Trainer Jimmy Jerkens had the best horse in the $1.25 million Travers Stakes (gr. I)—but it wasn't the one everyone was betting on.
V. E. Day upset stablemate and Jim Dandy (gr. II) winner Wicked Strong by a nose in the 1 1/4-mile 'Midsummer Derby' Aug. 23 at Saratoga Race Course, charging late to surge ahead in the nick of time for his biggest career victory at odds of 19-1 (VIDEO).
"I wasn't absolutely sure it was V. E. Day because he had so much mud on him, until they got a little closer and I saw the silks and then I knew it was him," Jerkens remarked. "I said, 'Man, what a feeling. I know I'm going to win the Travers; I just don't know with who.'"
The last time a trainer ran 1-2 in the Travers was 2004, when Hall of Famer Nick Zito saddled Birdstone and runner-up The Cliff's Edge . Jerkens has now saddled three Travers starters in his career—2010 victor Afleet Express, V. E. Day, and Wicked Strong.
"It means an awful lot. It's unreal," Jerkens said. "I just feel bad for Wicked Strong; that's the only thing, he ran so hard. (But) I'll take it."
Tonalist, winner of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and runner-up to Wicked Strong in the July 27 Jim Dandy last time out, finished third in the field of 10 under jockey Joel Rosario. Tonalist applied pressure on front-running favorite Bayern along with Wicked Strong throughout.
"I tried to get my position early and he can run like that, so I was happy where I was," Rosario said. "He's the kind of horse that keeps on going. We were just third-best today. I thought he was fine where he was early, but he just didn't have it today in the end."
Coming off a speedy victory in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell Invitational (gr. I) after romping in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens (gr. II), 2-1 choice Bayern jumped quickly to the lead as expected to post strong early fractions of :23.74 and :47.31. Tonalist and Wicked Strong kept close pursuit, and those three opened up six lengths on the field through three-quarters in 1:11.27.
Meanwhile, V. E. Day was tracking seventh and then sixth along the rail, and was still sixth under jockey Javier Castellano as Wicked Strong took over the lead after reaching the quarter pole in 1:36.60. Shifted out approaching the sixteenth pole after closing much ground, V. E. Day set sights on Wicked Strong and jockey Rajiv Maragh and just got up in a late drive.
"That race unfolded just the way I wanted it to," Maragh said. "Bayern wasn't loose on the lead and when I saw Tonalist doing that work for me, I kind of backed off them and just tracked. Then midway in the turn, I thought I'm going to take over.
"It's a mile and a quarter, it's a steady kind of race, so I figured if I kind of got a jump on them, on Tonalist, then it'll be hard for them to re-rally. But then comes V. E. Day. It's just a tough beat. I just kept on riding (when I saw V. E. Day closing), it was just an unfortunate bob."
Final time was 2:02.93 on a fast track; all runners carried 126 pounds. A reported crowd of 46,557 attended the 145th edition of the Travers, down from 2013 when 47,597 gathered to watch eventual 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge take home the carnations. The New York Racing Association reported that handle for the 14-race card totaled $39,907,200, of which $10,850,894 was wagered on-track.
This was the first graded stakes score but fourth victory in a row for Magalen O. Bryant's son of English Channel , who became that stallion's first grade I winner. He took the July 25 Curlin Stakes at Saratoga in his Travers prep by a head following a July 2 allowance score on the inner turf at Belmont Park. That victory was secured after breaking his maiden going a mile in an off-the-turf event in the slop.
"The way I handicapped the race, a couple of horses had speed," Castellano said. "In the Curlin he came from way back. I learned a lot watching that race. I just took my time. I had a lot of patience, and it paid off today."
It was the fourth Travers win for Castellano, who piloted Stay Thirsty in 2011, Afleet Express in 2010, and Bernardini in 2006. Castellano also won the King's Bishop Stakes (gr. I) earlier on the card with The Big Beast.
Bayern faded to last after setting the pace to the final turn. He picked up eight pounds from his previous start, in which all runners carried 118.
"He broke well and was in a good position," Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said. "But when he turned for home, he was out of horse. The Haskell might have taken something out of him. I think you have to prep for the Travers in the Jim Dandy. But he's been so brilliant his last few outs, you had to take a shot. I was hoping they'd go in 48 and change. We were hoping to steal it, but the secret was out."
V. E. Day returned $41, $13.20, and $7.30 while Wicked Strong paid $4.40 and $3.10 at odds of 5-2. Tonalist, also 5-2, brought $3.40. Kid Cruz, Mr Speaker, Viva Majorca, Charge Now, Ulanbator, Commanding Curve, and Bayern completed the order of finish.
V. E. Day was bred in Kentucky by Bluegrass Hall out of the Deputy Minister mare California Sunset. Pinhooked by Bradley Thoroughbreds after paying $105,000 from the Denali Stud consignment at the 2012 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, he sold to Chester Stables for $135,000 when consigned by Eddie Woods at the 2013 Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s spring sale of 2-year-olds in training.
The Travers victory pushed the chestnut colt's career earnings to $829,010 with four wins and a second from six starts.