Early last Saturday afternoon, trainer Roger Laurin paid a last-minute call on Angel Cordero Jr. in the jockeys' quarters at Saratoga to discuss once again his strategy for handling Chiefs Crown in the Travers Stakes.
Much was riding on the race, and not only for Cordero and Laurin. The 20 syndicate members who had shelled out $500,000 a share last fall for a breeding right to Chiefs Crown, the 1984 2-year-old champion, had watched in dismay as he went winless in this year's Triple Crown races. Though he was the betting favorite in all three, the colt had run a luckless third in the Kentucky Derby, a desperate second in the Preakness, then a fading third in the Belmont Stakes. Two weeks earlier the Chief finally won a race, his first since April—the Tell Stakes at Saratoga. A few minutes later, however, he was disqualified for interference and placed fourth. Thus the Travers was a do-or-die situation for the colt and his syndicate.
For himself, Laurin was eager to see the Chief prove, despite his Triple Crown failures and his middle-distance pedigree, that he was more than a nine-furlong racehorse—that he could stay a full 10 furlongs when the heat was on. And Cordero? Well, although he has had one of the most illustrious careers in the history of race-riding, the 42-year-old jockey had yet to win the Travers Stakes, the most prestigious of summer races for 3-year-olds.
It was with this in mind that Laurin, having determined his strategy, visited Cordero on Saturday afternoon. "I want you to take the horse back, eight or so lengths off the pace," Laurin said.
Few trainers tell Cordero how to ride, and certainly not when he is aboard a colt as versatile and tractable as the Chief. So Cordero flinched. "It looked like "there was no speed in the race," Cordero said, "and I was thinking about going to the lead and stealing it."
That is, he was thinking about sending Chief's Crown to the front and getting him to relax, then daring anyone to make chase, particularly Stephan's Odyssey, the colt that 71-year-old trainer Woody Stephens would be saddling in search of his first Travers winner. Cordero's plan made sense: The Chief presses the pace, swallows any crow who insists upon pushing it, turns for home in front by two and gallops home. A laugher.
Outside of Stephan's Odyssey, Skip Trial and Turkoman—all legitimate stretch runners with a chance to win—only Don's Choice was capable of bleeding Chiefs Crown on the lead. As Cordero figured it, and rightly so, there really was no early pace.
Cordero told Laurin this, but Laurin only waved him away. "I know there's nobody with a lot of speed," Laurin told the rider, "but just get the first half mile in 49 [seconds] and I know there's no horse that can sprint with him the last quarter of a mile."
Cordero shrugged. And nodded. "I'd rather listen to Roger," Cordero, the ultimate pragmatist, said later. "If my horse gets beat and I follow orders, I always got a shot to ride him again. If I ride him my way and he doesn't win, I get fired." Clearly, after watching the Chief take the lead too early in both the Preakness and the Belmont, Laurin had opted to take no chances in the Travers. "Last year his best races were from off the pace," he said.
So Cordero rode him Roger's way. What the crowd of 45,067 wound up seeing, with Cordero following Laurin's orders to the letter—he got the half mile in exactly 49 seconds—was a curiously lethargic race devoid of the drama that one has come to expect of the Travers. Taking back off a slow early pace—one that would have gotten them beat had there been a genuine pacesetter—Cordero and Chief's Crown drew close to Turkoman and Skip Trial on the turn for home, bounded past those two and raced off to win by 2¼ lengths, with Turkoman second, three ahead of Skip Trial.
Turkoman likes to come from behind, but his rider, Darrel McHargue, had reluctantly taken the lead when all the others declined it, tiptoeing through the tulips in a 24[1/5]-second first quarter. Don's Choice, after breaking tardily from the gate, sleepwalked to the lead at the half mile in :48[1/5]. But the Choice never truly got his legs under him and appeared lost once he made the lead. Meanwhile, Cordero had Chief's Crown in a half nelson through the early going, trying to keep him in check.
Somehow Cordero got the colt to relax, and that was the key. By the final turn, Don's Choice had burped the bit, leaving Turkoman and Skip Trial out front, with Chief's Crown bearing down on both, full of himself. Racing off the turn, the two leaders moved over as if to wave the Chief on. He swallowed them through the top of the stretch and won as he pleased, covering the mile and a quarter in 2:01[1/5] and vindicating Laurin's strategy.
"I'm ecstatic," said Robert Clay, the breeder who had syndicated the colt last fall for Three Chimneys farm. "This reaffirms his original value. The horse has to be worth $25 to $30 million now."
"I'm glad to get it off my shoulders," said Cordero, who had been 0 for 13 for the Travers.
"I finally did something before Woody did," said the 49-year-old Laurin, after winning his first Travers.
More important, from the breeders' point of view, the Chief had finally done something right beyond nine furlongs. "It certainly was the most important race of his career because people had started to say, well, maybe he can't go a mile and a quarter," said Andrew Rosen, one of the Chiefs principal owners. "It was just a question of time before we notched one of the big ones."
There are even bigger ones to come, in New York's fall championship series leading up to the Nov. 2 Breeders' Cup at Aqueduct, and the Chief will be there racing to win honors as the nation's top 3-year-old. He may have some tough competition. Earlier on Saturday, Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck won the Monmouth Handicap at New Jersey's Monmouth Park, beating the 4-year-old Carr de Naskra—last year's Travers winner—by a short head in the track record time of 1:46[4/5]. It seems the Travers had launched the second half of the 3-year-old racing season. Perhaps the fun has just begun.