Trainer Mack Miller, a chronic pessimist, suddenly began to smile. His colt, Java Gold, had just kicked in at the turn for home in Sunday's 1¼-mile Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park. Quickly passing Polish Navy, Nostalgia's Star and Gulch, Java Gold steamed down the wet-fast track to win by 2¼ lengths. In the winner's circle, Miller's smile broadened. Gently he put an arm around the shoulder of Paul Mellon, the 80-year-old owner of Java Gold, and said, "He's the best, isn't he? He's just the best."
With a field of only five horses, the 15th running of the Marlboro Cup had shaped up as more or less a match race between 3-year-olds Java Gold, the 3-5 favorite, and Polish Navy, with Gulch, yet another 3-year-old, the third choice. A pair of older horses, Nostalgia's Star and Bordeaux Bob, went along to add a little seasoning. Alysheba, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who runs on Lasix, opted for the $1 million Super Derby on Sept. 27 at Louisiana Downs, where his drug of choice is allowed (it is not at New York tracks). Cryptoclearance, a top 3-year-old, bagged the Marlboro at the last minute to head for the Meadowlands in New Jersey and Saturday's $300,000 Pegasus, which he won over slight competition.
In the Marlboro Cup, Java was the high weight at 120 pounds—giving away three pounds to Polish Navy, Gulch and Bordeaux Bob and four to Nostalgia's Star. But was that really so much weight? "It is to me," said the 65-year-old Miller before the race, when he was very much in his pessimistic mode. "When I was a young man, I heard my father say weight is a great factor in a horse's life. And he was right. If you don't think it means anything, take a five-pound bag of sugar and walk around the block with it, and you'll find out something about weight. It does make a difference, especially in a race of this dimension."
Polish Navy, the speed, was expected to move right to the lead, and he did just that, with Nostalgia's Star hanging off his starboard flank in second. Up the backstretch, the field did a two-three split, with Java Gold leading the second contingent, five lengths back. But Polish Navy set a slow pace, running the first quarter in 24⅖ the half in 48[2/5] and the three quarters in 1:12[3/5]. "I was concerned because the fractions were so slow and the track was so fast," Miller said later. "I said to myself, and to my boss, 'I don't think we're going to do too good today.' "
September 27, 1987
But Java started to perk in the turn for home. When jockey Pat Day asked him to run, he responded, racing wide around the leaders and blazing the final quarter in 23⅕ to finish in a speedy 2:01. The surprising Nostalgia's Star came in second, Polish Navy third. "He ran when it counted," said Miller. "All good horses do that. He's the best 3-year-old I've ever had. And Pat rides so well. He's so cool."
"I rode him with as much confidence as a person can possibly have," said Day, who, as he had aboard Java Gold in the Travers, displayed admirable patience in waiting to make his move. "Java Gold really gets a thrill out of running by horses. He seems to relish that."
As a disappointed Shug McGaughey, Polish Navy's trainer, followed his horse back to the barn, he was asked what this did to the 3-year-old picture. "Java Gold is the champion," he said tersely.
Indeed, Java Gold's Marlboro victory made him the front-runner for the 3-year-old crown and perhaps for Horse of the Year honors as well. Not bad for a colt who didn't even make it to the Triple Crown. Just last spring, the 3-year-old title appeared to be the property of Alysheba. But Alysheba hasn't won since the Preakness. Bet Twice, who finished second in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, won the Belmont Stakes and the Haskell Invitational Handicap, beating Alysheba in both and seeming to establish his preeminence. But Bet Twice faltered, and he and other 3-year-olds from this year's superior class kept knocking one another off. Gulch won the Wood and the Metropolitan Handicap, then was beaten by Java Gold in the Whitney. Cryptoclearance won the Florida Derby but lost the Triple Crown races and fell to Polish Navy in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga.
Then came the Travers on Aug. 22. All of them were there: Alysheba, Bet Twice, Gulch, Cryptoclearance, Polish Navy, Temperate Sil and the late-starting Java Gold, who had missed the Triple Crown races because of Miller's belief that all three races, coming so early in the year, are too much for a 3-year-old and because of a virus that kept him out of the Belmont. The Saratoga showdown was supposed to bring everything into focus. But then it rained. And rained. And rained. So when Java Gold ran an impressive race, coming from more than 15 lengths back to win, he was declared a great mudder, nothing more. The 3-year-old picture remained as muddied as the Saratoga track. Nor were things cleared up when, two weeks later, Polish Navy sank a bunch of his contemporaries, including Gulch, Cryptoclearance and Bet Twice, in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont, the first leg of the fall series.
Ultimately, Java Gold's chances for the 3-year-old title and Horse of the Year will depend on how he does in the 1½-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on Oct. 10. After that, there's only one major event left on the calendar—the Breeders' Cup on Nov. 21 at Hollywood Park. Java Gold may skip that dance, which could turn out to be a very smart move. Trainers on the Belmont backstretch were grumbling about the late date for this year's Breeders' Cup. "From October 10th to the 21st of November, that's a long time for a horse to be idle," said Miller.
Other horsemen agreed. "It's an absolute joke," said McGaughey. "If it was up to me, I wouldn't want to participate." But it isn't up to him, and owner Ogden Phipps has said nothing about holding Polish Navy out of the Breeders' Cup. Gulch will likely be at Hollywood Park, too, even though trainer LeRoy Jolley said, "It's really too late. It was difficult enough to make it for November 1st [last year's Breeders' Cup date], and when you extend it another three weeks, that makes it very difficult."
What will happen if Java Gold wins the Jockey Club Gold Cup and skips the Breeders' Cup? Can he still win the year's top honors? "I think so," said Miller after his trip to the Belmont winner's circle. "Gosh, I don't see how anybody else could possibly win." And that was a pessimist speaking.