Conquistador Cielo today joined the ranks of such immortals as Man O'War and Secretariat, but not in quite the way the racing world expected. He added his name to the list of great horses who have suffered stunning defeats at Saratoga.
The most expensive colt in the history of his species lost the Travers Stakes today with a thoroughly undistinguished performance. Runaway Groom, a colt owned by Al Coppola of McLean, Va., and who had won only one minor stake, in his native Canada, rallied through the stretch to win by a half-length over Aloma's Ruler. The favorite was another half-length behind in third place.
Although some of the other great horses who were upset at the so-called "graveyard of favorites" ultimately preserved their distinguished reputations, Conquistador Cielo's stature may have been permanently diminished by this loss. This was the race that was going to demonstrate -- for the first time -- his ability to run a classic distance under pressure, and he failed the test.
Everyone knew Conquistador Cielo would have a much tougher race than the series of easy, wire-to-wire victories that formed the basis for his reputation and $36.4 million syndication price. Trainer Butch Lenzini had announced that his fast colt, Aloma's Ruler, was going to take the lead and make Conquistador Cielo catch him. That is exactly what happened.
Jockey Angel Cordero Jr. sent Aloma's Ruler to the lead at once, but Conquistador Cielo rushed up inside. Cordero was delighted with this, because the inside part of the track seemed rather deep and disadvantageous, and now he had the chance to keep his rival pinned there. Jockey Eddie Maple, meanwhile, appeared uncertain about what he wanted to do. Conquistador Cielo was eager to run, but Maple was trying hard to restrain him. "I had to fight him," Maple said. "I couldn't relax him."
The two speedsters raced abreast, covering the half-mile in 46 2/5 seconds and the three-quarters in 1:10 3/5 -- time that was fast but could not be considered detrimental. On the turn, Lejoli and Gato del Sol moved within striking distance of the leaders. And then the gray horse in last place started to accelerate. "At the top of the stretch," said Runaway Groom's jockey, Jeffrey Fell, "I knew I had a lot of horse under me and I saw the speed was coming back to me."
At that time, though, the crowd of 41,830 still was expecting the 2-to-5 favorite to pull away from Aloma's Ruler. But Conquistador Cielo couldn't, and in mid-stretch Aloma's Ruler put his head in front. But as he did, Runaway Groom was charging down the middle of the track; he flew past the two leaders in the last sixteenth of a mile.
Or at least he gave the impression he was flying: in fact, the horses in front of him were stopping cold. Conquistador Cielo was running the final quarter-mile in an embarrassing 27 seconds, Aloma's Ruler only slightly faster. Runaway Groom reached the finish line in 2:02 3/5 on a fast racing strip, a slow time that demonstrates he won this race by default.
That, of course, didn't matter to owner Coppola, who operates the Washington Business Schools, secretarial schools in the Washington, D.C., area. He purchased Runaway Groom for $39,000, and this year more than recouped his investment when the colt finished second in Canada's principal race for 3-year-olds, the Queen's Plate. Two weeks ago he won a minor stake on the grass at Fort Erie in Canada.
But on the basis of this record, his 12-to-1 odds and $27.80 win price were fully justified. Even trainer John DiMario admitted, "I had no idea. How are you going to fight against superhorses and expect to win?"
That is a question that is sure to be debated hotly in the coming days. Why did Conquistador Cielo run so poorly?
Perhaps his dormant physical problems began to bother him again; he did come onto the track today wearing new bandages on his front legs. Running on the deep rail probably hurt him -- but supposed superhorses ought to be able to overcome such a disadvantage. The fast pace probably hurt him, too -- but a superhorse is supposed to be able to go six furlongs in 1:10 3/5 and keep on running hard.
Very likely, Conquistador Cielo confirmed a suspicion about him that existed before the Belmont Stakes -- that as a son of Mr. Prospector he might not be genetically equipped to run much beyond a mile and one-eighth. The only time he did was in the Belmont, but that day he got the lead without any pressure while his rivals were foundering in the slop. The Travers was the first true test of his ability at a classic distance -- and it has surely left a lot of people wondering why they valued this horse at $36.4 million.