Next to the Daily Racing Form listing of five of the seven starters in last Saturday's Travers Stakes at Saratoga was an asterisk indicating that those horses could handle a muddy track. The other two had no mud mark. When rain drenched the track, making the going difficult and tiring, bettors gave those marks and those non-marks considerable thought. They could have saved themselves the effort. One of the two without a mark was General Assembly, an enigmatic critter who went out and won the 110th Travers by 15 splashy lengths.
The General has led a puzzling racing life, up one day and down the next. Racing fans adore him after one race and deride him after the next. Until last week's Travers he was known primarily as "Secretariat's best son," but that has meant very little because Secretariat has been anything but the sire he was expected to be when he was sent to stud after his stunning two years as a runner. Well, what General Assembly did in the Travers was stunning and more. He ran over a track rated "sloppy" in 2:00 for the 1¼ miles to set not only a stakes record but a track record as well, and Saratoga is the oldest track in the U.S., having opened its iron gates 116 years ago.
The field the General left in his wake was the best group of 3-year-olds assembled since the Kentucky Derby. Not since Secretariat himself won the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths has there been so overwhelming a triumph in a race of such high significance. But a question remains, one as simple as an old racing adage: Is General Assembly just a horse for a course?
The horse obviously thrives at Saratoga. He has run four races there and won them all. Elsewhere he has been victorious only twice in 11 starts. This spring General Assembly ran in every leg of the Triple Crown, finishing second, fifth and seventh, respectively, and in the Belmont he was but a blur in the distance behind Coastal.
Moments after the Travers, LeRoy Jolley, the General's trainer, had a self-aggrandizing flight of fancy. "There has been some talk about making the Saratoga meeting longer," he said. "As far as General Assembly is concerned, they should make it a year-round meeting." Forget the absence of a mud mark. The General's performances show that he likes an off track. In 1978 he came to prominence by winning the six-furlong Saratoga Special in 1:09, the quickest time for that race in 73 years. The track that day was listed as only "good." General Assembly's second-place finish behind Spectacular Bid in the Derby was over a wet but fast track.
After his poor showing in the Belmont five weeks later, the General was rested and walked slowly each day; the strain of the Triple Crown had taken its toll. He didn't compete again until two weeks before the Travers, winning a seven-furlong race at Saratoga as he pleased. Until recently, General Assembly showed signs of nervousness in the paddock before races and while walking in post parades. In his prep for the Travers and in the Travers itself he seemed much calmer. "Maybe the toughness of the Triple Crown races matured him, got him to the point where he learned to relax," said Jolley. "In his two races at Saratoga he was much more confident of himself, and I would have to say that is the big difference in him."
In September 3-year-olds begin running against older horses in handicap races. Many assume that the Triple Crown events decide which horse is the best of its generation, but that's not always the case. If a colt sweeps the Triple he is automatically the champion, of course, but in other years the late-summer and fall stars have at times determined the champ.
As recently as 1975 Wajima was the 3-year-old champion, even though he didn't compete in a single Triple Crown race. Key to the Mint was named the top 3-year-old of 1972, the year Riva Ridge won two-thirds of the Triple, and in 1966 Buckpasser was tops in his crop despite the fact that he was a no-show at Churchill Downs and the other Triple Crown courses. All three horses had one thing in common: a victory in the Travers that catapulted them into contention for 3-year-old honors.
This year there was some discouraging news before the Travers. Spectacular Bid, behind in his training after stepping on a safety pin the day he failed to complete the Triple Crown at Belmont Park, would not run; nor would Coastal, the Belmont winner, who was being rested for the fall campaign. Moreover, Valdez, the highly touted West Coast colt, was scratched because of the sloppy going. Smarten, the winner of six straight stakes on six different tracks, was in, as were Steady Growth, Canada's top 3-year-old; Screen King, who had run reasonably well in the Triple Crown races; and Private Account, a late developer. That Davona Dale, Calumet Farm's top filly, who had beaten the best of her generation in eight stakes, was also entered gave the Travers a touch of novelty. Although Davona Dale was beaten by It's In The Air the week before in the Alabama at Saratoga, trainer John Veitch decided to give her a shot at the colts.
The fans liked her chances, sending her off as the 5-to-2 favorite. Once the starting gate opened, though, General Assembly, with Jacinto Vasquez up, was moving fastest. He had drawn the inside post position and swooped inside long shot King Green en route to a commanding lead down the backstretch. Davona Dale made one spirited move at the leaders, but she couldn't sustain it or even come close to menacing the General. At the top of the stretch Smarten made a little run, but it was inadequate and General Assembly just kept striding away to his smashing victory. It was not only the fastest 1¼ miles but also the richest race ($134,750) ever run at Saratoga.
When the time of 2:00 was flashed on the tote board the crowd was abuzz; the track had been getting slower with each race as rain continued to fall. That kind of speed on that kind of track is unheard of. The previous record had been set in 1976 by another Jolley-trained colt, Honest Pleasure, over a strip that was lightning fast.
Davona Dale finished fourth behind the General, Smarten and Private Account, and she looked like a very tired horse, one due for a long rest.
Veitch says Davona Dale will return to her own division in the Sept. 29 Ruffian Stakes at Belmont. "The jockey [Jorge Velasquez] said she never got hold of the track," Veitch said after the Travers. "When she finally got to run at the top of the stretch, it was too late."
On Sept. 8, General Assembly will go for another big one. He will be facing the 1978 Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Coastal and other stalwarts in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont. Belmont is not Saratoga. What the General must prove now is that he doesn't have to carry his own racetrack with him to win. If he can do that, he might just wind up as 3-year-old of the year.