The 150th edition of the Travers Stakes, the Midsummer Derby for three-year-olds, will be run at Saratoga Race Course this Saturday. The Travers trophy has legendary origins of its own, as I discussed here, but 2019 features something new for racing fans: an epic book on the history of the Travers Stakes, written by Brien Bouyea and Michael Veitch.
This weekend, November 2 & 3, Churchill Downs will host the 2018 Breeder’s Cup. Since its inception in 1984, the Breeder’s Cup has evolved into the climax of the racing calendar; outside of the Triple Crown classics in the spring, a number of elite horses and their connections point toward these two days of racing. Capping off the weekend is the Breeder’s Cup Classic, the mile-and-a-quarter test of the best of what racing has to offer, male or female, three years old and up. The list of Classic winners includes thirty-four years of the best horses we’ve seen on the turf — Derby winners, Dubai World Cup winners, and more, many names that went on to stamp their excellence at stud after dominating the Classic’s ten furlongs. In 2015, the Breeder’s Cup Classic featured a horse that the Breeder’s Cup had yet to see: a Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. Continue reading “Ten Furlongs of Greatness”
Over the last century, Man o’ War has dominated the lists of the best horses of the 20th century, claiming the imaginations and hearts of racing fans everywhere. His burnished red coat and distinctive blaze are well known to even the most casual of fan alongside tales of his titanic speed and overpowering wins. As a fan of Walter Farley, I read his novel about Man o’ War; falling in love with racing meant that I had heard those same stories of his dominance familiar to anyone who loves thoroughbreds. When I started working on Sir Barton’s story, I knew I would have to delve deeper into the careers of both my horse and his big red rival. One of the first books I picked up to research the match race and all that lead up to it was Dorothy Ours’s Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning. What I found in Ours’s book was more than a recounting of Man o’ War’s exploits: it was an exploration of the rich context that both created and benefitted from the champion that set the standard for every horse that followed in his wake.
From the first, this book sets up the stories of the people behind the moments that made Man o’ War. She opens with glimpses at Johnny Loftus, H.G. Bedwell, August Belmont, Louis Feustel, and Samuel Riddle, introducing you to these major players with context that helps you understand how small decisions play into big moments. Johnny Loftus’s honesty, steadfast in the face of unsavory influences, is part of his fame and fortune, but also contributes to his downfall. Ours’s anecdote from the first chapter pays off later in the book, when you see just how much it matters that Loftus was honest almost to a fault. Man o’ War’s story is not just the speed records and overwhelming dominance that he displayed under rider. It is also in these behind-the-scenes glimpses into the people who decided when and where he would run.
In the 1920 Lawrence Realization, Man o’ War set a world record for a mile and five-eighths, besting the old record by nearly two seconds. Owner Samuel Riddle had originally ordered that the colt would run freely only during that last quarter mile, but his wife Elizabeth persuaded her husband to let Man o’ War run as he wished throughout the entire thirteen furlongs so that the crowd could see what the colt truly could do. While Samuel Riddle might have been the face that people saw, his wife’s influence, brought to the fore by Ours’s storytelling, was as much of a force behind this great red racer as her husband.
Anecdotes and details like these are what makes Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning an essential read for any racing fan, whether you are new to the game or have loved racing for years. We all know the legend, but Ours gives you more than that. She gives you the rest, the moments and memories that made Man o’ War and his time so essential to the history of this sport. The richness she adds to his story is why I wanted to make this book the first one I would profile in my countdown to the publication of Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown. In addition to the fountain of information Ours’s work became for my book, it also provided an engrossing reading experience I have been happy to return to over and over.
This Saturday, Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Preakness Stakes winner Cloud Computing, and Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit will square off in the mile-and-a-quarter Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Thirty-five years earlier, in 1982, the three classic winners — Gato Del Sol, Aloma’s Ruler, and Conquistador Cielo — all met in the Travers as well, but Runaway Groom, winner of the Prince of Wales Stakes in Canada, surprised them all in the stretch to win. In 1918, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont winners all faced off in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, also with a surprising result.
Early on in 1918, Sun Briar had been one of the leading two-year-olds from the previous year looking to dominate again in his three-year-old season. Along with War Cloud, he was one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby, but an injury that spring meant that trainer Henry McDaniel would not have the colt ready for the Run for the Roses. Owner Willis Sharpe Kilmer was in danger of going without a Derby horse until he picked up the gangly gelding Exterminator in the weeks leading up to the race. Exterminator surprised everyone by winning the Kentucky Derby. Now Kilmer had two great horses in his barn: Exterminator and Sun Briar, but the owner still preferred his bay champion over the chestnut newcomer.
This past weekend, Arrogate dazzled Saratoga and inserted himself into the three-year-old championship conversation by winning the 1 1/4 Travers Stakes in 1.59.36, the fastest time ever in the race’s 147 years. In the winner’s circle, Arrogate’s connections accepted the Travers trophy, pictured above. Even though Sir Barton didn’t run in the Travers in 1919 (Hannibal won), he has a connection to the ‘Midsummer Derby’ every time the winning owner accepts that gold trophy.
On October 12, 1920, Man O’War and Sir Barton met on the dirt track at Kenilworth in Ontario. The purse was $75,000 with a $5,000 Tiffany gold cup promised to the winner by promoter Abe Orpen. Man O’War dominated the match race, coming home seven lengths in front of Sir Barton. Samuel Riddle accepted the gold cup from Orpen and then poured champagne into it, allowing Big Red to drink some as shown here in this post-race photograph.
Mrs. Elizabeth Riddle, wife of Man O’War’s owner Samuel Riddle, presented the trophy to Saratoga in 1936, asking only that a member of the Riddle family present the trophy to the winner of the Travers Stakes each year. A smaller version of the trophy is presented to the winning owner each year. That means that each year the racing world is reminded of the match race and each year we remember Sir Barton and Man O’War and ‘the Race of the Century’ and what it means to thoroughbred racing.
Congratulations to Arrogate on his sizzling performance and to his connections, Juddmonte Farms, Bob Baffert, and Mike Smith, on their victory in the Travers!
I found this fun little video of Arrogate as a yearling in the sales ring at Keeneland in 2014. Enjoy!