A race lacking starpower nevertheless delivered excitement at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 25, as longshot Golden Ticket and 2-1 favorite Alpha made history with the first dead heat in the modern history of the 143-year-old Travers Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO).
In 1874 there was a dead heat in the Travers, then run at 1 3/4 miles, between Attila and Acrobat—but the two had a run-off and Attila was awarded the official victory. One hundred and thirty eight years later, the principals of Godolphin Racing and Magic City Thoroughbreds were content to share the purse and trophy earned by their 3-year-old runners in the $1 million race. The pair provided quite a show in spite of failing to clear up their murky division for the second half of the season.
"It's a dead-heat, but it goes in the 'W' column," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said of Alpha's tie with the Ken McPeek-trained Golden Ticket. "It doesn't happen very often in a grade I, $1 million race, but we're all happy it happened today for two guys from Lexington, Kentucky. We're happy to win a grade I with this horse."
It was the first Travers since 2005 in which a winner of a Triple Crown classic did not participate, with I'll Have Another and Union Rags both retired. Even Haskell Invitational (gr. I) winner Paynter missed the race due to a fever.
Still, 46,528 racing fans in attendance witnessed thrilling history when Jim Dandy (gr. II) winner Alpha ranged up four-wide to take the lead and 33-1 shot Golden Ticket snuck through along the rail.
Alpha, having followed pacesetter Speightscity with an outside trip three wide in third behind early fractions of :23.51 and :48.06, looked ready to follow in the footsteps of his sire, 2006 Jim Dandy and Travers winner Bernardini . The Godolphin Racing runner made a bid on the far turn after three-quarters in 1:12.62 under Ramon Dominguez, but Golden Ticket, a maiden winner who last ran second in a Churchill Downs allowance event, was gaining momentum under jockey David Cohen after tracking along in fourth.
"I was three wide throughout the whole race," Dominguez remarked. "Given that the other two horses were dueling for the lead, I really didn't want to take my chances tucking behind them... I kept my options open, keeping him on the outside. David rode a great race and got through on the rail. I really think that made a difference for him to become a winner."
Golden Ticket obtained the lead while cutting the corner into the stretch, poised to spring a huge upset in the field of 11 sophomores.
"The horse ran great. We had two options; take the lead if they gave it to us, or try to sit back and find the pocket," Cohen said. "If the rail came available, great, or if we had to come out, just try to save our run until the very end. Wins like that you're not even looking at the wire; you're just trying to stay focused and keep riding hard."
Following a mile in 1:37.25, Golden Ticket rolled along to a one-length advantage mid-stretch with Alpha and Dominguez needing every inch of 1 1/4 miles to fight back. The game Godolphin runner did so, drawing even with Golden Ticket just in time. The inseparable runners flashed beneath the wire in a final time of 2:02.74.
"I thought we were beat at first, then I thought we won," McPeek remarked. "I couldn't tell. I'm thrilled we finished in a dead heat. It couldn't work out better for the two of us. Kiaran is a great guy. We all work our tail off. It would have been a heartbreaker for either one of us to lose."
Golden Ticket returned $26.80, $26.40, and $11.80 to win; Alpha paid $4.10, $5.10, and $3.90 for the same. A strong-closing Fast Falcon finished just a neck behind the first two under Junior Alvarado and brought $13.60 to show.
Atigun, Nonios, Neck 'n Neck, Stealcase, Speightscity, Liaison , Five Sixteen, and Street Life completed the order of finish. Street Life was vanned off after being pulled up shortly past the wire by jockey Jose Lezcano with a soft tissue injury to his left front pastern. The injury was not initially considered life-threatening.
It was the first Travers win for both Cohen and Dominguez, who hoisted the trophy together in a crowded winner's circle.
Alpha was bred in Kentucky by Darley out of the Nijinsky II mare Munnaya. A $400,000 share of the purse boosted his career earnings to $1,260,000 with a 5-2-0 record from nine starts. Other victories include the Count Fleet Stakes and Withers Stakes (gr. III), with both runner-up finishes coming in grade I company in the 2011 Champagne Stakes (gr. I), won by Union Rags, and the 2012 Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial (gr. I), won by Gemologist .
Golden Ticket is a son of Speightstown bred in Kentucky by WinStar Farm out of the Deputy Minister mare Business Plan. He was purchased by Magic City Thoroughbred Partners, including Carter Stewart, Ken Schlenker, and Dan Fuchs, for $100,000 from Keeneland's 2011 April sale of 2-year-olds in training, and took six starts to break his maiden, finally getting the job done Feb. 11 at Gulfstream Park. The $400,000 earnings improved his lifetime total to $536,035 and a 2-4-1 record from 10 starts; he was second to Prospective in the 2012 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) and finished fifth this year in the Coolmore Lexington (gr. III) before making his Churchill allowance bid.
The question of who leads the 3-year-old division may not have been decided by the Travers, but after the race McLaughlin was in search of another answer as he looked out to the infield pond, where the traditional canoe floated bearing the colors of last year's Travers' winner, Repole Stables' Stay Thirsty .
"I'm wondering who gets the canoe, how they're going to paint the canoe," the trainer said with a grin. "That's very important at this time."