At Travers Stakes, Afleet Express hugs the rail and gallops to victory

By Andrew Beyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 11:52 PM

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - On paper, the 141st running of the Travers Stakes had looked so closely matched as to be indecipherable. The finish was so close that the naked eye couldn't discern that Afleet Express was the winner. His razor-thin margin of victory was all the doing of jockey Javier Castellano, whose ground-saving ride enabled him to prevail by a nose over fast-finishing Fly Down.

Castellano was able to take advantage of conditions that had not been seen at Saratoga all season: The inside part of the racing strip was the path to victory. Six races were run on the dirt track before the Travers, and all six were won by the horse who went to the lead on the rail. Those who tried to rally wide were doomed.

Afleet Express had never won anything more than a Grade III stakes before Saturday. He had finished third behind two of his Travers rivals in the Jim Dandy Stakes here last month. But tactics and trips were more important Saturday than a horse's prior credentials.

Castellano made his way from Post 7 to the rail and sat in the middle of the pack as Miner's Reserve sped from post No. 1 and took the lead. The early leader, a 30-to-1 shot, had never displayed enough stamina to win at 1¼ miles, and he was being pressed by the speedy First Dude; he wasn't good enough to take advantage of the track's bias.

Castellano had Afleet Express sitting behind the favorite, Trappe Shot, and he got a crucial break when jockey Alan Garcia failed to hug the rail. Castellano got through inside his rival, then advanced along the rail and sat behind Miner's Reserve and First Dude as they were starting to tire.

"He made it through a little hole," Castellano said, "and then he got it done."

Afleet Express went outside Miner's Reserve, took the lead and went back to the rail, just as Fly Down was starting to circle the field.

Fly Down had almost won the Belmont Stakes with his powerful late kick, and he was gaining with every stride. The finish was so tight that Jimmy Jerkens, trainer of Afleet Express, was already starting to console him.

"I thought he might have gotten beat but I was happy that he ran so well," Jerkens said.

On a track that was kinder to horses making bold outside moves, Fly Down probably would have caught Afleet Express. Instead, it was trainer Nick Zito consoling himself that his colt delivered an exceptional effort.

The two leaders finished 6¾ lengths ahead of third place First Dude.

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