No. 3 – 1987 - The Deepest Field Ever
Many Travers Stakes are memorable for their incredibly tight finishes. The 1987 Travers wasn’t one of them. Late-developing Java Gold won by two lengths. But the field he defeated in a sea of mud that afternoon was incredible.
In 1987, Monmouth Park had increased the purse for the Haskell Invitational Handicap to $500,000. The New York Racing Association responded by upping the Travers’ purse from $250,000 to $1 million. And everybody wanted a piece of that.
For openers, there were Alysheba and Bet Twice. Alysheba had won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness over Bet Twice, who then denied his nemesis the Triple Crown by trouncing him in the Belmont Stakes, capturing the final leg of the Triple Crown by 14 lengths. Alysheba, the 4-5 favorite, finished fourth. Then Bet Twice validated that stunning upset by beating Alysheba again in the Haskell Invitational.
Alysheba and Bet Twice’s Hall of Fall trainers, Jack Van Berg and Warren “Jimmy” Croll Jr., had never started a horse in the Travers. Neither had California Hall of Famer Charley Whittingham, who joined the Travers showdown by shipping in Temperate Sil, who had won the Swaps Stakes.
Two more Travers started came out of the Whitney Handicap, when two more Hall of Fame trainers, Mack Miller and LeRoy Jolley, finished first and second against older horses with Java Gold and Gulch, respectively. They’d been separated in the Whitney by just three-quarters of a length. Java Gold had missed the Triple Crown because of a stubborn virus that took 10 weeks to overcome.
Yet another Hall of Fame trainer, Shug McGaughey, added his colt, Polish Navy, who had won the Jim Dandy Stakes, to the Travers lineup. Undefeated Fortunate Moment, who had won the American Derby at Arlington Park, was in, as was Hall of Fame trainer Scotty Schulhofer’s Cryptoclearance, who had finished second in the Belmont Stakes and third in the Jim Dandy. Completing the field of nine was Jolley’s rabbit, Gorky, who had raced in the Whitney, too, running speedy Gone West into submission.
The day before the 1987 Travers was glorious. On Travers Day, not so much. The rain began in the morning, subsided briefly in the afternoon, then reappeared. A downpour started minutes before the horses went to the gate, and the track would be labeled “sloppy.”
Alysheba went off the 5-2 favorite; Java Gold 3-1; Bet Twice 4-1, Temperate Sil 5-1 and Cryptoclearance 7-1.
Temperate Sil and Gorky jumped out of the gate and dueled through an incredible three-quarters in 1:10, the second fastest split in Travers history, opening 12 lengths on the other seven three-year-olds. They were engulfed on the far turn as Polish Navy and Bet Twice stormed past them side-by-side.
Polish Navy was the stronger of the two and took the lead, but Hall of Famer Angel Cordero, Jr., had Cryptoclearance flying, as did Hall of Famer Pat Day on Java Gold. Cryptoclearance made the front and opened a length a half lead, but Java Gold closed the gap quickly, then drew clear to win by two lengths.
Alysheba was sixth, but he rebounded to win the Super Derby and finish second by a nose toFerdinand in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That was enough to win the three-year-old championship over Java Gold, who beat older horses in the Marlboro Cup before finishing second to Crème Fraiche in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Java Gold suffered a broken foot in that race and was retired. His accomplishment that miserable, rainy August afternoon at Saratoga lives on.