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Sunday, August 26, 2012
2 for the price of 1 in the Travers

By Bob Ehalt

If there was any doubt this year’s group of 3-year-old colts know how to stage a heart-pounding race, it melted away during the several minutes it took to determine the $1 million Travers Stakes had resulted in a dead heat.

After a Triple Crown series that featured three finishes with margins nearly identical to the famed Affirmed and Alydar battles, a Mid-Summer Derby that lacked a star going into it produced a one of a kind outcome that left two horses as the proud owners of a victory in the Travers.

At the end of a mile-and-a-quarter jaunt around Saratoga Race Course, the noses of longshot Golden Ticket and favored Alpha were absolutely inseparable.

It was Golden Ticket, a 33-1 shot, who had a clear lead at the eighth pole, but Alpha, the 2-1 betting favorite, would not relent and nibbled away at the lead until it disappeared in the final stride.

Outside of them, Fast Falcon, a 32-1 outsider, was closing quickest of all, creating a wild and dramatic three-horse scramble to the wire in the final yards from which two of them emerged victorious.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been a dead heat in the Travers,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Alpha, “but if they were worried about it not being exciting, they got their money’s worth. It was a very exciting.”

It was in at least one sense the first dead-heat in the illustrious history of a 143-year-old classic. The 1874 edition was declared a dead-heat (before a second race was run to break the tie) but that was long before the introduction of photo finish cameras. Races can now be won by a half-inch and there wasn’t even that sliver between Alpha ($4.10) and Golden Ticket ($26.80), that raising a bunch of quirky questions. Would there be a second canoe in the infield painted in the silks of the owner of the Travers? What about all those little statues of jockeys painted in the winner’s silks? Would twin brothers be needed to accurately represented what happened on the racetrack

“I’m wondering who gets the canoe,” McLaughlin said. “How are they going paint the canoe? That’s very important at this time.”

Perhaps, though a more pressing matter might involve what Saturday’s thriller really says about a 3-year-old division in flux. I’ll Have Another, Union Rags, Bodemeister and last year’s 2-year-old champ Hansen have been retired. Paynter, the pro-tem leader off a decisive win in the Haskell, is sidelined.

Alpha, owned by Godolphin Racing, did his best to plug the leadership void, adding the Travers to a win last month in the Jim Dandy. Whipped in the Kentucky Derby, he lost by a neck before that in the Wood Memorial and has credentials within the division that only Paynter can match.

And yet, in perhaps the best sign of how competitive the 3-year-olds are, Alpha had to run the race of his young lifetime to finish on even terms with a 33-1 shot. A horse who, according to trainer Ken McPeek, might have run in an allowance race or the ungraded Bernardini Stakes, instead of the Travers, if either race had attracted enough horses. A horse who had not run since May 5, and whose best effort to date had been a runner-up finish to someone named Prospective in the Tampa Bay Derby.

A neck behind them came the upstart Fast Falcon, who had been second to Teeth of the Dog in a pair stakes and has won nothing beyond a maiden race.

It’s unlikely that there’s a champion in the group -- much less a future Hall of Famer -- yet they continue to entertain like Oscar winners. They staged a race that exceeded even the legendary Jaipur-Ridan epic from 1962. That race, 50 years ago, had only one winner. Saturday’s had two, a rather gratifying turn of events for Ramon Dominguez, who rode Alpha, and a crowd of 46,528 that witnessed the most fantastic of finishes.

“I think we both were afraid of asking the other what we thought,” Dominguez said about David Cohen, who was aboard Golden Ticket. “I, personally, was very uncertain. I’m looking at him, and hoping that he will look at me and say ‘Yeah, I think you won it.’ But that wasn’t the case. He kind of shook his head and said ‘I don’t know’ and I wasn’t sure either. When we came back to the [jockeys] room he said to me ‘When I heard the crowd I said ‘Wow, maybe they were cheering because I was riding the long shot and people were happy.’ And I was thinking ‘I’m sure a lot of people bet on my horse and maybe that’s why I hear the crowd cheering.’ At the end it was so close, I think we were both relieved that it was a dead heat.”

Forget cable network TNT. When it comes to drama, it’s a bunch of 3-year-olds who know how to deliver it like old pros.