Cast the scene in bronze: Two horses, battling side by side, necks stretched, ears pinned, their jockeys with whips raised high in the air. This was the moment caught in the flash of a photo finish in Saturday's 119th running of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, where both colts had run so powerfully that there was a moment when each rider, Chris McCarron on Forty Niner and Pat Day on Seeking the Gold, sensed victory was certain, that no one could beat him now.
Forty Niner reached the eighth pole two lengths in front. "He was flyin'! " McCarron said later. "I could feel him under me. It was like his feet were off the ground." The race was his, McCarron thought, all he had to do was stay aboard.
Day thought nothing could stop his mount from the 16th pole home, not even a horse as game as Forty Niner. Seeking the Gold had swung outside coming off the final turn and now he was cutting into Forty Niner's lead inside the eighth pole. McCarron didn't know he was there. Forty Niner was flying—blazing the last quarter mile of the 1¼-mile race in 23[2/5] seconds—but Seeking the Gold was galloping even faster. "I was running to him so fast," Day said afterward, "that I thought I was going to run right by him. We were hummin'! "
Lulled by how easy the race had been to that point, McCarron was paying no attention to what was going on behind him. As he was nearing the final 16th, Forty Niner seemed as if he were about to slow down, and McCarron reached back with his stick and slashed the colt righthanded. As he did, he glanced under his right arm and saw the head of Seeking the Gold next to him.
"I was shocked," McCarron said. As the margin closed to a neck, McCarron started beating on Forty Niner's left flank. The crowd of 45,504, the third largest in history for a Travers, was roaring, especially as a third horse, betting favorite Brian's Time, now drew close on the outside, threatening to make it a three-horse blanket finish.
This was precisely the race many had foreseen. In their last meeting, on July 30, Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold had gone nose and nose most of the way in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. That day the two were racing to determine the heir apparent to Risen Star, the top colt among the 3-year-olds, who had recently been retired because of a chronic leg injury after his sensational victories in the Preakness and the Belmont. At the end of a long, head-bobbing battle in the Haskell, Forty Niner had nipped Seeking the Gold by a nose, starting what has become the hottest rivalry in racing.
Nevertheless, the Travers was supposed to mark the rise of Brian's Time to the top of the 3-year-old division. While Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold were acknowledged to be two of the most gifted and consistent horses of their generation, their stamina was suspect. Both are sons of Mr. Prospector—at 18, one of America's preeminent stallions—a brilliantly fast racehorse in his day who has tended to infuse far more speed than stamina into his offspring. As a son of Roberto, a classic stayer, Brian's Time bears a pedigree that reads like a license to run on and on. On Aug. 7, his last start, he won Saratoga's nine-furlong Jim Dandy by 5½ lengths, and that performance suggested that he was ready to blow away these two middle-distance horses over 10 furlongs at the Spa.
But the problem for Brian's Time was a clear need for a lively pace to soften the leaders for his late kick. And neither Woody Stephens, the trainer of Forty Niner, nor Shug McGaughey, the trainer of Seeking the Gold, seemed at all disposed to make it so easy for Brian's Time. McGaughey said before the race, "Forty Niner and my colt won't be very far apart at any time. They're the logical speed horses, but no one will be in a hurry the first part of it. It will be a lazy pace."
McCarron and Day would ultimately make sure of that. For his part, McCarron was delighted simply to be in the Travers. Laffit Pincay, who was scheduled to ride the colt, had been injured in a riding accident on Aug. 1, and Stephens and Forty Niner's owner, Seth Hancock, asked McCarron to replace him. Arriving early in the paddock, he stood for a while in Forty Niner's saddling area and admired the horse. He had seen him finish second to Winning Colors in the Kentucky Derby, beaten by a neck, and had heard the stories of his gameness. The colt stood quietly, as if nearly asleep, his golden coat blown dry in the summer breeze.
"Try to settle him down, Woody," McCarron joked to Stephens. "He looks awful shook up."
Stephens laughed. "That's as shook up as he gets." the trainer said.
Late in the race, it was McCarron who was shaken. After a very slow early pace diminished the chances for Brian's Time, Seeking the Gold made his big move. But Forty Niner, as is his way, fought back. "I got to him, but couldn't get by him," Day said.
Forty Niner won by a nose, with Brian's Time three quarters of a length back in third. In the winner's circle, a jubilant McCarron looked over at Stephens, who has won more classics than any living trainer, and said, "I can't believe this is your first Travers win."
During his long career the 74-year-old Stephens has started six horses in America's oldest major stakes race, but this was his first victory. Moreover, Forty Niner's win propelled the colt into contention for the 3-year-old championship and. with an autumn of racing yet to come, into the Horse of the Year picture as well. "Forty Niner's as game as they come." Stephens said. "And you ain't seen the last of him yet."