Saratoga wondered all week whether Chris Evert, the 3-year-old filly champion, could beat Little Current, the 3-year-old colt who had won the Preakness and the Belmont so convincingly. The mile-and-a-quarter Travers would settle the debate between those who held to the theory that good 3-year-old fillies seldom beat good 3-year-old colts and those who felt that Chris Evert could be a great filly and, therefore, had a good shot at making history.
And it surely would be history: in the 104 previous runnings of the Travers, fillies had won only five times, the last being Lady Rotha in 1915 (the same year that another filly, Regret, became the only member of her sex to win the Kentucky Derby). Since then at least two other top fillies had challenged the males in the Travers, Resaca in 1959 and the champion Cicada in 1962, and both failed badly.
Three Saratoga visitors who were not buying either side of the argument were Bob Schleicher, a Kentucky breeder, John Gerbas Jr., a 27-year-old Minnesotan who pilots executive jets, and Trainer J. J. (Buddy) Sarner Jr., who handles the three horses of this minor racing partnership. Two weeks before the Travers they had taken an undersized gelding of theirs named Holding Pattern to New Jersey and pulled off a $16.80 upset when the son of Old Bag (a son of Bagdad) barely hung on to edge Little Current by a nose in the Monmouth Invitational Handicap. John Galbreath's Darby Dan Farm contingent was inclined to blame Little Current's defeat that day on an overconfident and ill-timed ride by Jockey Miguel Rivera, and on the fact that the Preakness and Belmont winner was giving away 10 pounds to Holding Pattern.
Jet pilot Gerbas was not convinced. "Sure, Little Current is good," he told the folks in Saratoga, "but he's no Secretariat. We figured if we could beat him once getting 10 pounds, we were capable of doing it again getting only five. Still, in a race like the Travers I'd be more than happy to be second."
When the Travers was run on a rainy afternoon over a frightfully sloppy track, it proved two things. One was that Chris Evert could not beat Little Current, and the other was that Holding Pattern, who came off no serious works and who had not had a race over the track, could beat them both. There were many among the 30,652, including most of the Galbreath clan, who felt the Travers proved still a third point: that Jockey Rivera had succeeded in putting together two consecutive badly judged races on Little Current after riding him so flawlessly in the Preakness and the Belmont. He did not get him to the wire in time at Monmouth, and this time he moved Little Current from ninth in the 11-horse field just late enough to miss catching Holding Pattern by a short head.
When Greentree Stable's Hatchet Man was scratched because of the slop, it appeared that the race would be a sort of two-act show: first an early speed duel between Chris Evert and Accipiter, and then the typical late charge at the leaders by Little Current, with the rest of the field, including Holding Pattern, somewhere in between the principals and not overly dangerous.
It did not work out entirely that way. Menocal took the early lead, followed first by T.V. Newscaster and then by Chris Evert. Accipiter gave it a spirited early try, but could not keep up and finished last. Meanwhile, Jockey Mike Miceli was never worse than sixth with Holding Pattern and he moved the gelding to fourth after Chris Evert took the lead on the backstretch and ticked off the first six furlongs in 1:12, with Accipiter and Menocal struggling wearily in the mud behind her. Lengths back of the leaders, with slop being thrown at him from every direction, Little Current had but two horses behind him.
Turning for home at the end of the mile, there was marvelous Chrissie still in the lead. She passed the quarter pole ahead of all 10 of her male rivals in a magnificent display of courage, and she was not about to quit. But she was not going to win, either. Holding Pattern slipped through on the inside to gain second place and, finally, the lead by a length over Chris at the eighth pole. And there was Little Current doing his usual late number in the middle of the track. From ninth he had moved to seventh, and now with only an eighth of a mile to run he was in fourth place, four lengths behind Holding Pattern.
Plodding gamely through the goo, he made up all but one head, but that head represented the $69,660 winner's share of the $116,100 purse. If Holding Pattern had been a surprise beating Little Current by a nose at Monmouth, he was even more of one at Saratoga where his payoff was $27.40. More than four lengths to the rear of Little Current, Chris Evert saved third place by 2½ lengths over a 68-to-1 long shot called Prince of Reason. Scattered in the ruck were Park Guard, Gold and Myrrh, T.V. Newscaster, Kin Run, Menocal, Sea Songster and Accipiter. The winning time of 2:05[1/5] was very slow, but excusable under the circumstances.
The results of the Travers should generate even more interest in the second running of the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park on Sept. 14. There, the best of the 3-year-olds of both sexes can challenge such top older horses as Forego and True Knight.
"I know we're interested in the Marlboro Cup for Holding Pattern," said Gerbas after the Travers, "but we'll go to Chicago first, and we may run back in the American Derby on the grass." Gerbas, who has been in racing four years, and Schleicher did not go to Holding Pattern's family tree for his name (his dam, Miss Caesar, is by All Blue) or to some exotic story for the stable's racing silks of white, purple and gold. One day, as Gerbas was circling endlessly over a New York airport awaiting landing instructions, the name Holding Pattern suddenly seemed highly appropriate. And inasmuch as the plane he was flying was painted in the colors of the Minnesota Vikings, why shouldn't his silks be the same? Around the barn they call Holding Pattern "Shorty," and neither Trainer Sarner nor his owners feel their tiny charge needs strenuous training. Before the Travers, which was his first start in a race as long as a mile and a quarter, all Holding Pattern did in five days in Saratoga was walk and gallop. "He doesn't need much," said Sarner.
Despite his long odds at Monmouth and Saratoga, Holding Pattern is not quite an unknown. Last year he won six of nine races, including a division of the Champagne at Belmont. But he chipped a knee last fall and had to sit out the 1974 Triple Crown events. His first race of this season came on the same day Little Current was winning the Preakness. Holding Pattern won a modest one-mile allowance race that afternoon at Churchill Downs, of all places. And now, while such early-season stars as Cannonade, Judger and Agitate are having their problems, here is Holding Pattern with 10 wins in 15 lifetime starts and earnings of $275,457.
There is no disgrace in finishing behind the likes of Holding Pattern and Little Current, and Chris Evert is far from discredited. In running so well in two 10-furlong races only a week apart, she probably showed more ability than she did in her winning match race against Miss Musket. After losing the Alabama the previous Saturday by a neck to Quaze Quilt, she may well have been due for a rest. But Owner Carl Rosen and Trainer Joe Trovato, who have long wanted to see her tackle the colts, went against the majority of professional opinion and ran her back in the Travers. "I know we'll be criticized if Chris Evert loses," said Trovato beforehand. "That's always the way. But that's part of racing. The only reason we're doing it is that she came out of the Alabama so well that it wouldn't be fair not to give her this chance against colts."
As for Galbreath, Trainer Lou Rondinello and the Little Current supporters, two defeats to Holding Pattern do not mean the end of the world. Or even the end of the year. The Marlboro Cup may be the next race for the chestnut, who was syndicated for $4 million during Travers week, and Galbreath is not ruling out a trip to France in October for the mile-and-a-half Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe over the Longchamp turf.
"I've never won either the Travers or the Arc," says Galbreath, whose Roberto finished a disappointing seventh in the Paris classic two years ago. "I'd love to try the Arc with Little Current. For one thing, his action is so perfect that I have no worries about his ability to handle grass. He could run over anything. And the farther the better.
"But there are lots of details still to be worked out. The timing of the trip, the choice of a jockey, the possible assistance of a French trainer, etc. The main point is that racing is still supposed to be a sport, and as far as I'm concerned making a sporting try is the name of the game."
Chris Evert's pink silks are still unmuddied as the field enters the stretch, but Holding Pattern, the small horse to her right, is about to move past.