When Birdstone won the Belmont Stakes in June, trainer Nick Zito was almost apologetic. Some fans hissed and threw beer cans at owner Mary Lou Whitney, because her colt had spoiled Smarty Jones's bid for the Triple Crown.
But no apologies were necessary and no abuse was heard Saturday when Birdstone rallied to win the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. The victory established him as the new leader of the nation's 3-year-olds since Smarty Jones's retirement.
The 135th running of Saratoga's most famous race was conducted under eerie conditions. As a powerful storm approached the track, the sky turned black and lightning crackled in the distance. Track officials ordered the horses to hurry to the gate and started the Travers two minutes before the scheduled post time. The storm's severity forced cancellation of the race after the Travers, but Birdstone managed to beat the elements as well as his six rivals.
He was abetted by jockey Edgar Prado, whose astute ride was a key component of Birdstone's victory. Almost everybody in the crowd of 48,194 knew the way the Travers was going to develop. The speedy Lion Heart was going to take the early lead, and the speedy Purge was going to be stalking him. But instead of getting involved in a destructive duel, the colts' respective riders managed to slow the pace, running the first half mile in a dawdling 49 seconds. It was going to be difficult for rivals to gain ground under the circumstances, and even Zito said, "I didn't know if the two speeds were going to get away."
Prado, however, was well aware of the slow pace. He kept Birdstone within striking distances of the pacesetters on the backstretch and launched a move to challenge them on the turn. As Lion Heart and Purge began to weaken -- neither is a true 11/4-mile runner -- Birdstone took command, then easily held off the late rally of his stablemate, The Cliff's Edge. He scored by 21/2 lengths in the 1-2 Zito finish.
At the start of the season, Zito was thought to have the nation's most powerful contingent of 3-year-olds, but all of them -- including Birdstone -- suffered through disappointing performances or physical problems while Smarty Jones emerged as the star of his generation.
Birdstone was practically a forgotten horse at the time of the Belmont Stakes, until he rallied in the last eighth of a mile to spoil Smarty Jones's bid for glory. He didn't get much attention before the Travers, either. Zito hadn't run him since the Belmont, believing that the small colt benefits from time between races. He decided, "Let's forget the prep races and go for the big one." The public focused its attention on rivals who had won preps for the Travers and let Birdstone go to the post at odds 9 to 2.
"A lot of people thought the Belmont Stakes was a fluke," Zito acknowledged. Birdstone emphatically demonstrated Saturday that it was not.