Though the saddling area at venerable Saratoga racetrack in upstate New York is shaded by tall, ancient elms, it was a sauna last Saturday afternoon when jockey Craig Perret arrived to ride Rhythm in the $1 million Travers Stakes. When Perret looked at the 3-year-old bay colt, he liked what he saw. "He was real calm and collected," Perret said. "I felt that either he was going to do it today, or else he wasn't the horse we wanted him to be."
Perret and trainer Shug McGaughey had been at their wits' end trying to figure out why Rhythm, last year's 2-year-old champion, had performed so erratically this year, winning only two of seven starts. It seemed every time they solved one problem, another would pop up. The fans at Saratoga thought so little of him, they made him only the 6-1 third choice in the whopping 13-horse field.
The favorite, at 8-5, was Go and Go, who had made a 23-hour trip from Ireland to see if he could add a win in the Travers to his Belmont Stakes victory. McGaughey and Perret weren't particularly concerned about the Irish colt, in part because the turns at Saratoga are tighter than those at Belmont Park. Nor were they worried about the 5-1 second choice, Thirty Six Red, who hadn't won a race since the Wood Memorial in April. They had a plan for Rhythm, what McGaughey called "a kind of final straw." As the trainer gave Perret a leg up, he said, "Take him back and be patient."
As it turned out, the coolest man at the sweltering track was the one sitting on Rhythm's back. Perret took McGaughey's instructions so literally that the colt was next to last as the field hit the half-mile pole in the 1¼-mile race. "I waited on him," said Perret, "and when I felt the time was right, I put him in the game."
From that point on, Rhythm ran just as big for Perret as Unbridled had when Perret won the Kentucky Derby on him last May. Coming off the far turn, Perret put Rhythm into overdrive, and the colt began moving past horses until, at the top of the stretch, Perret moved him to the center of the track, six horses wide, and took aim at the leaders. With less than a 16th of a mile to go, Rhythm swept past the poorly regarded Sir Richard Lewis and Shot Gun Scott, and drew off to a 3½-length victory in the decent time of 2:02[3/5].
In the winner's circle, McGaughey was as emotional—though for far different reasons—as he had been last year when he won the Travers with the highly touted Easy Goer. "I'm pretty excited, to tell you the truth," McGaughey said. "When Easy Goer won, it was more of a relief. If he had lost, it would have been kind of like a national tragedy. This race was just a matter of putting the bridle on [Rhythm] and seeing what happened."
As a result of his Travers win, the 3-year-old picture now has Rhythm in it, even if it still doesn't have much rhyme or reason. You want confusion? Unbridled won this year's Kentucky Derby, but was second in the Preakness. Summer Squall, second in the Derby, won the Preakness impressively but hasn't raced since. Go and Go dropped in from Ireland last June to win the Belmont, but was no factor in the Travers. And now here's Rhythm, who still must prove he has found a beat to which he can dance every tune.
The wild card in this 3-year-old mess is Housebuster, whose victory in the seven-furlong race that followed the Travers gave him his eighth win in nine starts this year. However, because he has not run farther than a mile, Eclipse Award voters will be loath to give him the 3-year-old honors. To win the crown, Housebuster must prove he can be stretched out to at least a mile and an eighth.
"Housebuster is a super horse," says Perret, who ought to know, because he rides him in addition to Rhythm and Unbridled. "I wouldn't be afraid to say that he belongs with the best 3-year olds—at his distance. We're going to see him go a mile and an eighth in the fall."
For Perret, riding Housebuster has been heavenly compared with riding Rhythm. Earlier in the year, he picked Rhythm over Unbridled for the Kentucky Derby prep races. But when Rhythm fell by the wayside, the victim of a breathing disorder that had to be surgically corrected, Perret was able to regain the mount on Unbridled, when jockey Pat Day chose to ride Summer Squall.
While Perret was riding to glory in Louisville, McGaughey was struggling through the worst period of his career as trainer for the Ogden Phipps family. First, all of the Phippses' top 3-year-olds suffered setbacks that kept them out of the Triple Crown. Then an injury forced Easy Goer to be retired to stud.
Even so, McGaughey never gave up on Rhythm. After the colt's breathing difficulties were corrected in March, Rhythm finished fifth in the Gotham at Aqueduct, then won two races in a row. But just when McGaughey thought he was on the right track with the colt, Rhythm finished second in the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont, after bearing out at the top of the stretch. McGaughey then decided to put blinkers on the colt for the Haskell at Monmouth, only to have him finish third after hustling into contention at the top of the stretch.
"After the Haskell, I figured that Rhythm was a galloping type of horse," said McGaughey. "The races we had won this year were ones in which he had seemed hopelessly beaten. So I decided that I wouldn't mind seeing him eight or 10 lengths out of it, then getting into contention himself instead of letting the jock do it for him."
When the horses broke from the gate on Saturday, Perret followed the plan and took Rhythm far off the pace. And when he turned him loose, the colt began a sustained drive that carried him inexorably to the lead. "He pretty much drove those horses into the ground, instead of making a sensational move," said McGaughey. Go and Go finished seventh, some nine lengths behind the winner and a nose ahead of Thirty Six Red.
After the races were over, Perret refused to compare Rhythm, Housebuster and Unbridled. He made it clear, however, that he had gotten a ton of satisfaction from Rhythm's performance. "It wasn't a question of whether he had the talent or not," Perret said. "We knew it was there. Today he just finally put it together."