollase and Ten Most Wanted graced the Travers in 2003. A kind man. A cool horse. I remember his quote, “I like horses. I take care of them. My kids like them. I had a breeding farm for 15 years and the kids were raised there. We love horses, we love animals, we like dogs, cats, we have all of them.”
Birdstone. The lede said it all. The first raindrop fell at 5:57. The seven Travers runners went in the gate at 6:21 – in virtual darkness. Rain pelted down, the skies were Ichabod Crane-dark, the infield fountain was blowing sideways. And 2:02.45 later, the Belmont Stakes, run 12 weeks earlier, suddenly got easier to take.
Todd Pletcher won his first the following year. Flower Alley, if you’ve forgotten.
Bernardini came next. Crushed them. Javier Castellano’s first.
In 2007, Street Sense wore down Grasshopper. Calvin Borel offered our favorite quote ever printed in The Special. “Me and my agent, we’ve been up and we’ve been down but we’ve always been consistent.”
A year later, Colonel John and Mambo In Seattle landed on the line together. It was the first time I had bet big in the Travers. When Robby Albarado pumped his fist, I patted my pocket, the reassurance of the bet. When I watched the replay, I swallowed hard and fought to not allow that feeling into the story. Years later, when Garrett Gomez faded away, I thought back to that photo and was glad he got his Travers.
Summer Bird. I had almost forgotten Summer Bird won the Travers. Where have you gone, Tim Ice?
I watched Afleet Express with Jimmy Jerkens at the big screen in the clubhouse. Joey called The Chief after the race, he was crying, of course.
Stay Thirsty was workmanlike in 2011. Pletcher, two. Castellano, three.
In 2012, Ken McPeek and Kiaran McLaughlin waited for the photo from the clubhouse stairs. A woman lost her shoe, a dead heat was announced, Joey and I came back to the office with notes and quotes, somehow, making sense of a shocker.
A year later, Bas Nichol walked back to the test barn with Will Take Charge. At last, the longtime assistant for D. Wayne Lukas’ had a day to make it all worth it.
In 2014, I watched V. E. Day nail Wicked Strong from the same place I watched Afleet Express. Jerkens twisted in turmoil over a photo finish that, in his mind, couldn’t stand to have a loser.
American Pharoah. Somehow, I wound up with Bob Baffert, walking out of the paddock, through the box seats and into the glass-enclosed box across the finish line. It was a perfect vantage point until it wasn’t. I heard Baffert say, ‘I knew I should have gone to Parx…” as I slipped out the door looking for Dale Romans.
In 2016, I watched from the big screen with a couple of trainers with runners. By the time the field hit the turn, there was only one runner. I ran up the stairs and wedged between Baffert and Juddmonte’s Dr. John Chandler. Baffert explained the business model of Thoroughbred racing. “This one’s going to pay for all the other bums we bought.”
West Coast continued Baffert’s role in 2017. Gary West talked about why he became a racing fan, why he likes horse racing. He didn’t sound anything like the owner who lost the Derby this year.
In the paddock before the 2018 Travers, Jonathan Thomas explained his assertive plans for Catholic Boy. He broke from post 11, angled over and won by 4. I used to share a bench with Thomas in the jocks’ room. He had made it big.
As for this year, our 19th, the 150th in history, enjoy the ride.