Shortly after 5 a.m. on Aug. 15, 1981, sheets of rain lashed down over the Adirondack region of upstate New York, rendering the Saratoga Racetrack surface a quagmire for the upcoming day’s races, which included the 112th edition of the Travers Stakes, and rain continued throughout the day.
Despite the abysmal and soggy conditions, the second-largest crowd (at the time) in Saratoga history turned out for the race known as the "Mid-Summer Derby." Race fans were particularly interested because it was Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony's first appearance since losing his Triple Crown bid in the Belmont 10 weeks earlier to Summing, who also was entered for the 1 1/4-mile August classic.
Lord Avie, the previous year’s 2-year old juvenile champion and 1981 pre-Derby favorite, who missed the Triple Crown races because of an injury, also would start. Seven other runners, each trying to establish himself as the best 3-year-old, were improving horses from all over the country and several had solid stakes credentials, including Willow Hour, who two weeks earlier in a prep for the Travers won the Jim Dandy Stakes at 18-1 odds.
With his recent upset victory, Willow Hour was the only horse in the field of 10 who had ever won a race at Saratoga. But bettors dismissed his Jim Dandy win as a fluke and sent the colt off at even longer odds in the Travers at 24-1.
Ridden by Eddie Maple, Willow Hour outdueled race favorite Pleasant Colony down the stretch in the mud to win while Lord Avie finished third. The winner, a bay son of Bold Hour, got away in good order but yielded the lead to Pleasant Colony's stablemate, Prince Fortune, heading into the clubhouse turn. Willow Hour took command again at the far turn, but at the three-eighths pole, there was Pleasant Colony who moved up from fifth under Angel Cordero, looming a threatening presence. The two horses raced through the sloppy Saratoga goo and Pleasant Colony began edging closer, but Maple kept his mount's head just in front as they crossed under the wire in a final time of 2:03 4/5. Lord Avie, the second betting choice, also made a tremendous move, coming from 10th at the half-mile pole to finish 1 1/4 lengths back.
The Travers was supposed to be the race that decided who was the leader in the 3-year old division – Pleasant Colony or Lord Avie. Nothing was really decided on the sloppy surface except that Willow Hour was the best of the day. The outcome assured another nominee would be added prior to the late-fall ballot for the division's Eclipse Award.
After the race, as might be expected, Johnny Campo, conditioner of Pleasant Colony, was the most loquacious of the trainers and jockeys.
"My horse ran a super race, just super. He’s the best 3-year-old in the country," he said. The rotund trainer then took the subject up a notch, “This was his first race since the Belmont, but we have no excuses. He's the best and we'll show them that in the Woodward.”
Angel Cordero who was aboard Pleasant Colony for the first time, said he “couldn't see for an eighth of a mile because of mud flying back at him,” which forced him to use seven sets of goggles. “I thought we were going to get it, but we just couldn't. Pleasant Colony ran just super. He ran great but he couldn't get there."
Jimmy Picou, who trained the winner, said, "I got worried about the three-eighths pole when Pleasant Colony charged up so strongly, thought he was going right by."
Maple, who won the Travers the previous year with Temperence Hill, told reporters he started getting nervous "about five jumps from the finish.”
"Pleasant Colony was close, but he never got in front. The closest was probably at the wire, but I kept riding,” Maple said. He added, “I wasn't surprised with the win – I had a lot of confidence in this little horse.” The crowd of 39,146 apparently didn't, and Willow Hour paid $50.20, $13.30, and $5.20.
Third-place finisher Lord Avie was ridden by jockey Jorge Velasquez, who had been taken off Pleasant Colony after a hasty ride in the Belmont. He lost all chance at the start when shut off a few strides out of the gate as Pleasant Colony veered in and Lemhi Gold broke outward. The colt, who had never raced on an off track before, was so far behind going down the backside that many in the crowd assumed the horse had been pulled up. With only a half-mile left to run, Lord Avie was still in last place about 25 lengths behind.
At the point where Pleasant Colony and Willow Hour started their long run to the finish line, Lord Avie, in thrilling fashion, began circling horses. Moving swiftly while splashing his way through the stretch, he passed Noble Nashua just past the eighth pole and moved into third still full of run but was unable to catch the top two. His Travers finish gave the consistent colt a career 16 races with a top three placing.
"Without a bad start, I would have won,” said an irritated Velasquez.
It was hoped that the first three finishers would meet again in the fall to settle division honors, but the showdown didn’t materialize. Lord Avie never raced again. Pleasant Colony started twice in September, backing up Campo’s affirmation of his horse being the “best 3-year old and we’ll show them that” when winning the Woodward Stakes against older horses. Pleasant Colony then closed out his sophomore campaign and his career two weeks later when finishing fourth against his elders in the Marlboro Cup Invitational. His win in the Woodward along with his overall outstanding accomplishments throughout the racing season eventually earned him the 3-year-old Eclipse Award.
As for Willow Hour, he also had two additional starts to finish out the year before being retired. Two weeks after his Travers success, the colt finished a far back seventh in the Jerome Handicap, then he was shipped to Louisiana where he was third in the Super Derby.
But 40 years ago, this month, in the oldest major thoroughbred stakes race in the United States, Willow Hour turned a wet, dreary and gloomy day, over a historic racetrack ankle-deep in mud, into his finest hour.