SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y., AUG. 29 -- Trainer Mack Miller agonized for hours today as he tried to decide whether to run his colt Crusader Sword in the Hopeful Stakes.
The Saratoga racing strip was a sea of slop after two days of virtually nonstop rain, and Miller didn't think the 2-year-old would handle the surface very well. He'd never forgive himself if the promising youngster hurt himself under these conditions.
At noon he finally told owner Paul Mellon he had decided to run. Then Miller watched the colt vindicate his judgment and establish himself as the pro-tem leader of his generation.
Crusader Sword rallied from last place to score by a half-length over Bill E. Shears, with Success Express third in the field of five.
If neither the margin of victory nor the time -- 1:18 3/5 for 6 1/2 furlongs -- was especially impressive, Crusader Sword continued to give evidence that he is a versatile, consistent pro, and one who will fare better at longer distances.
"You don't know whether or not they'll like the mud at all," Miller said, "but when they scratched down to five horses, that made the decision for me." But after the first quarter-mile of the Hopeful, Miller was second-guessing himself.
Bill E. Shears, a colt trained by Marylander Robert Wheeler, cleared the gate first, but Success Express flew past him on the backstretch. The Wayne Lukas-trained colt opened a two-length lead on the backstretch, while Crusader Sword was at the rear of the field.
Success Express was almost too fast for his own good. He sped the first quarter-mile in 21 3/5 seconds on the deep, tiring track and, when he turned into the stretch, he started to weaken. Bill E. Shears, whom he had seemingly left beaten, was coming back at him. But now Crusader Sword was flying from far behind.
"He's got that one kick and I didn't want to change his style," jockey Randy Romero said of Crusader Sword. "I didn't know he'd be that for back. He made that run on the turn and I wasn't really asking him to do that much and I said, 'Wow!' He did it within himself."
Crusader Sword caught Bill E. Shears in midstretch and maintained a safe advantage to the wire. The winner paid $4.60 as the favorite and earned $104,580.
The triumph capped a remarkable month for Miller. Not only was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame, but he dominated the major stakes here. He also won the Whitney Handicap and the $1 million Travers Stakes with Java Gold.
The last time a trainer captured three of Saratoga's four Saturday stakes was 1972, when Elliot Burch did it -- also for the Rokeby Stable owned by Mellon, of Upperville, Va.
Miller's streak of success doesn't figure to stop here. Java Gold will be a major force in the rich fall races, and Crusader Sword will be the one to beat in the important 2-year-old stakes. Miller said his next objective would be the Futurity Stakes at Belmont Sept. 20.
So far, not a single 2-year-old has been seen in New York who has looked like he can beat Crusader Sword. And now Miller knows that the most difficult track conditions won't stop him, either.