New York Racing Association announcer Tom Durkin delivered the final Travers Stakes of a storied 40-year career Saturday, and what a better swan song then calling the fifth photo finish in the last seven years of the historic race.
The chestnut colt V.E. Day upset his barn mate Wicked Strong as trainer Jimmy Jerkens swept the exacta in the 145th running of the Mid-Summer Derby at Saratoga Race Course before a packed house of 46,557.
The old Spa was rocking as the Curlin Stakes winner gave jockey Javier Castellano his fourth Travers win and the second for Jerkens by nipping Wicked Strong at the wire. The same jockey-trainer combination won the 2008 Travers with Afleet Express in a photo. This time though it was the “other Jerkens” entry as Jim Dandy winner Wicked Strong went off as the second choice. The $2 exacta with both Jerkens horses paid $167.50.
V.E. Day paid $41 to his backers for the win, $13.20 for second and $7.30 for show. Wicked Strong paid $4.40 to place and $3.10 to show. Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist finished third and paid $3.40 . V.E. Day finished the mile and a quarter in 2:02.93.
Castellano tied the record for most Travers wins by a jockey, a mark he now shares with four others, the most recent being Hall of Famer Pat Day. Day won his fourth in 2003 aboard Ten Most Wanted.
Castellano, the meet-leading jockey, was ecstatic with the son of English Channel’s performance.
“The way he rolled the last time in the Curlin Stakes, he came from behind,” Castellano said. “I took my time and had a lot of patience and he paid off today. I really liked the way he sat behind the horses. I saved all the ground turning for home behind the speed horses and was feeling really strong. I was very satisfied the way he finished.”
Jerkens, whose father Allen is known in racing circles as the “Giant Killer” for his wins over horses like Secretariat, Buckpasser and Forego, worked out V.E. Day for a 3-furlong blowout in 37.70 seconds on Wednesday in preparation for the Travers, an unorthodox training move that his father has used.
“Anytime you expand the lungs close to a race as grueling as that, I would have to think it would be beneficial as long as you’re not overdoing it,” Jimmy Jerkens said.
He became the second trainer in history to have the first two horses cross the line in the Travers, the other being Nick Zito in 2004 when Birdstone and The Cliff’s Edge finished 1-2. Considering the race has been run 145 times, that’s quite the achievement.
Jerkens didn’t rule out a Breeders’ Cup Classic possibility after the race, but still couldn’t believe his horses completed the exacta. “It’s a dream. I’m sure I’m going wake up and it all didn’t happen,” said Jerkens.
When asked how his father would react to his second Travers win, he smirked and said “Pretty good, huh?” His father never won the Travers despite a training career that put him in racing’s Hall of Fame.
English Channel, a top turf horse who had a stellar career, sired the winner, but Jerkens had quickly dismissed that his offspring will only savor the turf. His colt backed him up.
“English Channel wasn’t bred himself strictly for turf; he just was a good turf horse. I don’t know, that’s what keeps horse racing what it is, no one knows,” Jerkens said.
Bayern, the post time favorite, set the early pace after breaking beautifully, but the distance question caught up to him when he hit the far turn and gave way to Wicked Strong and Tonalist at the top of the stretch. Trainer Bob Baffert was looking to complete the first Haskell-Travers double since 2001 with Point Given.
“He broke well and was in a good position. But when he turned for home, he was out of horse,” Baffert said. “The Haskell might have taken something out of him. I think you have to prep for the Travers in the Jim Dandy.”
For those two horses, an opportunity to move forward in the 3-year-old male division was lost. Two-time classic winner California Chrome looks to have a secure position on the top spot. California Chrome’s next start appears to be the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx in late September, his first start since losing the final leg of the Triple Crown to Tonalist in June.
For third-place finisher Tonalist, the race set up perfectly for his stalking style, but he just couldn’t get to Wicked Strong or the winner in deep stretch. Jockey Joel Rosario confirmed the race was there for him to win.
“It looked like there was one horse with speed and then me and Wicked Strong,” said Rosario. “I tried to get my position early and he can run like that, so I was happy where I was. He’s the kind of horse that keeps on going. We were just third-best today.”
Second-place jockey Rajiv Maragh, who was looking to win his first Travers, could only shake his head and laugh as his trainer won with his other horse.
“That darn Jimmy Jerkens, you can’t beat that guy!” Maragh said. “That race unfolded just the way I wanted it to. Bayern wasn’t loose on the lead and I had them both on my side. It’s just a tough beat. I just kept on riding. It was just an unfortunate bob.”
The Travers delivered again, and for Durkin’s incredible career in calling races, it was apropos that the final one was too close to call at North America’s oldest sporting venue.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.