Galloping out after the oh-so-close
finish of the Grade 1, $1 million Travers at Saratoga Race Course, jockeys
Javier Castellano, aboard Afleet Express, and Jose Lezcano, riding Fly Down,
looked questioningly at each other.
“What do you think?” asked Lezcano.
“Either way,” replied Castellano.
It took a photo to decide, and at the very end of the 1 ¼ miles it showed
the Jimmy Jerkens-trained Afleet Express had gotten a sliver of a nostril in
front of Nick Zito’s late-running colt in one of the closest finishes in
the 141 runnings of the Mid-Summer Derby.
Cleverly ridden by Castellano, who tucked the son of Afleet Alex into
the middle of the pack as Miner’s Reserve led through fractions of 23.42,
47.25 and 1:11.39, Afleet Express began picking off rivals with a half-mile to
go in the 1 ¼-mile race. Moving up along the inside on the far turn, Afleet
Express swung out at the top of the lane into the lead even as Fly Down came
barreling widest – and fastest – of all to hook up as they headed
to the eighth pole.
Battling saddlecloth-to-saddlecloth through the final 200 yards, with
the crowd of 45,764 on its feet, Afleet Express somehow managed to prevail by less
than an inch, hitting the wire in 2:03.28.
It was the ninth time the Travers had been decided by a nose, and the
closest finish since Colonel John nipped Mambo in Seattle in 2008.
“After he came around the turn, I felt like we had a hell of a
shot,” said Jerkens.
First Dude held on for third, 6 ¾ lengths back, with Afleet Again, Grade
2 Jim Dandy winner A Little Warm, Friend Or Foe, Miner’s Reserve, Kentucky
Derby runner-up Ice Box, favored Trappe Shot, Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver
and maiden winner Admiral Alex completing the order of finish in one of the
most wide-open Travers in recent years.
“I thought I’d win the race by the eighth pole, but he hung
a little bit in the last part of the race, and I give credit to the other horse
for finishing very strong,” said Castellano, who won the 2006 Travers
with Bernardini. “I’m very lucky to get the bob and win the race.
That photo could have gone either way, and I’m very lucky it went my way.”
Zito, who had a trio of horses in the race – Miner’s
Reserve and Ice Box finished seventh and eighth, respectively – was
philosophical in defeat.
“Sometimes, like I saw, you’ve got to be content,”
said Zito, who has had more Travers starters (26) than any other trainer in
history, and who won the race in 2004 with Birdstone. “You’ve got
to be grateful, but it’s tough. The Travers would have been great to win
… you’ve got to be grateful to have a horse run like this.
It’s sad we didn’t get in the winner’s circle, but I salute
Jimmy Jerkens and his connections. That’s the way it goes.”
Trappe Shot, the mild favorite whose connections skipped the Grade 1
King’s Bishop in favor of the Travers, remained in contention to the far
turn and then faded.
“We had no real excuse,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
“He just did not fire today.”
A Little Warm, the second choice in the race, was also in contention
until the final quarter-mile before giving way.
“He’s been a fantastic horse for us, but not today,”
said trainer Tony Dutrow of A Little Warm.
Afleet Express, owned by Gainesway Farm and Martin Cherry, returned $16
for a $2 win bet as the sixth choice in the Travers and earned $600,000 to
balloon his earnings to $835,140. His record stands at 4-1-1 from seven starts,
including a victory in the Grade 3 Pegasus at Monmouth Park
in his first start around two turns on June 19.
Coming off a third-place finish behind A Little Warm and Miner’s
Reserve in the Jim Dandy on July 31, the dark bay colt had trained superbly
into the Travers, which represented the first-ever Travers starter for Jerkens,
son of Hall of Famer H. Allen Jerkens.
“I guess this is probably the highlight [of my career],”
said Jerkens, 51. “And at Saratoga,
it seems to be extra special.”