The day came up stifling and humid—83° under dark gray skies—with the threat of rain looming so close that it was easy to be nervous about the 100th running of the Travers. A crowd of 28,017 was streaming into the Saratoga track for the mile-and-a-quarter midsummer classic that prides itself on being the oldest stakes race in the U.S., and in the air of tension all around, the two trainers most involved were both looking at the sky—each for his own reason.
There was Lucien Laurin, the jolly French-Canadian former jockey, who would soon be saddling the colt Dike for the A.B. (Bull) Hancock Claiborne Farm. And there was 45-year-old Elliott Burch, handsome and serious, trainer of Paul Mellon's Arts and Letters, winner of the Belmont Stakes over Majestic Prince, and twice the perpetrator of a Belmont-Travers double, with Sword Dancer and Quadrangle.
Burch was so nervous that he ran himself in and out of his morning shower three times before settling down to suiting-up. Now he was both looking and praying—for the rain to stay away. Laurin, of course, was praying for the rain to come—right now. "I've got news for you," Laurin finally groaned. "That Elliott is the luckiest guy alive. Why, it's been raining cats and dogs in Albany for three hours and the damn stuff won't move the 30 miles north to give Dike a chance."
Dike supposedly moves up in the off going, and there was a rumor in Saratoga all through Travers week that Burch would decline to run Arts and Letters over anything but a fast track. But Burch had confided two days before the race, "I think we'll probably run no matter what the track is like. This colt is fit and ready and we want to run. We scratched from that race a few weeks ago at Monmouth Park [the Invitation] only because he hadn't run in nearly two months and we would have had to pack topweight of 128 pounds and give away lots of weight to some pretty good horses. I didn't think it was fair to try all this on an off track, so we didn't run." And with that, the trainers got set to go racing.
August 24, 1969
The rain held off—barely.
And Burch had his way, as Arts and Letters tied the track record of 2:01½—held by, among others, Buckpasser and Damascus—in winning the Travers by 6½ lengths over a dead-tired Dike. Thus, with Majestic Prince recovering in California from osselet troubles, a recuperative stretch that will no doubt keep him out of competition until next winter's Santa Anita season, Mellon's son of Ribot and the Battlefield mare All Beautiful stands alone at the moment as the 3-year-old champion. He also is the most improved and still-improving colt. If he can whip older horses in the weight-for-age Woodward on Sept. 27 he will have to be voted Horse of the Year. The only other serious candidate at the moment is the 4-year-old No-double, a likely Woodward nominee.
Few horses these days possess box-office appeal, but Arts and Letters is clearly one of them. Obviously, his tremendous losing duels with Majestic Prince in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness had something to do with his current popularity, and certainly his victory in the Belmont, witnessed by a record crowd and seen on television by millions more, put him in the limelight to stay. Not since the days of Kelso, and before that Native Dancer, has the Saratoga paddock been as jammed as it was on race day when Arts and Letters brought up the rear of the five-horse post parade prior to the Travers.
Then, at the start, Gleaming Light and Hydrologist cut out the early pace, with Distray in third position. Jockey Braulio Baeza snugged his liver-colored chestnut into the fourth spot, and sat there waiting to strike. Dike—as is his custom—dropped way out of it for the first part of the Travers, and at one point along the backstretch trailed the leaders by nearly 10 lengths. Still, one sensed even then that the race belonged to Mellon's gray-and-yellow silks—and shortly after Arts and Letters left the half-mile pole one knew it for a fact.
With the wonderfully smooth, rhythmic strides that often distinguish a great horse from a good one. Arts and Letters began eating up his field. The enthusiastic crowd leaped up, and its cheers rolled in one loud wave across the lush infield, for just as Arts and Letters made his move so did the other chestnut, the last-place Dike. Surely the race would now be between these two, and surely the only question was: Would it really be a good race after all?
It would be. Turning for home and aiming for the quarter pole, Hydrologist now had half a length on Gleaming Light, and as Distray dropped back here thundered Arts and Letters outside three horses. Dike, on the outside of all of them, was roaring, too—and for an instant he was in the battle, drawing to within three-quarters of a length of Arts and Letters as the son of Ribot forged to the front. And that was the end of it for Dike, a colt who had been trained for a mile race in Chicago only to remain in Saratoga in the faint hope that Arts and Letters—for one reason or another—might be withdrawn from the Travers.
Nearing the eighth pole with a two-length lead. Baeza tapped Arts once and the horse spread-eagled his field and won as he pleased. Even so, Trainer Burch said of his 1-to-5 winner: "I've seen him sharper. The heat dulled him a bit and, like the rest of us here at Saratoga this summer, he's come up with a lot of mosquito bites."
And Laurin, who did not get the rain he had prayed for, looked at Dike walking off and said glumly, "I don't think we will chase Arts and Letters again. It's off to Chicago for us."
Naturally, Arts and Letters will now be more of a hero than ever before. Rightly so. He has won six of his 12 starts this season and eight of 18 lifetime races to compile earnings of $436,572. This does not make him a Dr. Fager yet—or even a Buckpasser—but there is no telling what he might do over the remainder of this season and in 1970 against a handicap division that looks to be anything but strong. Burch, who admits the difficulty of judging or comparing horses of different generations, has more regard for Arts and Letters' ability than he had for Sword Dancer's. "This colt does things with more éclat than Sword Dancer, who never pulverized his field the way this one does," he says.
Burch is not reluctant to reminisce about the classics and believes that with a break or two along the way Arts and Letters might well have won the Triple Crown. "Taking nothing away from Majestic Prince," he says, "I feel that had Baeza ever ridden the colt before, he wouldn't have been beaten a neck in the Derby. And that bumping in the Preakness didn't help much either. Even at that we only got beaten a head."
The next meeting of 1969's great rivals may well come on Jan. 31 in the mile-and-a-quarter Charles Strub Stakes at Santa Anita. Noting the tremendous improvement in the form of Arts and Letters since he managed only two victories in six starts as a 2-year-old, many horsemen are wondering out loud why such an internationally-minded sportsman as Paul Mellon wouldn't point his champion toward a world classic like France's Arc de Triomphe.
"This year," says Burch, "'it will be the Woodward and maybe Jockey Club Gold Cup and that's all. Next year we may try him on grass, but as far as the Arc is concerned Paul Mellon has 15 flat horses in England with Ian Balding and it would be more logical to pick one of those 15 instead of sending a colt from here into a situation where you are handicapped by the conditions of the race and problems of acclimatization."
Mellon confirms: "There is always a 'might' as far as the Arc is concerned for an American-trained horse of mine. But to aim for it properly you would probably have to go over there in June and skip all the summer and fall races at home. You can lose a lot of money that way."
Losing money does not happen to be Rokeby Stable's bag this year. Mellon and Burch undoubtedly have put together the best-balanced stable in the U.S. This fall when the Mellon 2-year-olds get into serious competition at Belmont and Aqueduct, they surely will not all be winners. But primarily they will be trained for next year's classics. "Our whole plan," says Burch, "is not to overrace at 2, so we'll have good prospects at 3, 4 and even 5. If you get greedy you'll have no horse. Greed does not pay."
And with that, after the 100th Travers at Saratoga, it rained.