It must be the elms that do it; no other explanation will do. Virtually every August it seems that an outstanding horse goes to Saratoga and gets thrashed. The course isn't called "The Graveyard of Favorites" for nothing. In 1919 it was Man O'War, the greatest America ever produced. Upset beat him. Come 1930 and Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox arrived at Saratoga only to be beaten by Jim Dandy, a 100-1 shot. An unknown named Onion ran rings around Secretariat in 1973. Triple Crown winner Affirmed lost the Travers of '78 on a foul. Just a year ago Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony was upset by a 24-1 shot, Willow Hour. Last Saturday afternoon, however, the elms were at their most outrageous.
Never in the history of the Travers had three different winners of Triple Crown races gathered for a shootout. Gato Del Sol (Kentucky Derby), Aloma's Ruler (Preakness) and Conquistador Cielo (Belmont) all turned up for the $221,500 Travers, America's oldest continuously run stakes race. With only two other horses to face them, it was a cinch that one of the three would win. None did. The second-largest crowd (41,839) ever at Saratoga sat in stunned silence as a gray horse named Runaway Groom scooted across the finish line half a length in front of Aloma's Ruler and 1¼ lengths ahead of the prohibitive favorite, Conquistador Cielo. Gato Del Sol was dead last, beaten by 9¾ lengths. As dusk fell on the old racetrack one could almost hear its storied elms cackling in glee.
Runaway Groom, a 12-1 shot, was entered in the Travers only because his owner, 57-year-old Albert P. Coppola, grew up in nearby Schenectady and went to the Saratoga track whenever he could. "You could say I entered my horse for vanity's sake, to see my colors in the race I love the most," Coppola said afterward. "I thought we might be able to finish third or maybe fourth. There's nothing wrong with that. Runaway Groom runs from far back, and I thought he might benefit from a speed duel." Coppola paused for a moment, tugged on his horn-rimmed glasses and said, "I just did that, didn't I? I won the Travers."
Sharing in the wonder of it all was Runaway Groom's trainer, 54-year-old John DiMario, who was born in Mt. Vernon, near New York City, and worked the tracks for 30 years. In June, Coppola talked him out of retirement, persuading him to train the six horses Coppola owns.
Runaway Groom, a Canadian-bred, was unraced as a 2-year-old and didn't win a race until April of this year. After finishing first in an allowance event at Churchill Downs on June 19, the colt lost Canada's most important race, the Queen's Plate, at Woodbine, by 2½ lengths on June 27. Few believed in him; he was sent away by the bettors at Woodbine at 38-1.
Early in July, Runaway Groom showed up at Belmont Park on a routine Thursday afternoon card in a modest 1[1/16]-mile feature race, run on the turf and open to horses that hadn't won "two races other than maiden, claiming or starter" events. Runaway Groom drew the outside post in a field of 11. He dawdled along near the back of the field, then made a rather startling move to get to the lead and drew off by 2½ lengths. Though it was an interesting performance, to most of the Belmont faithful it was one to be filed and forgotten. No one could imagine that the winner of a grass race in July would come back six weeks later and triumph in one of the most prestigious races on dirt in this country.
Runaway Groom went back to Canada, where he lost the Heresy Stakes at Woodbine before winning the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, the Prince of Wales. Both of those races were on turf. These days it's very rare to find a 3-year-old who can switch from dirt to grass and grass to dirt and still win, but Runaway Groom seemed to be a horse that could do it. The Travers came next.
Run at 1¼ miles, with all horses carrying equal weight of 126 pounds, it quickly evolved into a head-to-head duel between Aloma's Ruler and Conquistador Cielo, with the latter on the rail and Lejoli and Gato Del Sol not far behind. Runaway Groom seemed to be running in a different race. At one point he was nearly 20 lengths off the pace as the two leaders battled it out.
And battle they did. At the head of the stretch Aloma's Ruler was a bit in front, but by the time they straightened away, Conquistador Cielo had poked his nose into the lead. Even as the two dueled, a gray, menacing presence was closing in. Runaway Groom ran very wide, but his choppy stride was picking up ground. He drew alongside Conquistador Cielo and Aloma's Ruler, then swept by them in convincing fashion.
Most handicappers had thought that if anyone could beat Conquistador Cielo, it would be Wavering Monarch, who had outraced Aloma's Ruler in the Haskell Handicap at Monmouth on July 31. Four days before the Travers, however, Wavering Monarch threw his right front shoe during a workout and had to be scratched because he had bruised his hoof. With Wavering Monarch out, it was assumed that Conquistador Cielo would just breeze home and move onward to become "Horse of the Year."
Conquistador had flourished at exactly the right time to get the ultimate in media exposure. Entering the Travers, he had won seven straight races and seemed far in front of the 3-year-old division. Shortly after the Belmont, he had also begun making news off the track. Business news. Stories of his imminent syndication spread, and the price went up every day. A week before the Travers, some remarkable figures were announced: Claiborne Farm would syndicate the colt for $36.4 million, though his owner, Henryk deKwiatkowski, said, "It wasn't the highest offer I received." There are 40 shares, with deKwiatkowski retaining 10—two of which are ticketed for Trainer Woody Stephens. Each share cost $910,000, an astounding figure even by racing's inflated standards. Compare Conquistador's price per share to those of other top horses of the past decade: Spectacular Bid, $550,000; Affirmed, $400,000; Seattle Slew, $300,000; Secretariat, $190,000. In no way are Conquistador's accomplishments equal to theirs. Is he worth $910,000 a share? Yep, just as long as someone is willing to pay.
However, the price Conquistador Cielo himself paid in the Travers was also heavy. Not only did his reputation and his chance at the Horse of the Year award suffer, but the day after the race, Stephens announced that the colt would be retired from racing. He had strained a ligament in his left front ankle. "I decided it would be in the best interest of the horse," said Stephens. "He didn't have the best of it yesterday, being on the inside and all. If I had it to do over again, I probably would have had him go to the lead instead of taking back. He was too rank, and a horse can't run like that."
It was an opinion that Conquistador's jockey, Eddie Maple, would have agreed with. "Conquistador fought me all the way," Maple said after the race. "I just couldn't get him to relax. He used himself too much."
Maple has spent a good deal of time in recent weeks squabbling with the New York State Racing and Wagering Board over when he should start a suspension given him on Aug. 2. Through legal maneuverings, Maple kept his ride on Conquistador Cielo in the Travers, but that wasn't certain until six hours before the race, when a judge so ruled.
Rumors circulated throughout Saratoga that Conquistador Cielo would be scratched if Maple wasn't allowed to ride. Stephens, however, had already thought ahead and taken "a call" on Jeffrey Fell, and still another on Don MacBeth. In a game of musical saddles, Fell was to end up on Runaway Groom and take home 10% of the winner's share of $132,900. It was the Canadian jockey's second Travers ride, and his first win.
Fell is also the regular rider of Timely Writer, the Kentucky Derby favorite, who had to miss the spring's top events because of an intestinal disorder. But Timely Writer has made it back to the racetrack and recently won the Yankee Handicap at Suffolk Downs. How does Fell compare the two horses? "Timely Writer has more ability than most of the 3-year-olds at Saratoga," he says. "He's an outstanding colt. If he can come back all the way, he's the horse to beat in the big races of the fall."
With Conquistador Cielo out of the scene, those fall races—the $200,000 Woodward Stakes, the $400,000 Marlboro Cup and the $500,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup—could decide Horse of the Year honors. By the way, all three races are at Belmont. Saratoga's elms can't be blamed for any fresh surprises.
Runaway Groom runs away from Aloma's Ruler and Conquistador Cielo at the wire.