To celebrate the upcoming $1 million Travers Stakes Saturday, I’m going to offer my five favorite Travers daily, from No. 5 up to No. 1. I enjoyed my first Travers in 1975, so left out of the mix is arguably one of the greatest races of all time, the 1962 Travers when Jaipur and Ridan went head-to-head for almost the entire mile and a quarter before Jaipur edged ahead by a nose.
No. 5 – 1981 - Willow Hour Holds Off Pleasant Colony
Pleasant Colony wasn’t even considered a top Kentucky Derby prospect after he finished fifth by 13 lengths to Lord Avie in the Florida Derby. But when the horse changed trainers, from Lee O’Donnell to Johnny Campo, everything changed.
Pleasant Colony won the Wood Memorial by three lengths at 12-1, then the Kentucky Derby by three-quarters of a length over Woodchopper at 7-2 and the Preakness by a length at 3-2. He went off the 4-5 favorite in the Belmont Stakes, but finished third, 1 ¾ lengths behind Summing.
Campo announced soon afterwards that Pleasant Colony’s next start would be in the Travers and that he would be trained up to the Mid-Summer Derby without the benefit of a prep race. That’s a difficult undertaking for any trainer, though Nick Zito did pull that off when his 2004 Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone added the Travers Stakes off works alone.
Pleasant Colony’s works for the Travers were outstanding. He got a mile in 1:40 2/5, then in 1:36 4/5 and finally in 1:36 2/5.
Waiting for him in the Travers were Summing, Haskell Invitational winner Five Star Flight, Lord Avie, Noble Nashua, Lemhi Gold and the winner of the Jim Dandy Stakes, Willow Hour, trained by Jim Picou and ridden by Eddie Maple, who was looking for his second consecutive Travers following Temperence Hill’s victory in 1980. Willow Hour would be picking up nine pounds off his Jim Dandy score and would go off at odds of 24-1 in the Travers field of ten.
Pleasant Colony, who was getting a jockey change from one Hall of Fame rider, Jorge Velasquez, to another, Angel Cordero, Jr., would go off the 8-5 favorite on a sloppy track hammered by torrential downpours.
Willow Hour led briefly, then settled in second. After three-quarters of a mile, Willow Hour took the lead and was immediately confronted by Pleasant Colony, who was in the midst of a powerful rally from fifth. Midway around the turn, Pleasant Colony got within a head of Willow Hour.
“Pleasant Colony made such a move at him, I thought he’d go right by,” Picou said afterwards.
Picou had plenty of company. Just about everybody thought Pleasant Colony would blow by Willow Hour, but Willow Hour had plenty left. Willow Hour and Pleasant Colony battled the length of the stretch, and at the wire, Willow Hour held on by a head.
Campo handled his horse’s loss with pure class, saying, “My horse ran super, just super. We have no excuses.”