The Travers, a sort of midsummer mile-and-a-quarter Derby held amid the beauties of Saratoga, is the oldest stakes in America and has provided some of racing's keenest and most spectacular contests. Thus it seemed fitting that, in last week's 97th Travers, victory should go to Ogden Phipps's Buckpasser, the nation's all-age champion of the moment, who, in winning, contributed another slice of history to the locale where the Thoroughbred is permanently enshrined.
Although his margin over Belmont winner Amberoid was only three-quarters of a length, Buckpasser won easily in the track-record-equaling time of 2:01[3/5]. It was his ninth straight win of the year, his 18th career victory in 21 starts; in picking up the purse of $53,690, he ran his two-year earnings to $1,038,369. The superbly muscled son of Tom Fool and Busanda—probably the soundest and swiftest racehorse in the country today—stands sixth among alltime money-winners despite the fact that he missed all three Triple Crown races this spring. He is the first to attain millionaire status as a 3-year-old.
This is the kind of colt who is highly appreciated in Saratoga, and the Travers, even without the now retired Derby and Preakness winner, Kauai King, drew the best field of 3-year-olds that could have been assembled anywhere on this continent. Amberoid and Buffle, one-two in the Belmont Stakes, were in the six-horse field. Also on hand, from Chicago, was Abe's Hope, beaten only a nose by Buck-passer in the Flamingo, an unlucky disqualified loser of the Florida Derby and later the only horse ever to beat Kentucky Derby favorite Graustark. The other two colts went to the starting gate for different reasons: Stupendous, from the Phipps barn, to insure a fast pace for Buckpasser, and C. V. Whitney's Fast Count because, as his owner put it, "Why not? Before the race he won't know who he's running against. After it, he sure will!" Stupendous finished last, after doing his job well, and Fast Count was just ahead of him.
If Saratoga has always been known for a plethora of quality horses, it always used to be equally well known for its free-and-easy gambling atmosphere. Last week both the gambling and sporting character of the old Adirondacks wateringhole were still evident. The track was careful not to cancel show betting on the Travers, and suffered a minus show pool of $38,256.20 for this gesture. In return, the crowd of 28,014 plunked down a total of $2,028,160 on the nine-race card—the first $2 million handle in Saratoga's history.
But the real sportsmanship on Travers day was demonstrated by the owners and trainers who were bucking the odds by tackling Buckpasser at what may be his best distance. Under the allowance conditions of the stakes the champion had to carry only 126 pounds, giving just three to Amberoid and six to Buffle and Abe's Hope. He was a tough target for them to shoot at, yet they had their reasons for trying. Del Carroll, for example, said of Abe's Hope: "Saratoga's deeper track may suit him better than Arlington's fast strip. Of course, I'm not sure that he's a mile-and-a-quarter horse. He lost ground in the Kentucky Derby, so we've got to try the distance again even if it's against the best horse there is."
Amberoid's owner, Reginald Webster, thought so little of his chances that he replaced Belmont-winning Jockey Bill Boland with Ben Feliciano because "the boy has been working him regularly for me and he deserves a chance to ride him. But this is a mile-and-a-half horse going against speedballs, and they'll probably kill us. The real reason we're in this Travers is that I owe racing so much it seems like one good way to repay a sport I love very much." Webster and Trainer Lucien Laurin also had a change of tactics up their sleeves. "I know we need real distance to win against top horses," said Webster. "I don't think we can beat Buckpasser, and in my book he already rates with Man o' War, Count Fleet and Citation. Buffle is the fastest-improving horse in the country, and I'll be tickled to be third. But we've got to change tactics, so instead of coming from way out of it we're going to try and put Amberoid right up there closer to the pace and hope that he may be able to last." The hope was almost realized.
The vast majority of form students felt that Buffle, who had lost the Brooklyn Handicap to Buckpasser by only a head, had the only real chance to beat him this time around. In Buffle's favor, he had withstood Max Hirsch's strenuous training all month at Saratoga while Buckpasser was being shipped around in midwestern heat. Bob Kleberg, Buffle's owner, is the kind of optimistic owner racing needs, and his confidence in Buffle went beyond the call of duty when, in the grand tradition of bygone Saratoga days, he made a $10,000 even-money side bet—horse against horse, Buffle vs. Buckpasser—with Mrs. Phipps and her son Dinny. "Buckpasser," said Kleberg, "is the best horse I have ever started a horse of mine against. If we can beat him we must have something pretty special. I'm gambling that Buffle is still improving."
"He was a great sport about it," said Mrs. Phipps later. "We all knew our entry would be odds-on, and yet Bob made the bet at even money." (Half an hour after the Travers, Kleberg got $100 of his money back when his Seaman finished third ahead of Phipps's fourth-place Poker.)
For a while during the running of the Travers it looked as though Webster, Kleberg, Del Carroll and even C.V. Whitney might finally have caught Buckpasser on an off day. Stupendous, as directed, went to the front, and Amberoid, also as ordered, went right after him. Abe's Hope took up third place in this Indian-file romp through the clubhouse turn and into the backstretch, with Buffle fourth and Buckpasser and Fast Count bringing up the rear. At one point on the back side Buckpasser actually was last, nine lengths off his stablemate's pace.
But Jockey Braulio Baeza, who has an excellent rapport with his mount, rode Buckpasser with his usual cool and, as he noted later, "even when I was last I had every horse ahead of me measured. I knew I could get them when I had to." As they went into the far turn it was time for Stupendous to retire honorably, and Amberoid spurted to a quick two-length lead as he approached the head of the stretch. Abe's Hope was hanging on in second place and Buffle in third as Baeza tapped Buckpasser once on the shoulder to let him know that the business of the day was at hand.
The move that Buckpasser made was powerful and inspiring. For a moment, before the field straightened for home, he was roaring along prepared to circle his field, steering clear of any trouble. But suddenly Baeza, in a calculated gamble, shifted his attack from the outside. He had noticed Buffle drifting out slightly. Quickly he drove Buckpasser between Buffle on the outside and Abe's Hope on the inside, and he flew after Amberoid. Baeza's gamble paid off at the three-sixteenths pole. In the next sixteenth of a mile Buckpasser, like a gracefully loping tiger sure of the kill ahead of him, caught up with his prey.
But Buckpasser has often caught his victims before and given them a chance to escape by voluntarily pulling himself up. In the Travers there was none of that. Although Amberoid stayed gamely, Baeza and Buckpasser coasted under the wire in front, almost effortlessly. Amberoid had a margin of three and a half lengths over Buffle, who just nosed Abe's Hope out of third money. None of the great horses have ever run a faster mile and a quarter at Saratoga.
Buckpasser will go after the winner's purse of $182,000 in the New Hampshire Sweepstakes Sept. 3 and then tackle older horses at Aqueduct in the fall. In the Woodward on Oct. 1 he may meet Tom Rolfe in a classic test of divisional champions. "I don't know about the future," said Trainer Eddie Neloy as he looked at Baeza and Buckpasser, "but I have decided two things. First, I'll never play poker with Baeza—he's too cool for me. Second, Buckpasser is competitive and has so much heart that he's already the champion in my book." For the moment, nobody disagrees.