Trainer Jimmy Jerkens felt Afleet Express was getting good at the right time. He just didn’t know if it would be good enough to beat the top 3-year-olds in the country.
As it turned out, the son of Afleet Alex was good enough by a few millimeters, as it took a photo to decide he was better than Fly Down in a thrilling edition of the $1 million Shadwell Travers Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO) Aug. 28 at Saratoga.
Afleet Express split horses approaching the final furlong while taking over with Javier Castellano aboard, then desperately held off a late charge by Fly Down to win the “Mid-summer Derby” by a nose. Covering 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.28 on the fast dirt, Afleet Express earned his first grade I win and gave the trainer his first win in the prestigious race.
“Yes this is it,'' said Jerkens when asked if this was the biggest win of his career. “It's at Saratoga, so it’s extra special.”
Gainesway Farm, which stands leading second-crop sire Afleet Alex at its Lexington nursery, owns the winner along with Martin Cherry. He was bred in Kentucky by McMillin Brothers and James Devaney.
The late-blooming Afleet Express was making his third start at two turns in the Travers after winning the June 19 Pegasus Stakes (gr. III) at Monmouth Park and finishing third in the Jim Dandy (gr. II) July 31 at the Spa.
Afleet Express raced mid-pack in the early stages of the contest while Miner's Reserve led and First Dude pressed the pace. Jim Dandy winner A Little Warm, 4-1 favorite Trappe Shot , Admiral Alex, and Friend Or Foe were also near the pace as Miner’s Reserve showed the way in splits of :23.42, :47.25, 1:11.39, and 1:36.65.
Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Super Saver raced near the back in the field of 11 and was never a factor while finishing 10th, and Derby runner-up Ice Box was last for six furlongs before winding up a non-threatening eighth.
Meanwhile, Miner’s Reserve, one of three starters for trainer Nick Zito, took a narrow lead into the lane with David Cohen aboard. But before they reached the eighth pole Afleet Express split the leader and First Dude, taking over with authority. The dark bay/brown colt put those two rivals away, but Fly Down, who entered the lane five-wide after being well back in the early stages, was coming hard under Jose Lezcano and drew even in upper stretch.
With Afleet Express racing on the inside, the two rivals dueled all the way to the wire. The photo showed the 7-1 sixth choice had won by the narrowest of margins. First Dude and Ramon Dominguez were another 6 3/4 lengths back in third.
"I thought I’d win the race by the eighth pole, but he hung a little bit in the last part of the race, and I give credit to the other horse for finishing very strong," said Castellano, who won the race in 2006 aboard Bernardini. " I’m very lucky to get the bob and win the race. That photo could have gone either way, and I’m very lucky it went my way.
“I had a beautiful trip. I was very aware of the speed holding earlier in the card. My horse comes from behind. I wanted to get into position on the first turn, and hopefully, there would be a speed duel and the horses would come back to me."
Afleet Express, who is out of the Distant View mare Expanse, won for the fourth time in seven starts. He made only one start as a juvenile, breaking his maiden in the mud at Aqueduct last December. After running twice without a win in allowance company this winter at Gulfstream Park, Afleet Express rolled to a nearly eight-length allowance score at Belmont May 23 going seven furlongs, setting him up for his first two-turn try.
"He probably learned something from his last race (Jim Dandy)," Jerkens said. “When that horse (Fly Down) crept up on him, I thought I saw him straighten out a little bit and give it another go. Win or lose, I was so happy with the way he ran.”
Zito, who trains Fly Down for Richard Pell, was obviously disappointed. Fly Down was the runner-up in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) June 5 one start after winning the Dwyer (gr. II).
"That’s another second," said Zito, who won the Travers in 2004 with Birdstone. "They’re all tough. I can’t explain it. Sometimes, like I say, you’ve got to be content. You’ve got to be grateful, but it’s tough. The Travers would have been great to win. I would have loved walking around with my owners and my staff. It would have been super. I’m glad my horse ran his race. He ran a great race."
The winner was bought by Two Brothers Stable for $245,000 at the 2008 Keeneland January horses of all ages sale. Gainesway, agent, was the consignor. He earned $600,000 for his Travers win and boosted his career total to $835,140.
Afleet Express paid $16, $7.80, and $4.90. The exacta (7-8) with 6-1 Fly Down returned $114.50 and the trifecta (7-8-4) was $970.
Afleet Again, sent off at 47-1, finished fourth, followed by A Little Warm, Friend Or Foe, Miner’s Reserve, Ice Box, Trappe Shot, Super Saver, and Admiral Alex.