The Travers is horse racing history personified – dating back to when Saratoga Race Course was in its second year and Honest Abe Lincoln was president of the divided United States.
The so-called “Mid-Summer Derby” is the oldest stakes race for 3-year-olds in our great land. The racetrack is located in Saratoga Springs, about 160 miles north of New York City that began attracting wealthy pilgrims because of carbonated mineral springs. It’s where decisive battles were fought during the American Revolution and Civil War.
The 1777 Battle of Saratoga, considered the first Colonial victory and a turning point in the Revolutionary War, ended with General John Burgoyne surrendering his British troops.
During the middle of the Civil War, Saratoga Raceway opened on Aug. 3, 1863. The four-day experiment was so successful that an American boxing champion, a lawyer, the grandfather of Winston Churchill and a horseman decided to expand and move across the street and erect a larger facility to accommodate bigger crowds.
They called it Saratoga Race Course. The principal players were:
William R. Travers, prominent stock broker and lawyer named president of the Saratoga Association, was such a force in racing that the track’s premier stakes race bears his name.
John “Old Smoke” Morrissey, one-time New York gang member, former bare-knuckle champ and gambler, was a lawmaker on state and national levels.
Leonard Walter Jerome, flamboyant entrepreneur, was father of Winston Churchill’s mother and another successful stock speculator known as “the King of Wall Street.”
John R. Hunter, whose horses ran on both sides of the Atlantic, co-owned the first winner of the Travers named Kentucky in 1864 when the purse was $2,950.
There have been quite an exciting races dating back decades that included the biggest upset: 1930 Triple Crown champ Gallant Fox, 1-2, finished eight lengths behind 100-1 Jim Dandy on a muddy track. A stakes race was named for the winner in ’64, an appropriate prep for the Travers.
Five horses that captured the Jim Dandy in the 21st Century repeated in the Travers: Medaglia d’Oro, ’02; Flower Alley, ’05; Preakness winner Bernardini,’06; Kentucky Derby champ Street Sense, ’07; and Stay Thirsty, ’11.
That bodes well for Alpha who will attempt to duplicate the feat in the 143rd running of the $1 million Grade 1 on Aug. 25.
One of the most famous Travers, staged at 1 ¼ miles, involved Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner in ’78, and Alydar, runner-up in all three races. They clashed for the 10th time in the Travers.
Affirmed won the battle by 1 ¾ lengths, but lost the war when he was disqualified for interference along the backstretch sending Alydar went to the winner’s circle.
The following year, General Assembly triumphed by 15 lengths and set the stakes record of two minutes flat for the 1 ¼ miles that stands today. But that wasn’t the largest margin of victory.
In ’67, Damascus roared from 10 lengths off the pace in the slop to win by a whopping 22 lengths in a four-horse field, the smallest several times dating back to 1883.
Seven times a nose separated the top two finishers between ’16 and ’98, when Coronado’s Quest scored.