Saratoga Springs—It’s all about American Pharoah. Whether we don’t know a horse from the carrot it’s chomping, we all seem to know about American Pharoah. Tomorrow (8/29) we’ll all see if that Triple Crown winner breaks the “Saratoga Jinx” at the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
With this world-wide American Pharoah mania, all eyes are on Saratoga Springs—and on its infamous gambling history. Last Sunday journalist Heather Kovar had me on WTEN TV’s News10 @ 9am to talk about those gambling heydays, as one of her top stories was on whether Triple Crown winner American Pharoah would be visiting Saratoga Springs while the ravers was run. (Thanks, Heather!)
Well, we know now that American Pharaoh is more than visiting–he’s running in the Travers. The only speculation now is whether American Pharoah can beat the “Saratoga Jinx” on Triple Crown winners competing in the Travers Stakes.
For those unfamiliar with horse racing, here’s a short explanation of the Travers and the Triple Crown. The Travers Stakes has been held at Saratoga Race Course since 1869 and was named for William R. Travers, the first president of the then Saratoga Racing Association.
The Triple Crown is officially “The Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing.” Three-year-old Thoroughbred horses that win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes in a single season are Triple Crown winners. The first Triple Crown was won in 1919.
And what is this “Saratoga Jinx”? It’s simple. While twelve horses have won the Triple Crown, only one of them has ever won the Travers Stakes—Whirlaway in 1941!
NYRA’s webpage on Whirlaway reports that, “in 1941 the crowd-pleasing ‘Mr. Longtail’ often landed above” baseball great Joe DiMaggio and boxing legend Joe Louis “on the front pages of the nation’s sports sections.” It also states that the famed jockey “Eddie Arcaro called him ‘not the best, but the runningest’ horse. His trainer called him dumb, stupid and crazy.” Out of the Whirlaway could unpredictably run all over the track, but then always pulled out at the right moment to leave the others in his dust. Arcaro rode Whirlaway to his Belmont victory for his 1941 Triple Crown victory.
Whirlaway was now slated to run in the Travers on August 16, 1941, when tragedy struck! Ten days before the race, on August 6th, the Jockey Board of Stewards suspended Arcaro from riding because of charges of “rough handling” of the horses he rode. Instead, Alfred Robertson took Arcaro’s place. The racing world was in a state of frenzy.
In the Spa City, the casinos and other businesses were finally enjoying a financial revival after the Great Depression and this race was symbolic of that revival. What would happen now? Never mind that most of the world was already at war, with the US was aiding the beleaguered British in their fight against the Third Reich and the Empire of Japan. (And Pearl Harbor was 103 days away.) No, what was vital was the Travers!
On Saturday, August 16, 1941, the stands at Saratoga Race Course were packed for the Travers Stakes. As the horses broke from gate, Whirlaway sprung to action—well, almost. William DuPont’s Fairymant took the lead by 15 lengths and Samuel D. Riddle’s two horses, War Relic and Lord Kitchener, were coming up strong. Whirlaway wasn’t doing well.
Cy Peterman of the Philadelphia Inquirer summed it up best: “When Whirlaway turned on the pressure, all chances of a shock were erased. Up to the mile post, before he made his move, he looked as if bound to make history repeat. . . . But once Whirlaway came into full stride there wasn’t much to it. As far out as the 16th pole the race was over; he was almost four lengths ahead at the finish, and Fairymant had two and a half on Lord Kitchener.”
Peterman also reported that, “By his victory, Whirlaway took down another $16,900 for [Whirlaway owner] Warren Wright. Chicago sportsman who found there are more ways of raising dough than with the baking powder he manufactures.”
Wright was presented with the gold cup by Samuel D. Riddle, owner of War Relic and Lord Kitchener, and George H. Bull, president of the Saratoga Association.
And since that day 74 years ago no Triple Crown winner has ever won the Travers Stakes. In fact, Whirlaway is the only Triple Crown winner ever to have won the Travers!
“The play,” as author Damon Runyon described gambling in Saratoga’s gaming heydays, is understandably high. In just a few days, the Travers purse has risen from $1.2 to $1.6 million. As of this writing (Friday, 8/28) the odds are, well, odd. Saratoga Race Course is showing 3/5 odds, while across the pond in the UK, Ladbrokes is offering 28/9 odds. (We attempted to find Runyon’s Bookie Bob, but Bob’s kidnappers have yet to release him.)
Adding to the frenzy is that Saratoga Race Course has sold out seating for tomorrow’s Travers!
So, all that remains now is to see if Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh breaks the “Saratoga Jinx” and wins the 2015 Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
In this instance, all bets are definitely on!