Todd Pletcher’s spine was ramrod straight.
A maelstrom of Travers-goers swirled in ever-shifting directions around him, but the trainer’s path from winner’s circle back to paddock never deviated or hesitated.
With eyes forward, the only moving part, other than his parade-drill feet, was his index finger, briefly wagging at a reporter’s microphone to signal that this wasn’t time for talk.
Uncle Mo had just lost in excruciating fashion, but Stay Thirsty was waiting.
And it was time for Stay Thirsty and jockey Javier Castellano to act.
The son of 2006 Travers winner Bernardini coolly handled a rocky first turn, settled behind the speedy Preakness winner, burst away from a second wave of challengers and was able to maintain beautiful, clean action inside the sixteenth pole to win the 142nd Travers by 11⁄4 lengths at Saratoga Race Course.
Now, Stay Thirsty can see some daylight toward a possible 3-year-old championship, which his sire, also ridden by Castellano, achieved.
“It’s a roller-coaster game, it’s a bipolar game,” owner Mike Repole said. “What we just saw in the last half-hour for Todd Pletcher and Mike Repole, the low, the highest high, all within 30 minutes. It’s a tough loss with Uncle Mo, and probably the best win of my life here with the Travers.”
The large orange-highlighted Repole entourage, sitting in front-row boxes just inside the finish line, exploded in hugs and high-fives as Stay Thirsty comfortably held off Rattlesnake Bridge at the wire before a crowd of 43,050.
Not long after, the flamboyant Repole simply leaned an arm on Pletcher’s steady shoulder as they talked to the media in the crowded winner’s circle, Pletcher’s words brimming with pride, Repole’s raspy with relief.
“The first turn was a little more complicated than we expected,” Pletcher said. “He broke really well, and we thought Shackleford might take a little more initiative than he did, and we kind of got jammed up in between horses. Finally, Javier got him back off the pace to where we wanted, stalking Shackleford, and as soon as we did that another wave of horses came. I thought it was a huge effort, considering he ran every step of the one and a quarter miles.”
Stay Thirsty improved to 3-1-0 from four starts at Saratoga, gave Pletcher his second Travers win (Flower Alley, 2005) and handed Castellano his third Travers win in the last six years.
He won on Afleet Express last year and is just the fifth jockey to win back-to-back Travers since the race was first run in 1864.
“He’s like his father,” Castellano said. “I am very lucky to be able to ride his son. I won the Jim Dandy with both the father and son, and now the Travers, too. He’s huge for me and my career.”
Uncle Mo’s loss by a nose in the final stride to Caleb’s Posse in the King’s Bishop denied Pletcher a personal Grade I Pick 3, after Hilda’s Passion, also ridden by Castellano, won the Ballerina prior to the King’s Bishop.
It wasn’t difficult to tell that Pletcher took Uncle Mo’s tough, tough beat to heart, especially in light of the fact that the 2010 2-year-old champion had overcome so much adversity just to get back to the races, only to have a valiant effort go unrewarded.
But business in Pletcher’s operation never wastes precious time wallowing in self-pity or allows its brisk pace to be altered by even the most crushing losses.
Stay Thirsty, who, like his stablemate Uncle Mo, impressively broke his maiden at Saratoga last year, jumped into the 3-year-old picture with a close second to Ruler On Ice in the Belmont Stakes, then won the Grade II Jim Dandy by 51⁄4 lengths.
In the Travers, he faced the Belmont winner again, along with the two who finished ahead of Ruler On Ice in the Haskell, Coil and Shackleford.
Stay Thirsty and Coil jostled for favoritism on the toteboard, with Stay Thirsty eking it out at a tad under 5-2.
Like Coil did in winning the Haskell, he found himself in the back of the field early in the Travers, but never got involved in the race at any point this time and finished last under Martin Garcia.
“He took him back and the horse didn’t like that at all,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said. “I think he tried to ride him like he did in the Haskell, and he didn’t run. He didn’t run his race. He didn’t show up.”
The gritty Shackleford, one of three horses to have run in all three Triple Crown races this year, did his thing, but not for long.
He led the field through 23.45 for the quarter-mile, 47.63 for the half and 1:11.91 for six furlongs, then backed up and finished eighth.
“I guess we’ll go home and regroup,” trainer Dale Romans said. “A rough day. He wasn’t himself today in the race. Usually when somebody’s in front, he’ll at least be a little more aggressive than he was today. I don’t know.”
The Belmont winner, Ruler On Ice, also was in position to challenge early, but flattened out on the grandstand turn and finished fourth, four lengths behind Stay Thirsty.
“I thought I was having the dream trip, but then at the half-mile pole, when they quickened, it kind of left him a little flat-footed,” jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. said.
Mechanicville native Chad Brown saddled his first Travers starter, the Ontario-bred Bowman’s Causeway, but he was never a factor and finished seventh.
Pletcher said that Stay Thirsty will likely head to the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park to face older horses and prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Finally, the bay colt has stepped out of the shadow of his more heralded stablemate.
“He showed he’s the best 3-year-old in the country, and I’m so happy with the way he did it,” Castellano said. “He’s a late-developing horse. He’s a more mature horse.”
“At the eighth pole, I could see he was finding more, and I could see Rattlesnake Bridge revving up,” Pletcher said. “I wasn’t counting on anything until they got to the wire, but I felt pretty good at the sixteenth pole. He was in between horses under pressure the whole way, and he just kept finding more. To me, this was a really, really courageous effort.”
“Stay Thirsty separates himself from every 3-year-old by far right now,” Repole said.