V. E. Day, a son of turf champion English Channel making his graded stakes debut, edged his more accomplished stablemate Wicked Strong by a nose in the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers atSaratoga on Saturday.
In a photo finish that took minutes to officially decide, the one certainty was that the winning trainer was Jimmy Jerkens, who saddled both the 19-1 upset winner and the Jim Dandy-winning runner-up. Jerkens also saddled the 2010 Travers winner Afleet Express, who also scored in a tight photo.
"It means an awful lot. It's unreal," Jerkens said. "I just feel bad for Wicked Strong; that's the only thing, he ran so hard. (But) I'll take it."
This Travers win was a record-tying fourth for jockey Javier Castellano, the nation's leading rider in money earned this season. Hall of Fame riders Eddie Arcaro, Braulio Baeza, Pat Pay and Jimmy McLaughlin also won the Travers four times.
"I was very satisfied, the way my horse did it today," Castellano said. "I'm happy for Jimmy; he's a great horseman. He does such a good job. We've had good experiences in the past, winning the Travers with Afleet Express.
"I'm very fortunate to ride a lot of good horses. I'm very blessed to win four Travers."
The Travers opening mile of the Travers was dominated by the three wagering favorites. Haskell Invitational winner Bayern started as the 2-1 choice, with Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist and Wicked Strong both sent off at 5-2. As expected, Bayern shot out quickly from the gate, but was surprisingly pressed by Tonalist entering the clubhouse turn. Wicked Strong tracked behind that pair in third.
Bayern led by only a half-length through the opening quarter of :23 3/5, and was still hounded by Tonalist when leading by a length after a half in :47 1/5 and six furlongs in 1:11 1/5. Both Tonalist and Wicked Strong commenced their bids around the far turn, and didn't take much effort from either to pass the weakening Bayern. The quick pace took more starch out of the Belmont winner as Wicked Strong was moving the better of the two entering the stretch.
"The race was going the way I wanted it," said jockey Rajiv Maragh over Wicked Strong. "When I saw Tonalist doing that work for me, I kind of backed off them and just tracked. Then midway in the turn, I thought I'm going to take over. It's a mile and a quarter, it's a steady kind of race, so I figured if I kind of got a jump on them, on Tonalist, then it'll be hard for them to re-rally."
After getting the mile in 1:36 3/5, Wicked Strong opened up a 1 1/2-length lead with a furlong to go and appeared as if he would go two-for-two since adding blinkers for the Jim Dandy. However, his unheralded stablemate had other plans.
As much as 14 1/2 length back down the backside, V. E. Day had made a steady dent into his deficit during approaching the far turn and entering the stretch. Only 5 1/2 lengths back turning for home, the Magalen Bryant-owned colt closed stoutly under strong urging and just got up to win the $670,000 winner's share. The final time for 1 1/4 miles over a fast track was 2:02 4/5.
"I wasn't absolutely sure it was V. E. Day because he had so much mud on him, until they got a little closer and I saw the silks and then I knew it was him," Jerkens said. "I said, 'Man, what a feeling. I know I'm going to win the Travers; I just don't know with who.'"
V. E. Day returned $41 to win, while Jimmy Jerkens exacta came back $167.50.
Wicked Strong held second by 2 1/2 lengths over Tonalist, who suffered his second straight defeat after starting his stakes career with back-to-back wins in the Peter Pan and Belmont.
"It looked like there was one horse with speed and then me and Wicked Strong," said jockey Joel Rosario, who rode Tonalist. "I tried to get my position early and he can run like that, so I was happy where I was. He's the kind of horse that keeps on going. We were just third-best today. I thought he was fine where he was early, but he just didn't have it today in the end."
Tonalist was 3 1/2 lengths ahead of Kid Cruz, who was followed by Mr Speaker, Viva Majorca, Charge Now, Ulanbator, Commanding Curve, and Bayern.
"The Haskell might have taken something out of him," trainer Bob Baffert said of Bayern. "I think you have to prep for the Travers in the Jim Dandy. But he's been so brilliant his last few outs, you had to take a shot. I was hoping they'd go in 48 and change. We were hoping to steal it, but the secret was out."
V. E. Day began his career on turf at Gulfstream Park on January 26, finishing fifth against maiden company. He improved in his next start on March 8, finishing second over the same course. The colt made his next start on May 10 at Belmont Park and, despite the race being moved from turf to dirt to inclement weather, prevailed by a half-length.
Returning to the grass for his allowance debut, V. E. Day scored by two lengths over nine furlongs of Belmont's inner turf on July 2. Last time, the chestnut prevailed by a head over Charge Now in the $100,000 Curlin, a restricted, nine-furlong stakes for three-year-olds going 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga on July 25. His record now stands at 6-4-1-0, $829,010.
Bred by Bluegrass Hall in Kentucky, V. E. Day brought $135,000 at the OBS March two-year-old sale. He was reared by California Sunset, a Deputy Minister half-sister to Grade 1-placed multiple stakes winner Don't Read My Lips. The latter is the dam of multiple Grade 3 winner Hotstufanthensome, Grade 3 vixen Silver Charades and multiple stakes winner Tacit Agreement. This female family is also responsible for the 1988 champion turf male Sunshine Forever.
V. E. Day traces back to Golden Trail, whose descendants also include noted sire Dynaformer, champion turf mare Ryafan, and multiple Grade 1 winner Brian's Time, who lost the 1988 Travers in a photo.