Friday, August 26th - My Favorite Travers #1

Friday, August 26th - My Favorite Travers #1
Photo: Bob Mayberger/Eclipse Sportswire

No. 1 – 1982 – Only In Saratoga
The quintessential Travers should capture the essence of Saratoga Race Course, and boy, this one sure did. In a historic meeting of three separate winners of the Triple Crown in a field of just five in the Mid-Summer Derby, all three were beaten.


The Kentucky Derby winner, Gato del Sol, originally trained by Eddie Gregson, was a late-running grey colt who went off at 21-1 in the Derby. Breaking from the 18 post in a field of 19, Gato del Sol raced extremely wide on both turns under Eddie Delahoussaye, Jr., and still won the Run for the Roses going away by 2 ½ lengths. He may have covered more ground than any other Derby winner ever. But to the horror of Maryland racing officials, Gregson announced that his Derby winner would skip the Preakness and point instead to the Belmont Stakes.


Aloma’s Ruler was Gato del Sol’s polar opposite, a late developing speedball trained patiently and intelligently by John “Butch” Lenzini. After missing the Derby because of an ankle injury, Aloma’s Ruler’s coming out party was the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct. He then won the Preakness by half a length over Linkage, who had skipped the Kentucky Derby.


Training decisions made by Hall of Famer Woody Stephens were instrumental in Conquistador Cielo’s development as well. As a two-year-old at Saratoga, Conquistador Cielo won the Saratoga Special before finishing fourth, only beaten a neck, in the Sanford Stakes. When the colt suffered a stress fracture in his left foreleg, he was done for the season. After losing his three-year-old return in an allowance race at Hialeah, Cielo won an allowance race by four lengths. He turned up sore the next day, and then lost more training time because of a persistent cough. And Stephens did right by his horse, resisting the temptation of both the Derby and the Preakness. Instead of the Preakness, Stephens gave Cielo an allowance race at Belmont four days later, which he won by 11 lengths, getting the mile in 1:34 1/5.


Off that, Stephens entered Cielo in the prestigious Grade I Metropolitan Mile against older horses. Sent off the 2-1 favorite under Eddie Maple, Cielo won virtually wire-to-wire by 7 ¼ lengths in a stakes and track record 1:33.


When Stephens announced that Cielo would run five days later in the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes, people questioned Stephens’ sanity. Had he gone senile overnight?


The Belmont Stakes would be run on a sloppy track, but Cielo, a son of Mr. Prospector, had the breeding to handle that. With Laffit Pincay Jr. replacing Maple, who cracked six ribs in a spill the day before, Cielo took the lead immediately and aired by 14 lengths. Stephens would win the next four runnings of the Belmont Stakes, too, cementing his place in racing history.


Gato del Sol, who finished second in the Belmont Stakes, remained in New York to take on older horses in the Suburban Handicap. He finished last in the field of eight to Silver Buck, who had been second to Cielo in the Met Mile. Gato del Sol’s connections announced that Gato de Sol would switch barns to New York trainer Howie Tesher and point to the Travers. Tesher decided to change Gato del Sol’s running style. Racing much closer to the pace, he won an allowance race at Saratoga by three-quarters of a length 13 days before the Travers.


Aloma’s Ruler, who had finish ninth by 43 lengths in the Belmont, was in the Suburban, too, and finished third, trouncing Gato del Sol in the process. Aloma’s Ruler then won the Jersey Derby by a nose, and finished second by three-quarters of a length in the Haskell Invitational to Wavering Monarch while spotting him nine pounds. Aloma Ruler’s next start would be in the Travers.


Cielo, who won the Dwyer by four lengths after the Belmont Stakes,  prepped for the Travers with a surprisingly dull one-length victory over longshot Lejoli in the Jim Dandy Stakes. Regardless, it was Cielo’s seventh consecutive victory and Claiborne Farm announced that it would syndicate 75 percent of Cielo for $36.4 million one week before the Travers.


Only two other horses would contest the Travers: Lejoli and Runaway Groom, who won the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, the mile and a half Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie, by a head for owner Albert Coppola, a native of Schenectady, New York, who used to jump the fence to sneak in to Saratoga Race Course.


On an unseasonably cold afternoon, Cielo, wearing front bandages for the first time, would go off the 2-5 Travers favorite under Maple. Gato del Sold was 4-1; Aloma’s Ruler 5-1 under Angel Cordero Jr; Runaway Groom under Jeff Fell 12-1 and Lejoli 14-1.


Cielo and Aloma’s Ruler broke first and second and were quickly clear of the other three, Cielo on the rail and Aloma’s Ruler right alongside him. “Conquistador was the one I had to beat,” Cordero said. “Everything worked out well for me. I had him pinned on the rail. I wanted to keep him inside of me.”


The two battled ferociously on the lead, through six furlongs in 1:10 3/5. They exchanged the lead more than once as their duel continued into and through the stretch. Aloma’s Ruler inched away, and again Cielo came back for more.


Then suddenly, everyone noticed the gray colt running at the embattled pair. For just an instant, the mind said – gray closer, it was Gato del Sol. It wasn’t. He was no longer a closer. It was Runaway Groom.

It was over in seconds. Runaway Groom hit the wire a half-length in front of Aloma’s Ruler with Cielo, yet another victim at the Graveyard of Champions, another three-quarters of a length behind. Neither Cielo or Aloma’s Ruler ever raced again. Cielo won Horse of the Year and the three-year-old championship anyway.

Coppola, though, had won the race of a lifetime at the track he cherished growing up. “I thought we might be able to finish third or maybe fourth,” he said. “Winning this race is incredible.”


(Check out Bill Heller’s new books at  

Meet Bill Heller
Multiple national award-winner Bill Heller, a member of the Harness Racing Hall of Fame Communicators Corner, has written 23 books including the biographies of Hall of Fame jockeys Ronnie Turcotte, Randy Romero, Jose Santos; Harness Hall of Fame legend Billy Haughton and NBA Coach Bill Musselman. His other books include “A Good Day Has No Rain,” documenting the radioactive fallout in the Capital District of New York State from an atom bomb test; “After the Finish Line; The Race to End Horse Slaughter in America,” and “Playing Tall, the Ten Shortest Players in NBA History.” Bill was presented the 1997 Eclipse Award for magazine writing about Thoroughbred racing; the William Leggett Breeders’ Cup Writing Award and three John Hervey Awards for magazine writing about harness racing.  

Bill is a regular contributor to Trainer Magazine and Canadian Sportswriter, while also serving as the Thoroughbred handicapper for the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, New York.

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