Last Friday night, on the eve of the 117th running of the Travers Stakes, as the rain blew in gusts against the windows of the Wishing Well restaurant near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., trainers Woody Stephens and Phil Gleaves were having dinner together, the master and his apprentice.
There were numerous horsemen and horseplayers sitting in the dining room, watching the downpour outside, and to all of them the rain meant one thing: Ogygian, perhaps the most sensational 3-year-old colt to grace the American turf since Spectacular Bid in 1979, would certainly be scratched from the field. Mud running is not Ogygian's game, and his absence from the Travers signaled that the 1¼-mile race would be wide open. Any of four horses could win without raising eyebrows: Danzig Connection, Stephens's winner of the Belmont Stakes; Broad Brush, the battle-toughened winner of five stakes this year; Personal Flag, a game bay colt that had been beaten by Wise Times in the July 26 Haskell Handicap at Monmouth Park; and Wise Times himself, who had come through the Monmouth mud to win the Haskell for Gleaves.
Stephens and Gleaves have become very close over the past decade. Gleaves came from England 10 years ago, a 19-year-old lad from Liverpool out to make his fortune in America, and for 8 of those 10 years he worked and learned the racing business under Stephens, one of America's master horsemen. Stephens came to treat Gleaves as a kind of son, teaching him eveything he knew. "Above all, Woody taught me detail, attention to detail," Gleaves said. "He never missed a thing going on at his barn."
So there they were, the mentor, 72, and his protègè, 29, sharing a dinner table on the eve of a race in which they would be hot competitors. A writer approached and reminded Gleaves that the day before—when the sun was shining and it still appeared that Ogygian would run in the Travers—the young trainer had called Stephens's Danzig Connection "the horse to beat." Gleaves nodded, grinned and said, "That's right." Woody threw back his head and laughed, and in a quick aside whispered, "Phil's got a shot to win it, too."
August 24, 1986
A shot, indeed. On Saturday, in one of the rousingest, hair-raisingest finishes in the recent history of the Travers, Wise Times got up in the final bob of his head to catch Broad Brush at the wire, with Danzig Connection fading in the final yards to third. Following an inquiry, the New York stewards ruled that Broad Brush, under Angel Cordero, had drifted out in the last 100 yards, impeding Personal Flag; they placed Broad Brush fourth. That moved Danzig Connection into second, and gave Stephens his third second-place finish in the "Midsummer Derby," one of the few major New York stakes Woody has never won.
The finish was so tight that Gleaves, heading toward the winner's circle with the colt's owner, Russell Reineman, refused to go down the stairs to the circle until the results of the photo finish were flashed. "Did I win it?" said Gleaves.
Suddenly, magically, Wise Times's number, 4, lit up the board. The Travers was by far the biggest score in Gleaves's career, and he made two fists and yelled, "Yes! Yes!" Whirling, he faced Reineman and the two men embraced. "What a perfect ride!" Gleaves called to jockey Jerry Bailey, whose face and silks were caked with mud from the sloppy track.
A splendid ride it was. Gleaves had said before the race that all he needed was an honest pace to set it up for his stretch-running colt, and so his heart had sunk when the teletimer registered a moderate 48[2/5] seconds for the first half mile. But suddenly the front-runners, Moment of Hope leading on the rail and Danzig Connection half a length back, picked up the beat and raced through the third quarter in 23⅗ making the pace as fast as Wise Times needed it. Heading into the far turn, with Wise Times lying in fifth, Bailey began to ask for some gas. By the turn for home the colt was closing ground, but he looked hopelessly out of it as Danzig Connection snatched the lead.
It appeared that Stephens was about to win his first Travers. Then, in midstretch, Broad Brush grabbed the lead from the Danzig colt, and Cordero's mount looked a certain winner. But here came Bailey and Wise. Ever since he came to the racetrack, Wise Times had resisted changing leads, and, in fact, had run most of his races leading with his left foreleg. Ideally, a horse runs on his left lead around turns, then switches to his right on the straights.
"It's like walking through an airport with a suitcase," says Gleaves. "You've got to change hands or your one arm gets tired. We played with Wise Times all winter to get him to change leads and he never did. But at the 16th pole, this time, he changed from his left to right lead. When he changed leads, he surged."
Wise Times switched just in time, accelerating forward to nail Broad Brush at the wire. "That was the deciding factor," said Bailey. "Switching leads made the difference today."
At the bubbly party after the race, Reineman watched the rerun of the race on TV, saw that bobbing finish, and exclaimed, "Did we win it?" Everyone laughed. "This was the greatest thrill of my life," he added. And of Gleaves's.
It was no small thrill for Woody, either. He may have finished second, but Stephens is, after all, Gleaves's teacher. When the two met after the race for a glass of champagne, Woody was all smiles. "He was thrilled to bits," Gleaves said of the maestro. "His horse ran a big race. And he had the exacta."