In commonly-used American slang, the words java and mud refer to coffee, the morning booster most of us need before we can begin our day. In the horse racing world, java and mud refer to the 1987 Travers Stakes.
On Saturday, August 22nd, 1987, over 45,000 racing fans jammed into the historic Saratoga racecourse to witness the 118th Travers and to be treated to a super undercard that the racing secretary had put together. There were two allowance turf races, one for older horses and one for three-year old fillies. In addition to the featured Travers, there were three other stakes races--a distance race for older horses, a sprint race for fillies and a seven-furlong event for three-year olds which had brought together some of the fastest young horses in America.
Rounding out the card were two claiming races and a maiden special-weight race for two-year olds. The nine-race card offered up plenty of variety and quality. An interesting challenge for fans poised for an afternoon at the Spa.
There was just a slight problem. On the eve of the Travers, the skies over the Adirondacks had opened up, and for twelve straight hours powerful rushes of rain poured down upon the racetrack. The waterfall stopped just before the dawn workouts, but those who gathered to watch horses go through their morning trials saw a surface that looked like a canal. It certainly seemed as though trainers of all but the most experienced mud horses would scratch their entries, and the day would be ruined with a series of races having very small fields.
However, as the morning hours passed, the sun made intermittent attempts to shine down on the thousands who arrived early. As expected, there were some late scratches, but only one race was severely reduced. Surprisingly, both turf races remained scheduled, albeit on very soft grass. The track was so muddy, bettor's primary consideration in their handicapping certainly would have them preferring horses with some ability to run on an off track or soft turf.
Known as the "Mid-Summer Derby," the Travers Stakes in 1987 received a major purse boost. The 10 furlong contest was now worth more than $1 million dollars, up from $250,000 tag it had previously carried. And with the more than three-quarter million dollar increase attracting the best young horses in training from all parts of the land, the race lineup was thought to be the strongest field in history.
One of the equine stars was Alysheba, who earlier in the spring took the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, but lost his bid to capture the Triple Crown when he was soundly trounced by Bet Twice in the Belmont Stakes. Proving his Belmont win was no fluke, Bet Twice then outlasted Alysheba in the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth.
But the Travers was not shaping up to be a match race. Also entered were late developing horses like Java Gold, who had missed the Triple Crown series, but had just beaten older horses in the Whitney at Saratoga two weeks prior. The pride of the West, Temperate Sil, looked as though he had returned to top form with a brilliant win in the Swaps Stakes. Polish Navy was coming off a win in the Jim Dandy, a prep for the Travers, where he demolished his rivals. Fortunate Moment, undefeated in six starts at Arlington Park was now shipping east. Adding to the mix was Florida Derby winner/Belmont runner-up, Cryptoclearance, and Gulch, runner-up in the Whitney, winner of the Wood Memorial/3rd in the Belmont. All had to be afforded an excellent chance. The only participant without a legitimate shot belonged to Gorky. He was strictly entered as a rabbit for his entrymate Gulch.
Not only was the horse-flesh an extraordinarily talented group, but the human flesh that trained them also possessed an amazing depth of talent. At the time of the running of the 1987 Travers, four of the trainers were already in the Hall-of-Fame: Mack Miller (Java Gold)--Jack Van Berg (Alysheba)--Charlie Whittingham (Temperate Sil)--Leroy Jolley (Gulch/Gorky entry). In subsequent years, three other conditioners would achieve their own rightful place in the Hall-of-Fame: Shug McGaughey (Polish Navy)--Scotty Schulhofer (Cryptoclearance)--Jimmy Croll (Bet Twice).
Minutes before the Travers field went to the starting gate, rain reappeared and a downpour developed. Alysheba and Bet Twice had no mud form, but Java Gold had an afffinity for off-tracks. With two prior wins in the mud, Java Gold was the only Grade 1 stakes winner in the field with superior ability to run in and handle the mud. He had also recorded a super six-furlong workout faster than most horses actually run a race at that distance. Crytoclearance and Polish Navy also favored off-track surfaces.
By the time the featured race came around, four out of the five muddy main track races had been won by closers coming from far off the pace. Therefore, backers of Java Gold weren't too concerned when the horse was running far back during the early stages of the Travers. But worries set in when he was some twenty-lengths behind, with more than half the race run. Up front, Temperate Sil and Gorky had dueled three-quarters in 1:10, widening a dozen lengths back to the others. The large lead evaporated on the far turn as Polish Navy and Bet Twice stormed by with the former taking the lead under Randy Romero.
Angel Cordero had his mount, Cryptoclearance, flying in full-flight, so too did Pat Day on Java Gold. That tandem now began to gain ground outside horses on the far turn. Absolutely thriving in his world of flying goo, Java Gold rocketed past tiring opponents. At the top of the Saratoga stretch, Java Gold was now in third place, just behind Polish Navy who had acquired a brief lead, but then had been overtaken by Crytoclearance who opened up by a length-and-a half.
Down the lane, Day hit his mount a couple of times and with one sudden sweep it was all over---Java Gold by a widening two lengths in 2:02. Cryptoclearance finished second and it was nearly seven lengths back to Polish Navy in third. The trifecta was swept by the only three equines in the field who sported past performances that indicated they would relish the off-going. It was a superb race.
5-2 wagering favorite, Alysheba, finished sixth. The colt rebounded nicely to win the Super Derby, followed by a nose loss in the Breeders' Cup Classic. That was enough to win the 3-year old championship. But on that soaking wet August afternoon a quarter-century ago over a Saratoga racing strip that was more conducive for boating than for racing, it was Java Gold who proved best.
NOTE: This years runing of the Travers is just a week away. The expected field talent wise is lackluster and is eons away compared to the 1987 group. Nonetheless, the race certainly can't be missed. It's an American classic that could possibly impact 3-year old championship honors, as the Travers has done on many occasions. As for the weather, I haven't checked the long-range forecast yet, but I guarantee I'll make it a priority. Sounds like something to do over my morning cup of java.