Arnold Willcox of Bethesda, Md., hasn't always been so lucky in the racing game.
The retired businessman has been involved in two major thoroughbred ventures. The first was a partnership that broke up, leaving Willcox disgruntled. The second was a business relationship that left Willcox as the plaintiff in a lawsuit.
From the divided partnership, Willcox wound up with an undistinguished mare named Sleeping Beauty. From his other venture, Willcox acquired two shares in an obscure stallion named Top Command. And then, from the mating of these two animals, Willcox became the owner of the colt who may win today's rich, prestigious Travers Stakes against the best-known 3-year-olds in America.
Five Star Flight showed immense promise in New Jersey last fall and in Florida this winter. "Even with my limited sophistication," the owner said, "I could see he was special. He had unlimited potential."
An injury kept Five Star Flight out of the Triple Crown events, but he has finally realized his potential this summer and, simultaneously, has become very lucky. Two weeks ago at Monmouth Park, when he faced the formidable Lord Avie in the toughest test of his career, he emerged as the only speed horse in the field and galloped to a five-length victory.
The conditions appear to be in his favor again Saturday, even though he is taking on all of the toughest 3-year-olds in America.
The 112th running of the Travers epitomizes what this race is supposed to be: a true championship event for 3-year-olds at the classic distance of 11/4 miles. Many racing purists feel that the Triple Crown races come too early in the year to be definitive, but by midsummer most 3-year-olds have developed and matured.
The field on Saturday matches the horses who won this spring's Triple Crown races (Pleasant Colony and Summing) with those who missed those big races because of injuries (Lord Avie and Five Star Flight), and with those who were simply late bloomers (such as Noble Nashua).
Pleasant Colony will be the favorite because he ran his best races in the most publicized 3-year-old classics, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. But he comes into the Travers after a 10-week absence from competition and with the same lack of versatility that hurt him in the Belmont Stakes. He is a one-dimensional stretch runner, and his new jockey, Angel Cordero Jr., must hope the race develops perfectly for him.
Lord Avie was a vastly overrated colt when he won the 2-year-old championship last season. But the injury that kept him out of the Triple Crown series may have been a blessing. Other horses, such as Buckpasser and Tom Fool, missed those demanding races, got time to grow and develop, and emerged as great champions in the fall.
Lord Avie has looked like a much more legitimate racehorse this summer. But, like Pleasant Colony, he has no speed and no versatility. "We'll be dead last on the backside in the Travers," trainer Danny Perlsweig predicted.
Earlier in the year, Noble Nashua had appeared to be a one-dimensional speed horse, and not an especially good one at that. He finished ninth in the Kentucky Derby. But trainer Jose Martin did a masterful job changing the colt's style. Noble Nashua came from off the pace to win two stakes, then missed by only two lengths against older horses in the Whitney Stakes here.
Martin wants Noble Nashua to come from behind in the Travers, but like the other trainers in the field, he worried about the likelihood that Five Star Flight will get an uncontested early lead. And he did something about it.
The Flying Zee Stable, which owns Noble Nashua, spent $500,000 to acquire a 3-year-old colt named Triocala, who may be the fastest sprinter of his generation, and entered him in the Travers.
Neither Willcox nor trainer Ben Perkins sounds intimidated by this tactic. "Five Star Flight doesn't have to have the lead," the owner said, and the record suggests that he is somewhat tractable. Jockey Craig Perret figures to be sitting second behind Triocala and to inherit a big lead when the pacesetter collapses while the stretch-runners are wending their way through traffic.
While the Travers should develop favorably for him, one thing could make the conditions even more auspicious. When the Saratoga racing strip has become wet this season, it has become so extraordinarily speed-favoring that front-runners never seem to get tired and stretch-runners have no chance. The Weather Bureau says there is a 70 percent chance of rain Saturday.