The penultimate week at Saratoga Race Course was nothing short of compelling. It was a much-needed week to get people’s minds off of mourning the loss of Bodemeister. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard such fervor over a twice-brilliant horse. The two times being his Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby performances.
I’m as guilty as anybody out there lamenting the loss of star power in horse racing, but would Bodemeister, I’ll Have Another or Union Rags run a faster time than Alpha and Golden Ticket in the Travers? I somehow doubt it; perhaps a fifth of a second in either direction. So what we saw was a classic horse race with Grade 1-talent. The fact that it was the first official dead-heat in the history of the Travers wasn’t what captivated my attention. No, I’m still scratching my noodle over Willy Beamin winning the King’s Bishop.
He won the ungraded $100,000 Albany Stakes at nine furlongs on Wednesday, as in three days before Travers Day. If a name like “Albany Stakes” doesn’t inspire, well, then what will? Trainer Rick Dutrow, no doubt sitting in his Darth Vadar holding cell, had the guts to wheel this guy back in a Grade 1 to capture the KB in a blanket finish. Heck, what does Dutrow have to lose?
“He barely had time to cool out and he comes back and wins the King’s Bishop!” piped Tom Durkin.
Dutrow famously breezed his champion Big Brown three furlongs the day of the Preakness Stakes and watched him gallop to a win. Then came the foregone conclusions. The kid gloves. And Karma with a capital K.
But back to the Travers and the greater narrative pulse of the event. The trainers of the two winners are Lexington, Ky boys and played midget football together growing up. Kiaran McLaughlin and Ken McPeek. As far as paths to reach a Grade 1-wire at the same time, McLaughlin had the Ivy League education of being Wayne Lukas’s assistant while McPeek went to community college.
“Kiaran’s path and my path are so different,” said McPeek. “He went to work with Lukas and had that experience and met so many people. I did it the hard way, at River Downs and Latonia, but I learned my lessons. It’s great to reach the mountain after having been down so low. I was living in a $50-a-week bungalow I split with somebody in 1985.”
Illustrating the low, McPeek told turf writer John Scheinman (who posted the quote on his Facebook wall) what pressure felt like.
"Pressure is having 15 horses in the dead of winter at Latonia with an owner who won't pay you. I've been there. That's pressure,” McPeek told him.
And that’s the truth. When I spent a year on the backside with a young trainer in Bowie, Md., the trainer had 10-12 horses, 20 degree weather, snow, ice, and the misery of those gloomy mid-Atlantic winters. Each time he billed his owners, he hoped and prayed they would pay up. Sadly, they’re not held to deadlines and bad credit like Visa. Owners like that make trainers feel lucky to have their bills paid. Pretty lame-o.
McLaughlin, too, has pressure. Let’s not forgot he trains for Godolphin and Shadwell. Winning is an expectation for those outfits.
If anything, the Travers illustrated the many trails a trainer can take to a mountain’s summit even in the absence of “star power.”
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