SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y., AUG. 22 -- Heavy rain turned the Travers from a championship confrontation into a test of which horse could handle the Saratoga slop, and Java Gold won that test decisively.
He rallied from nearly 20 lengths behind and flew past Cryptoclearance in the final eighth of a mile to win the $1,123,000 stakes by two lengths. Polish Navy was a distant third.
Alysheba and Bet Twice, who had dominated the Triple Crown series and were the favorites here along with Java Gold, were both soundly beaten. Bet Twice faded to fifth by a dozen lengths and Alysheba never got into contention at all, finishing 20 lengths behind in sixth place.
Java Gold had come into the Travers as the unknown quantity in the all-star field. Trainer Mack Miller had kept him out of the Triple Crown series and geared him for a late season campaign, and the colt rewarded his patience by winning the Whitney Handicap here two weeks ago. But it was uncertain whether he would be able to handle rivals like Alysheba and Bet Twice -- until rain started falling here at 8 a.m. and turned the track into a sea of slop by noon.
Java Gold had run on wet tracks three times this year and had won easily each time; neither of his principal rivals had ever competed in the slop. The rain proved to be much more than an equalizer.
Jockey Pat Day could not even see the leaders in the early stages of the Travers, but he wasn't concerned -- and didn't need to be. Temperate Sil and Gorky, who had been entered to be a pacesetter for his stablemate Gulch, were racing head and head and setting a fast pace, covering the first half mile in 46 1/5 seconds and six furlongs in 1:10 flat.
This wouldn't have been a good idea on any track, and in the mud today speed horses were having no success. Although he was dead last after six furlongs, Day was still in no hurry. "I wasn't concerned at any point," he said. "I knew the speed was going to come back to me."
And it did -- both the pacesetters would lose by more than 20 lengths. But as the leaders started to die, Bet Twice and Polish Navy looked as if they were going to take command of the race. The two of them had been stalking the pair in front, and now they swooped past and battled for the lead. But both may have been moving prematurely. Almost as soon as they reached command they started to fade, and Cryptoclearance started to make his move.
He took command in midstretch, but as he did Day was putting Java Gold into high gear. Even when Cryptoclearance was momentarily about two lengths in front, it was apparent he wouldn't be able to withstand this late charge.
Java Gold hit the finish line in 2:02 for the 1 1/4 miles, moderate time even considering the condition of the track. Cryptoclearance was 6 3/4 lengths in front of third-place Polish Navy, with Gulch fourth.
"He handled the track very well," Day said, "but I'm sure it worked to the detriment of some of the others. This colt would run well over broken bottles. He's certainly handled every track I've ever ridden him on."
Most of the losers in the race thought the track conditions had contributed to their defeat. Bet Twice's jockey, Craig Perret, said, "When the mud started to hit him in the face, he started going like this" -- Perret turned his face from side to side. "He wasn't slipping or sliding, the mud was just hitting him, and he got to thinking about it."
Chris McCarron, Alysheba's jockey, said: "When he got hit in the face with the slop, he didn't like it and just stopped trying. The problem may have been the footing, also. I think this race should be thrown out."
Such excuses are commonplace in the sport, but the finish of the race suggested strongly that the track condition was the determining factor. Four horses in the field had won stakes on off tracks, and they finished 1-2-3-4. Three horses in the field were equipped with mud caulks, and they included Java Gold and Cryptoclearance. (This may have been a very important factor, because only one other horse on the day's card, a stablemate of Java Gold named Jack Of Clubs, was equipped with caulks, and he scored a stunning upset over the mud-loving Creme Fraiche).
And the performance of Cryptoclearance further verified that the results of the Travers don't mean much. Throughout the Triple Crown series, the colt showed that, without any doubt, he was inferior to Bet Twice and Alysheba, but today he whipped them soundly.
The dreary conditions did not deter the enthusiasm of the crowd of 45,055, which bet more on the Travers than on any race in Saratoga's history, and a total of $15.5 million, including off-track wagering, on the card.