By BRIEN BOUYEA, Communications Officer, National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
The Travers Stakes has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the most prestigious races in America, annually drawing the top 3-year-old thoroughbreds to the historic Spa oval each August. The 1982 edition of the Midsummer Derby furthered that tradition, as it attracted the winners of that year's Kentucky Derby (Gato Del Sol), Preakness Stakes (Aloma's Ruler), and Belmont Stakes (Conquistador Cielo).
A Canadian invader, however, played the familiar role of Saratoga spoiler and stole the show from the accomplished field. Runaway Groom, a 13-1 shot, turned in a spectacular performance en route to the rare achievement of defeating the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in the same race.
Business was booming at Saratoga in the 1980s. A slew of attendance and handle records were set during the decade, and total handle surpassed $100 million for the first time in 1984 when Aqueduct began simulcasting Saratoga races. Purses were also soaring, especially the pot for the Travers, which eclipsed $1 million for the first time in 1987.
The first $1 million Travers proved to be another exciting chapter in the rich history of Saratoga's signature event. Fifteen years after his sire, Key to the Mint, won the Travers, Java Gold followed in his father's hoofprints by defeating the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Alysheba, as well as the Belmont winner, Bet Twice. It was also the second of a record-tying four Travers victories for Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day. Java Gold and Day also won the prestigious Whitney Handicap that summer.
On the topic of legendary riders, the jockey colony was dominated by another future Hall of Famer, Angel Cordero, Jr., who ruled the Spa standings throughout the 1980s. Both charismatic and fiercly competitive, Cordero had won 11 consecutive riding titles at Saratoga when his streak was snapped by Jose Santos in 1987. Cordero, however, took back his perch at the Spa in 1988 and closed out the decade with his 13th title in 14 years in 1989.
The training titles during the 1980s were much more evenly distributed than the annual riding crown. Hall of Fame members D. Wayne Lukas (three), Jonathan Sheppard (two), and Frank Martin (two) each won multiple Saratoga titles in the 1980s. The remaining training championships were won by Hall of Famers Sidney Watters, Jr., Phil Johnson, and Woody Stephens, who shared the top spot in 1981 with Robert DeBonis.
Fan favorite Fourstardave made his Spa debut in 1987, beginning an eight-year love affair with the fans at the historic track by winning the Empire Stakes. Known as the "Sultan of Saratoga," Fourstardave won at least one race at Saratoga for eight consecutive years. The old warrior raced 100 times and eventually was honored with a stakes race in his name at the track where he secured his unique legacy.
Easy Goer helped close out the decade in style with scintillating victories in the 1989 Travers and Whitney. It was the second time in three years that Day's mounts won both the Travers and Whitney in the same summer.