Yesterday’s Travers will likely have no significant effect on racing. It won’t determine the three-year-old champion; it didn’t set any records; and its winner might not even go on to race in the Breeders’ Cup in November.
Alan at Left At the Gate has pointed out today that the race isn’t going to win any awards for aesthetics, and that it wasn’t a Travers for the ages. Fair enough.
But as I watched the race from the Saratoga roof, with the horses of two New York trainers gutting it out in the stretch, none of that really mattered to me. The day was resplendent, and the place was packed with nearly 46,000 who had come to see Saratoga’s signature race.
Earlier in the day, someone had asked me whom I liked (clearly someone who has never heard of my idiosyncratic method of picking winners, which could only generously be called “handicapping”). I listed a few horses, talked about some potential wagers, and then said, “But if Jimmy Jerkens’ horse wins, I don’t care what else happens.”
Jimmy’s horse, Afleet Express, went neck and neck with Nick Zito’s, Fly Down. From I stood, it was impossible to tell who won. We watched the replay; we still weren’t sure. “Think the inside horse got him.” “You think? I thought it was the outside horse.”
We waited, and we waited. And when the numbers went up, it was indeed the inside horse. Jimmy Jerkens had won the Travers, a race his legendary father has never won, a race his father said that he’d like to win as much as he’d like to win the Kentucky Derby.
Afterwards, Jerkens was asked to put this win in the context of other significant victories. The man who won the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Mile on his home track with Artie Schiller, and who won the 2007 Met Mile with Corinthian, said that winning this race was the highlight of his career.
At the barn a couple of hours after the race, the blanket of carnations took pride of place, accompanied by a bottle of celebratory Scotch.
Barn help was jovial and celebrating; the trainer himself was walking the shedrow, feeding each of his horses by hand, scooping oats from a bucket and placing a portion in each stall. The Travers winner himself munched his hay as if nothing particularly extraordinary had just occurred.
Several miles away, Susan Lee, the force behind that floral blanket, got to work painting the jockey outside her family’s restaurant, the Wishing Well. Bye, Drs. Jayaraman; hello, Gainesway Farm and Mr. Cherry.
And inside the Well, the Lees awaited the arrival of Antony Beck, president of Gainesway Farm and son of the man who bred Afleet Express. When he walked in, the piano player struck up a special Travers song; the bell was rung, and the crowd in the bar applauded the owner of this year’s Travers winner as he made his way to his table.
It wasn’t Jaipur and Ridan. It wasn’t Affirmed and Alydar. It will hold no place of esteem in racing history. But Jimmy Jerkens won his first Travers, and from the roof at Saratoga, overlooking the oldest and most beautiful race track I’ve ever seen, on a day when so much about racing seemed right, that was more, much more, than enough.