Surely few days in the 119-year history of the Saratoga racetrack have been as magnificent as Saturday last. A refreshing breeze drifted through the grandstand and clubhouse and gently shook the leaves on the ancient elms, and the second largest crowd (44,333) ever came out for the big race, the Travers. It is America's midsummer Derby, and last week it produced not only a very exciting horse race but, at long last, a leader among the 3-year-olds after eight baffling months of competition.
In the middle of the long, wet stretch, Play Fellow, a rangy bay colt, came sweeping around front-runners Hyperborean and Slew o' Gold and drew out to win the 114th Travers by 1¾ lengths. It marked the third time in nine weeks that Play Fellow had won a race worth $100,000 or more, and brought long-overdue national attention to his rider, 29-year-old Pat Day, winner of more races than any other U.S. jockey in 1982 and the current leader again this year. At the top of the stretch Day whipped Play Fellow once on the right flank and then a dozen times lefthanded in the run to the wire—a splendid exhibition of horse and rider working in concert.
To most racing fans, Play Fellow was "the emerging horse" back in the early spring. One of the favorites to win Hialeah's Flamingo in April, Play Fellow finished a troubled 10th, only to resurface nearly four weeks later over a ribbon of slop at Keeneland and win the Blue Grass Stakes at odds of 19-1. But the glory lasted for only a few days; Play Fellow subsequently ran sixth to Sunny's Halo in the Kentucky Derby and fifth to Deputed Testamony in the Preakness.
The problem was Play Fellow hadn't had a chance to grow up. At the time of the Derby he was still a 2-year-old in point of maturity. He had been a much later foal (May 20) than his contemporaries, most of whom had been born in January or February.
Play Fellow's competition in the Travers was a diverse group. Of the seven horses in the race, only one, Equus Equity Stable's Slew o' Gold, had ever won a race in New York. Hyperborean was shipped in from California after winning the 1¼ mile Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park; Timeless Native's best races had been at Louisiana Downs and Ak-Sar-Ben, near Omaha; Exile King had won in Florida and Arkansas; Deputed Testamony's shining moment had, of course, come in Maryland; Head of the House's two victories were accomplished in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As for Play Fellow, he had raced mostly in the Midwest, though he had also won in Florida.
When the gate popped open Hyperborean scooted to the lead, as expected, with Slew o' Gold close behind. Slew o' Gold kept dogging Hyperborean and the two pulled away from the other five, making it look as though the race was being contested in two divisions. After three-quarters of a mile, Play Fellow was in fifth place, more than seven lengths off the battling leaders. But Play Fellow likes deep tracks, and at the top of the stretch he accelerated to cut the leaders' margin. Said Day afterward, "When I saw Angel Cordero [Slew o' Gold's jockey] go to work with his whip, I thought I would win unless something was moving very fast behind me." Nothing was. Slew o' Gold held on for second, with Hyperborean third.
Play Fellow is owned in partnership by trainer Harvey Vanier, his wife, Nancy, Dr. Carl Lauer, a St. Louis ophthalmologist, and Robert Victor, a retired St. Louis banker. Two years ago the partners paid a bargain-basement price of $29,000 for the colt, then named By Ear Dear. Because of his immaturity. Play Fellow didn't start racing until late October. His win in the Blue Grass earned him enough money to get him into the Kentucky Derby, but the Keene-land race had taken its toll.
After the disappointments in the Derby and the Preakness, Vanier took the colt to Chicago's Arlington Park. "In June and July," Vanier says, "Play Fellow sprung up like a stalk of corn. He filled out and took his work seriously, although he never was a difficult horse." Jean Cruguet was his rider through the Preakness; then the partners switched to Day, one of racing's best-kept secrets.
Last New Year's Eve, Day was riding at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and had plans to welcome in 1983 at home with his wife and friends. He had enjoyed a brilliant year: 397 winners and purses totaling $4.7 million, most of it earned at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Arlington Park and the Fair Grounds. But it's the leading money-winner who gets the limelight, and Cordero was tops in '82, nearly $5 million ahead of Day. Only seventh on the money list, Day nevertheless was keen to finish the year as the rider with the most wins, and at the end of the Fair Grounds program on Dec. 31, Cordero and Day were tied at 397.
Rather than party at home, Day flew to Delta Downs, a three-quarter-mile track in Vinton, La., which has night racing. Day won two races—and the championship. Then he flew home and had his celebration.
This year Day is shooting for a second national riding title and already has more than 250 victories. At Churchill Downs so far this year, he has ridden 145 winners, breaking the track record of 57 for a single meeting. Lately he has been a traveling man and has excelled in major stakes. On Aug. 7 he won the $105,650 Suffolk Downs Sprint Handicap in Boston aboard a longshot filly called All Sold Out, and he has had three stakes winners in just eight races at Saratoga.
Did Play Fellow's victory in the Travers at last make some sense of this bewildering 3-year-old season? Maybe so, maybe not. Taking it from the top. Roving Boy, the West's top 2-year-old, was injured and never started at three. Cope-Ian, the East's top youngster, couldn't get 1¼ miles in a van. Croeso lit up the Miami skies as the 85-1 winner of the Florida Derby but has not raced since. Marfa fired for a while, then fell back; Current Hope took the Flamingo, but caused rain everywhere he went and couldn't stand the goo. Sunny's Halo won the Kentucky Derby and then was hit with a variety of infirmities. After winning the Preakness, Deputed Testamony finished sixth in the Belmont and fourth in the Travers. Caveat won the Belmont, but injured his leg and hasn't raced since.
Thus, for the second straight year, the three major 3-year-old races were won by different horses. But Play Fellow has met Sunny's Halo three times and beaten him twice, while Sunny's Halo has beaten Caveat in their two races. So, add it all up and Play Fellow comes out the 3-year-old leader. Only the $500,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs on Sept. 17 remains as a major race for 1983.
Play Fellow will be there. Meantime, all who saw the Travers can savor the memory of a brilliant day—and Day.