Travers Race Report: Golden Warrior
Photo: Associated Press/Jim McKnight
Medaglia d'Oro, winning the Travers.
Published in the Aug. 31 issue of The Blood-Horse
The 133rd Travers Stakes (gr. I) was for warriors only. Run over 1 1/4 tough miles of sloppy, testing going, it forced the combatants to dig down deeper than usual and fight their way through the elements. And in the end, two warriors emerged from the rainy gray shroud that had enveloped Saratoga on Aug. 24.

There was Repent, his rich, dark coat and white blinkers soaked with mud, running his heart out off a 4 1/2-month layoff. With his neck outstretched and his legs still reaching for more ground, he was relentless in his pursuit of the victorious 3-5 favorite, Medaglia d'Oro. But the winner was equally as courageous, overcoming an early skirmish and having enough heart to hold off his determined foe by a hard-fought half-length.

Following the winner's circle presentation with owner Edmund A. Gann, Medaglia d'Oro's trainer, Bobby Frankel, walked over to where his colt had been posing for photographers and pointed down at the rubber paving. There, alongside the cakes of mud and droplets of water, was a blood stain somewhere between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball.

No one knows how it happened, but Medaglia d'Oro apparently had either struck himself with his back foot or broken open an abscess above the coronet band (just above the hoof), leaving a bloody trail over the soggy Saratoga surface.

Frankel and Repent's trainer, Kenny McPeek, could only shake their heads following the race. "How did that other horse run so good off that layoff?" Frankel asked.

"I thought I had him," a proud, but frustrated McPeek said, as he waited for his gallant horse to return. "I don't even accept running second well. So close...so far."

McPeek went over to Frankel to offer his congratulations. "Great job, Bobby," he said. "You, too, Kenny," Frankel replied. "Your horse ran wild."

With a margin of 7 1/2 lengths back to third-place finisher Nothing Flat in the nine-horse field, Medaglia d'Oro and Repent stamped themselves as leading contenders for the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). Medaglia d'Oro, with back-to-back victories in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) and Travers, combined with his gutsy second-place finish in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), is now in the race for 3-year-old Eclipse honors following Came Home's drubbing of War Emblem in the Aug. 25 Pacific Classic (gr. I).

Big races are nothing new to Frankel, who went into the Travers already having won 29 graded stakes in 2002, including 10 grade Is. But, being a native New Yorker, the magic of Saratoga he felt as a youth still captivates and motivates him, and one could tell the morning of the race he really wanted this one. The one thing he wasn't happy about was the weather forecast, as he flipped through the TV channels hoping for some encouraging news.

"There's the forecast, 80% chance of steady rain by noon," he said. He really didn't need the TV, as it had already begun raining steadily, with the temperatures beginning to drop.

"I'm OK; I got an excuse now in case he gets beat," Frankel said. "All I know is that I'm gonna send him out of there, and if they go head and head with him, shame on 'em. He went head and head in the Wood (Memorial, gr. I). He went head and head in the Belmont. So, what the heck, he'll go head and head again."

The Saratoga forecast seemed trivial to Frankel after he saw reports on TV of 70-mile-an-hour sandstorms in Iran. "They get you one way or another," he said in his typical black humor. "The world is coming to an end. Then they'll start all over again. Hey, we've had a good time."

Over at McPeek's barn, neither rain nor sandstorms in Iran could diminish the trainer's optimism. "Bring it on," he said, sitting in his office. "Wet or fast, I think we'd win anyway. He is really doing great. I think you can over-train and over-analyze a horse. He can either get the distance or he can't. He's got the foundation. Before I started working him, he galloped a mile and three-quarters every day, and he would have gone another mile if you asked him to.

"After his second work, in which he ran off at the five-eighths pole and they caught him in 1:004/5, I said to my help, 'I know you'll all think I'm nuts, but I think he can win the Travers.' Then we put a stiff five-furlong work in him from the gate and he goes in :59, out in 1:11 3/5, and takes off like a stealth bomber. I had told everyone after his first work I thought we could make the race if we all kept a positive attitude."

In addition to Medaglia d'Oro and Repent, the Travers drew the Nick Zito pair of Quest and Nothing Flat, Peter Pan (gr. II) runner-up Puzzlement from the Allen Jerkens barn, and Like a Hero, second to Came Home in the Swaps Stakes (gr. II) and third to War Emblem in the Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I).

At the start, Medaglia d'Oro broke cleanly, but Like a Hero came out a bit into Repent, who in turn brushed Medaglia d'Oro from behind. Jerry Bailey could feel the bump, and assumed that's where the injury happened. The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Shah Jehan went for the lead from the rail, with Medaglia d'Oro right alongside. When longshot Saint Marden was sent up to challenge from the outside, it made Medaglia d'Oro the meat in the sandwich going into the clubhouse turn and into the backstretch.

The opening fractions were testing, with a quarter in :23.14 and a half in :46.82. Saint Marden was the first to retreat, as Bailey had a nice easy hold of Medaglia d'Oro, who was still tracking Shah Jehan. Quest then moved into the picture from the outside, but couldn't keep pace. Bailey turned Medaglia d'Oro loose at the half-mile pole and he began to edge clear of the pack. Passing the three-eighths pole, Repent and Puzzlement began moving in tandem, cutting into Medaglia d'Oro's lead.

But when the real running began turning for home, everyone was already out of the picture except Medaglia d'Oro and Repent. Bailey peeked back and saw Repent's yellow saddlecloth and he went to a right-hand whip. He looked back again, and the yellow saddlecloth was still there, so he kept after his colt with steady right-hand whipping. Still, Repent would not go away. He had his head down and was striding out strongly with relentless determination. Medaglia d'Oro also was still going strong and showing no signs of weakening. Approaching the wire, Bailey finally put the whip away and hand-rode Medaglia d'Oro the rest of the way, as Repent inched closer, falling a half-length short. The final time was 2:02.53.

"It was an incredible performance in any event," Bailey said. "But finding out he had injured himself made it even more so. You have to give Medaglia d'Oro a lot of credit for running that quick early under pressure and still holding Repent off."

A relieved Frankel still couldn't believe Repent had run so well off that long a layoff and so few works. "It's over with and my nerves are a little more settled now," he said. "He withstood the early heat and never quit. This race had to sap Repent. I can't believe he ran so good. He's got to be a real good horse."

Continued...

(Chart, Equibase)

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