A reader left a voice mail wondering about Travers participation of the Triple Crown winners, correctly pointing out that Whirlaway was the only one of the first 11 to have won it.
This was something I had planned to examine eventually, anyway, and there’s no time like the present.
It’s no big secret these days that good male horses with stud value tend to not race past their 4-year-old season, if that. That’s plainly obvious when comparing the racing career that American Pharoah will have compiled to that of the 11 Triple Crown winners who preceded him.
Our latest hero has run nine times, and has the Breeders’ Cup Classic circled on his calendar, but between now and then is anybody’s guess. At most, he’ll go to the stud farm with 12 career starts.
For a little perspective, our guy Whirlaway, who raced until he was 5, ran 20 times during his 3-year-old season alone in 1941, including four times between his Triple Crown-clinching victory in the Belmont Stakes and the Travers at Saratoga Race Course.
In fact, the Travers wasn’t even his first start at the Spa after the Belmont. He won the one-mile Saranac 10 days before the Travers, then beat just two horses on a muddy track in the Mid-Summer Derby. Imagine that.
American Pharoah has won eight straight since losing his career debut last August at Del Mar. That seems pretty spectacular, but consider this: Whirlaway finished in the money 56 times in 60 career starts, and 32 of those were victories.
Of course, one of those victories came in a thanks-but-no-thanks Pimlico Special in which no one chose to contest him and he won it in a walkover. I crack up every time I look at his past performance line for that race. There’s a “1” in the field size column and “Galloping” in the short comments.
Besides the Travers and Saranac, Whirlaway only raced at Saratoga as a 2-year-old in 1940, but had four starts that year, finishing second in two stakes named after hotels that don’t even exist anymore, and winning the Saratoga Special and Hopeful (thankfully, they’re still around).
Of the other Triple Crown winners, only Gallant Fox and Affirmed ran in the Travers, so if American Pharoah skips it, it won’t be unusual, even though racehorses kept much busier schedules back in the day.
Gallant Fox’s Travers loss in 1930 will forever be a part of Saratoga lore. He was beaten by 100-1 Jim Dandy, after which his trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons blamed the muddy ground that Jim Dandy clearly relished. Gallant Fox came back to win the Saratoga Cup and raced twice more before being retired to stud, a precursor to common practice today.
Affirmed, of course, finished first in the 1978 Travers, but was disqualified and placed second to his arch-rival Alydar, who happens to have today’s feature stakes named after him.
Count Fleet won the Triple Crown in 1943, but never had the chance to run in the Travers because of an ankle injury he suffered at the start of the Belmont. In fact, that was the last race of his career.
Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, missed the Travers after his trainer, Lucien Laurin, announced the Monday before the race that the colt had a 101 temperature.
He did race six more times, including losses to Onion in the Whitney at Saratoga and to Prove Out in the Woodward at Belmont, but he was retired after his 3-year-old season.
Seattle Slew’s connections had the strongest aversion to Saratoga of all the Triple Crown winners. His Belmont win kept him undefeated, but he lost by 16 lengths to J.O. Tobin in the Swaps at Hollywood Park next time out, and that was it for his 3-year-old season. He came back at 4 to race six times, including the only Saratoga start of his career, a six-length win over four horses in an allowance race.
Actually, I take that back, about the Seattle Slew aversion to Saratoga. Assault, the 1946 Triple Crown winner, never raced at Saratoga in 42 career starts. The track wasn’t open during his 2-year-old season in 1945 because of World War II, but King Ranch never raced him here, even in 27 starts after Assault had won the Triple Crown.
Also, Citation (1948 Triple Crown) never ran once at Saratoga despite 45 career starts.
War Admiral had four Saratoga starts, all during his 4-year-old season, and all victories. During his 3-year-old season in 1937, he was given a break after the Triple Crown and came back to the races in October, well after the Saratoga season had ended.
Maybe we’ll see American Pharoah in the Travers, and maybe we won’t.
If we don’t, like I said, it won’t be unusual, based on the history of Triple Crown winners and the Travers.
Thanks for coming, Gallant Fox, Whirlaway and Affirmed.