Alpha, Golden Ticket hit the wire together in Travers
Alpha, Golden Ticket hit the wire together in Travers
The conclusion of Saturday's Grade 1, $1 million Travers Stakes was so tight that a photo was needed to determine the winner, and it turned out that Alpha and Golden Ticket had reached the finish line together, resulting in the first dead-heat victory in the 143-year history of the "Midsummer Derby."
Godolphin Stable's Alpha, the 2-1 favorite, determinedly caught up to Golden Ticket in the final strides, completing the Jim Dandy (the Grade 2 local prep on July 28)-Travers sweep at Saratoga, just like his sire Bernardini did in 2006. And it's becoming a family tradition. The Kiaran McLaughlin trainee is from the second crop of Bernardini, whose son Stay Thirsty captured both the Jim Dandy and Travers last year.
Magic City Thoroughbred Partners' Golden Ticket, the 33-1 ninth choice among 11 rivals, was making his first start since a runner-up in an allowance/optional claiming event at Churchill Downs 112 days ago. The Kenny McPeek-trained son of Speightstown rallied for second in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby earlier this season, but the colt's only previous win came in an off-the-turf maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park in February, his sixth career outing.
Ramon Dominguez rode Alpha and David Cohen was up on Golden Ticket.
"At the wire, it was too close to call. I said, 'We'll take a dead-heat.' It was a great race," McLaughlin said. "We thought he would run great, and he did. Kenny's horse ran very well also.
"It's a dead-heat, but it goes in the 'W' column. It doesn't happen very often in a Grade 1, $1 million race, but we're all happy it happened today for two guys (McLaughlin and McPeek) from Lexington, Kentucky. We're happy to win a Grade 1 with this horse."
"I thought we were beat at first, then I thought we won," McPeek stated. "I couldn't tell. I'm thrilled we finished in a dead heat. It couldn't work out better for the two of us. Kiaran is a great guy. We all work our tail off."
The three-year-olds each pocketed $400,000 for the win. Alpha improved his record to 9-5-2-0, $1,260,000; Golden Ticket's ledger now reads 10-2-4-1, $536,035.
Both runners were forwardly placed during the early stages, just behind pacesetter Speightscity, who established fractions in :23 2/5, :48 and 1:12 3/5, and Stealcase, who was tracking the front runner in second. Alpha, who was never more than two lengths back, raced several paths off the rail in third during the opening three-quarters of a mile, and Golden Ticket was also in striking range, hugging the inside in fourth after breaking from post 3.
Alpha made his move on the outside approaching the conclusion of the far turn, but Golden Ticket cut the corner turning for home and surged to the lead in upper stretch, passing the mile mark in 1:37 1/5 with a head advantage over Alpha. The longshot spurted clear in midstretch, passing the eighth-pole with a one-length lead, and momentarily appeared home free. But Alpha wasn't done and closed gamely in deep stretch to erase the deficit.
The final time for the 1 1/4-mile test was 2:01 3/5.
"At the sixteenth pole, I thought we were second-best," McLaughlin said. "I didn't think we were going to get there. Then, at the last lunge or two, I thought we got there. The photo indicated a tie, and I said, 'We'll take it.'"
"It would have been a heartbreaker for either one of us to lose," McPeek added. "(Our horse) had been training unbelievable. We had been training him for the mile and a quarter distance. David (Cohen) nailed it. He cut him loose to the tee. He couldn't have done a better job."
Alpha returned mutuels of $4.10, $5.10 and $3.90, and Golden Ticket paid $26.80, $26.40 and $11.80 to his supporters.
"I was, throughout the whole race, three wide," Dominguez said of his trip aboard Alpha. "Given that the other two horses were dueling for the lead, I really didn't want to take my chances tucking behind them...I always kept in mind the most likely two horses who would be coming to get me (Neck 'n Neck and Nonios) would be coming on the outside. So I kept my options open, keeping him on the outside.
"David rode a great race and got through on the rail. I really think that made a difference for him to become a winner. But either way, I'm very proud of my horse. Inside the sixteenth pole, it looked like (Alpha) had probably lost because (Golden Ticket) had some separation, and he just kept coming. I'm very, very happy."
"The horse ran great," Cohen explained. "We had two options; (take the lead) if they gave it to us, or try to sit back and find the pocket. If the rail came available great, or if we had to come out, just try to save our run until the very end. On the gallop-out, Ramon and I spoke to each other and neither one of us knew if we won. Words can't explain how this feels (to win the Travers). Ramon and I took the dead-heat in a great victory."
