Marylou Whitney Stable's Belmont-winning Birdstone gave trainer Nick Zito his first victory in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) Saturday at Saratoga Race Course, just moments before an intense rainstorm hit the track.
Birdstone staked his claim as the class of the 3-year-old Thoroughbred division with the victory two months after denying Smarty Jones the Triple Crown in the Belmont. There were 48,894 counted for the 2004 "Mid-Summer Derby."
Zito also saddled the runner-up, The Cliff's Edge, who rallied late to challenge Birdstone in the stretch but could not make up the winner's advantage. Under Edgar Prado, who won his fifth race on Saratoga's card, Birdstone pulled away to win by 2 1/2 lengths in 2:02 2/5 in the 1 1/4-mile test for 3-year-olds.
"Those two horses (Birdstone and runner-up The Cliff's Edge) were really great today," said Zito, who won his first Travers in 12 tries. "Birdstone proved how great he is, coming off the layoff. God did me a favor again. It had been raining until the race was on. It didn't matter, it was very fair. They ran slow up front, but we were still able to run them down."
A son of Grindstone
, Birdstone had taken quite a bit of criticism for being unworthy after winning the Belmont in a 36-1 surprise over Smarty Jones.
Saturday, the little colt sat next-to-last behind the slow pace established by Lion Heart, moved up three wide on the pacesetter and Purge on the far turn and soon took command in the lane.
"I was hoping the lights at the wire wouldn't spook him," Prado said. "That was the only thing I was thinking in the back of my head. My horse just kept going. I'm very happy for Nick. There was thunder in the sky and thunder in my horse."
The Cliff's Edge, the only horse behind Birdstone on the backstretch, rallied with interest in the stretch, but flattened out during the chase and was not overly pushed by Shane Sellers late. He finished 3 1/2 lengths clear of Eddington.
"The pace was slow, I was just trying to stay in contact with them," Sellers said. "Birdstone was just a better horse today."
The heaviest part of the storm held off just long enough for Birdstone, who ran dismally in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) on a sloppy track. Moments after the race, the deluge forced track officials to cancel the final race on the Saratoga card.
Just after crossing the finish line to the roars of the Saratoga crowd, the thunderstorm intensified and the horse cantered to the winner's circle with flashes of lightning and photographer's cameras lighting the way in torrential rain.
Eddington, who stayed close to the early leaders, turned in a one-paced effort to finish third for Richard Migliore.
Purge, Sir Shackleton, Suave and Lion Heart, the slight 5-2 choice, trailed.
Lion Heart started slowly for Joe Bravo and rushed to the front, where he set an easy pace over Purge in :24 2/5, :49, 1:12 4/5 and 1:37. He came under pressure from Purge and John Velazquez on the far turn and backed up quickly as Birdstone and the Cliff's Edge took command.
Bravo said Lion Heart, who won the Haskell (gr. I) in a commanding front-running performance earlier this month, inexplicably shortened stride after a mile.
"Too early, too early," said Lion Heart's trainer Patrick Biancone when asked for an explanation. "I don't know. He quit too early. I don't know what else until I see him."
Birdstone, making his first appearance since the Belmont June 5, won for the fifth time in eight starts. He earned $600,000 to push his winnings way over the $1 million mark to $1,575,600. Birdstone, who is out of the Storm Bird mare Dear Birdie, was one of the leading candidates for 3-year-old honors in 2004 after he won the Champagne (gr. I) last year. But he had failed to fulfill that potential, losing the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) by more than 15 lengths before waking up in the Belmont.
"When we brought him back to Saratoga after the Belmont, I noticed a change in him and I told (owners) John (Hendrickson) and Marylou (Whitney), `Let's forget about a prep race. Let's just go for the big one,'" Zito said "I had a feeling he would fire. He's got such a big heart, if he's going to fire, let him fire on the right day at the right time. And that's what he did.
"Yesterday, you saw Storm Flag Flying win in the Phipps' colors (grade I Personal Ensign Handicap). Today, you saw Marylou Whitney's colors flying again. It's the same thing. It's what Saratoga is all about. It's more than 100 years of great tradition. I'm so happy to be part of this."
Whitney, who apologized for spoiling Smarty Jones' Triple Crown, wasn't sorry this time.
"No apologies," Whitney said. "The problem with the Belmont was there were 130,000 people and they all wanted Smarty Jones to win. And, in actuality, we wanted Smarty Jones to win. We were thinking maybe we could come in second. We wanted a Triple Crown winner and I think Smarty Jones did a terrific job for racing. He made all of this country love and cheer for a horse. And then, when we beat him, it was sort of a love/hate thing.
"And I felt awful. But I don't feel awful now, I feel wonderful. And I know that it was right that he beat Smarty Jones. It was always right, but today it felt so good going through the tunnel. Those people standing in the rain, shaking hands with me. And I thought, `How different this was from the Belmont, where people were hissing me and some threw beer cans.' But of course, this is Saratoga, the place I love, and to win a great race here means more to me than anything in the world."
He paid $11.60, $5.70 and $4 as the fourth choice in the field. The Cliff's Edge returned $3.90 and $3. Eddington's show was $4.30. The exacta paid $46.40.