Beneath a twilight sky Scattered with the last clouds of an afternoon storm, George Goodwin softly drew a hand over the map of veins that crisscrossed the left flank of Java Gold. "He proved himself today!" said the 64-year-old groom. "He proved he was the best 3-year-old around."
Two hours before, in a dense rain that made a chocolate mousse of Saratoga Race Course, Java Gold had come rushing off the pace near the top of the stretch, swept past Cryptoclearance with 110 yards to run and splashed away in the final strides to win the $1.23 million Travers Stakes by two lengths. "It wouldn't have made no difference to him if it was wet or dry," Goodwin said. "He proved today he was the best horse of them all."
The groom's enthusiasm was understandable, as was his bias. But what Java Gold actually proved—in what was supposed to be a dream race to settle the question of who was, indeed, the finest 3-year-old in the land—was simply that he was the fastest 3-year-old mudder in the land. With the racetrack turned to slop, the Mid-Summer Derby turned out to be a disappointing anticlimax to a race that had stirred as much lively comment as any in the last 10 years.
This 118th running of the 1¼-mile Travers was widely viewed as the most competitive in the race's history, a contest that included not only the strongest of the Triple Crown horses—who, by August, have traditionally come to rest or disrepair—but also most every powerful contender who had missed the spring classics but had lately surfaced in high form.
Above all, the Travers offered the rubber match between Alysheba and Bet Twice, who had dueled to a 2-2 tie through the Triple Crown and the recent Haskell Invitational Handicap. This alone would have been enough to make the race, but there was more. There were two durable Triple Crown survivors in Gulch and Cryptoclearance. There was Polish Navy, who had scored a front-running victory at Saratoga in the Jim Dandy Stakes on Aug. 9. Out of California came Temperate Sil, a highly regarded speed horse, and from Chicago came Fortunate Moment, an undefeated late bloomer.
And then there was Java Gold. The colt won only three of seven races as a 2-year-old, but many who saw him win the Remsen Stakes last November at Aqueduct predicted he would emerge as the pick of the generation. Trainer Mack Miller and owner Paul Mellon, ever cautious in developing their young horses, announced way back then that they would pass up the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and point Java Gold elsewhere. "We thought it best not to go through the whole Triple Crown grind," Miller said before the Travers. "Instead, I thought we'd just run him in the Belmont Stakes."
In April, Java Gold won two races on muddy tracks at Aqueduct, but the Belmont plans went awry when the colt came down with a virus late in the month. Shifting gears, Miller took aim at the next best thing, the Travers, and began a patient and intelligent summer campaign. With his surge in the stretch to win the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Whitney Handicap on Aug. 8 at Saratoga, Java Gold was ready for the Saturday showdown.
And so were the rest. All that was needed to make the Travers a perfect race was a fast track and a sunny day. But then came the gloomy rains, first in torrents in the morning, and again as the horses paraded to the post. They left the gate past a clubhouse of umbrellas.
Temperate Sil broke on top, and Gorky, a throwaway speed horse coupled with Gulch, chased on command. After three quarters in a fiery 1:10 flat, the leaders had six lengths on Polish Navy; jockey Pat Day had Java Gold—at 3-1 the second favorite to 5-2 Alysheba in the betting—15 lengths back, dead last. But Day sat chilly on his horse, waiting for the turn as patiently as Miller had waited for the colt all spring.
In front of Java Gold, horses began tiring or floundering in the mud or both. Said jockey Bill Shoemaker of Temperate Sil, "He didn't mind the mud until he got tired, then he hated it." Fortunate Moment was no amphibian either. And Alysheba, his front legs climbing, was never in the hunt. "He broke well, but that's all he did," rider Chris McCarron said. "When he got hit in the face with the slop, he didn't like it and just stopped trying." Bet Twice made a run of it to the top of the stretch before excusing himself. "When the mud started to hit him in the face," said jockey Craig Per-ret, "he started going like this [turning his head from side to side]."
Racing off the turn for home, mud-lover Cryptoclearance bounded past Polish Navy and Bet Twice and quickly opened a length lead. Java Gold made chase; by the eighth pole he had aim on Crypto and 100 yards later was at his throat. Java Gold drew off powerfully, hitting the wire in 2:02. Crypto finished 6¾ lengths ahead of Polish Navy, who beat Gulch by 1½. Bet Twice ended up fifth, eight lengths in front of Alysheba.
Predictably the losers bemoaned the sludge for turning the race of the decade into merely the race of the day—and for muddying the best-3-year-old issue. Said Perrett, "I think Java Gold has to prove it to us over a fast course." "It don't prove anything on this kind of racetrack," fumed Jack Van Berg, trainer of Alysheba. Van Berg's day was also darkened by prerace rumors that Alysheba might be given an illegal painkiller. Extra security guards were posted, and drug tests were administered both before and after the race. A track investigation was to continue this week.
Meanwhile the "Who's best?" question was still very much up in the air. Most of these horses will clash again, some as early as the Marlboro Cup on Sept. 20 at Belmont. And perhaps the best is yet to come—in a last big enchilada on Nov. 21 in the Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park, in Southern California. As in sunny California.
Day saved Gold for the stretch run, where the colt splashed his way past Cryptoclearance.