Fast Falcon, a 32-1 outsider, trailed through the early stages and was still 10th with a quarter-mile remaining, but he rallied boldly for third, only a neck behind Alpha and Golden Ticket. It was another length back to the late-running Atigun, who wound up 2 1/2 lengths better than Nonios in fifth. Neck 'n Neck, Stealcase, Speightscity, Liaison, Five Sixteen and Street Life, who was vanned off the track due to a suspected injury to his left front leg, completed the order of finish.
"That wasn't bad," trainer Nick Zito said of the third-place finisher. "I think if we don't have the (far outside) post, he's right there."
"All of a sudden by the three-eighths pole (Street Life) just stopped in front of me when I thought he was going to start to kick up," said Junior Alvarado, rider of Fast Falcon. "So, I had to move up, check a little bit and move outside. He started to pick it up again, but I'm sure that's what cost me the race."
A debut winner by six lengths at Saratoga last September, Alpha was subsequently second in the Grade 1 Champagne, but was fractious in the gate before the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and finished 11th of 13. The bay colt opened his sophomore season with easy wins in the Count Fleet and Grade 3 Withers during the Aqueduct inner dirt meet, and just missed by a neck to Gemologist after early trouble in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial on April 7.
He was never a factor at any point when finishing 12th in the Kentucky Derby next out, but Alpha rebounded nicely in the Jim Dandy, leading wire to wire over the sloppy track for a two-length decision.
Bred in Kentucky by Sheikh Mohammed's Darley operation, Alpha was produced by the stakes-winning Nijinsky II mare Munnaya. She's also the dam of stakes winner Mystic Melody, multiple Grade 2-placed Lavender Sky, and the stakes-placed Numaany and Yaya.
Alpha's second dam was Group 3 winner Hiaam, and his third dam was Canadian champion and Broodmare of the Year Kamar. She produced Canadian champion Key to the Moon and Grade 1 winners Gorgeous and Seaside Attraction. Kamar's other descendants include U.S. champions Fantastic Light and Golden Attraction, French highweight Desert Lord, and Grade 1 winners Swift Temper, Cape Town and Flashing.
Golden Ticket was making only his third stakes attempt Saturday, finishing fifth in the Grade 3 Lexington at Keeneland two starts previously, and the dark bay was a surprise addition to the Travers field when entries were drawn earlier in the week. McPeek said they tried to run him in a couple of other spots instead, but the scheduled races did not draw enough entries.
"I called (co-owner) Carter Stewart. We were kind of frustrated, going back and forth," McPeek said of the decision to run in the Travers. "They had booked a plane to come out for the allowance race (earlier in the meet) and thought they'd just kind of have a fun weekend, nothing like this though! But the allowance doesn't go, so we thought we'll nominate him to the Bernardini (an overnight stakes race in the condition book). We put him in the Bernardini, and the Bernardini doesn't fill. So I called Carter up and said 'We've got a problem here, we've got to make a decision and...call an audible.'
"So I said 'Here's our options: We could run in the Travers, which is a huge step up for this horse, but he's doing fantastic, or we could wait until September 2 and run him in an allowance race, and I feel real confident he'll win, but I'm worried that race won't fill either.' Carter came back and he said 'Well, with me, if you're going to call an audible, when we play we always throw deep. Throw deep!' So I said, 'Well, that's what I need to hear,' because that's the way I felt about it, too. I was all game to pull the trigger, but I needed his confidence and support. It was fate, it all came together. It's really interesting how these things unfold.
"I've never been shy to take a shot with one. A lot of trainers are high-percentage trainers. I tend to probably pull the trigger and see how good a horse is. Throw it out there and see if they can get it done. That's when these type of things happen. You can't be scared. If you worry about your percentages and your ego, you're not going to do well in this game, anyway, because it's so humbling, but it's nice to knock one down every now and then. It makes up for the ones you get beat in."
Bred in Kentucky by WinStar Farm, Golden Ticket was purchased for $100,000 at last year's Keeneland April two-year-old in training sale and is out of the Deputy Minister mare Business Plan, a daughter of Grade 3 winner Good Mood and a half-sister to stakes winner Grand Royale.
Others from the immediate female family of Business Plan include Grade 1 heroine Well Chosen; Grade 2 winners Academy Award and Magical Feeling; Grade 3 scorer and 2006 Wood Memorial runner-up In Contention; multiple Grade 3 victor Multiple Choice; and Irish highweight Tomahawk.
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