Update: John A. DiMario, who trained Runaway Groom to a memorable upset in the 1982 GI Travers S. at Saratoga, passed away Thursday, February 13th, 2020 at the age of 91. Not long ago I visited with Mr. DiMario and talked about his epic win. The man was still sharp as a tack and a true gentleman. May he RIP.
A Very Special Travers Stakes
By Jonathan Stettin
Since 1864 The Travers Stakes has been providing thrills and great racing history. Although The Kentucky Derby may be more famous and the most exciting two minutes in sports, for true fans of the Sport of Kings and students of the game, it is likely difficult to call the Travers second fiddle to any race for three-year olds. After all, it is nicknamed The Midsummer Derby for a reason and it has been run at historic Saratoga, the grandest old racetrack in the country if not the world, except for 1896, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1911, and 1912, when the race was not run at all.
It is hard to call any Travers the greatest of them all as we have seen so many epic performances, classic upsets, and unparalleled drama, that to list them would take a book. For this column we will focus on one particular running which was a great story both on and off the racetrack. I remember being at the track that day as I had been for many runnings prior and even more after. While the upset was remarkable in and of itself, I never forgot the rumor around Saratoga that day. It was said the winning trainer slept in his car on the backside the night before the race. I joked I bet he didn’t sleep in the car the night of the race but never knew if the rumor was true.
All these years later as we approach this year’s running I was able to track down the winning trainer and find out what I had wondered. Was the rumor true? John Dimario was gracious enough to share his Travers experience with me, and his recollection of all that transpired leading up to his getting the colt to train and winning the race.
With all the great history of The Travers, only once before 1982 has a horse defeated three different winners of The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and The Belmont Stakes. Sun Briar did it in 1918 and it would happen again in 1982.
The 1982 Kentucky Derby was won by Gato Del Sol. The Preakness was won by Aloma’s Ruler. The Belmont was won by Conquistador Cielo in a smashing performance that came just 5 days after he beat older horses in that year’s Metropolitan Mile. It was part of Woody Stephens’ remarkable stream of five straight Belmonts.
While those three horses were achieving glory here in the US, a gray son of Blushing Groom who came out of the FASIG TIPTON Kentucky yearling sale, was trying to make a name for himself as well. The horse was Runaway Groom, a Canadian bred who his owner Albert Coppola only realized after purchasing him. This made him eligible for the Canadian Triple Crown and that is where he was pointed.
According to John, early in his career Runaway Groom was trained by Rusty Arnold for Mr. Coppola. John Dimario, a New York trainer, knew Mr. Coppola from training at Belmont but never expected to get a call from him to train a horse, let alone a horse who had just run second in the prestigious Queen’s Plate at Woodbine.
When I visited with Mr. Dimario he remembered the big day like it was yesterday. He told me he received a call from Mr. Coppola telling him he had a ticket for him at the airport and he wanted him to take a look at a horse at Woodbine. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and John caught the flight and was picked up by Mr. Coppola and taken to the barn to see the horse. He told John go check him out but John was not comfortable just going into another trainer’s barn. Mr. Coppola said I want you to train this horse. John said he just ran second in The Queens Plate. Why me and why now. Apparently Mr. Coppola was not happy with the second place finish and wanted more individualized attention for his horse. The next day John went into the barn with Albert and looked over Runaway Groom for the first time. He recalled the horse having some minor issues but felt it was nothing he could not handle.
Mr. Coppola asked John to remain in Canada to train Runaway Groom for the Canadian races he was eligible for. John felt he would be at a major disadvantage doing so and voiced his concerns. He had his “people” at Belmont and that was his backyard. Albert offered to bring anyone he wanted to Canada. Blacksmith, Vet, Exercise Rider, who and whatever John needed. John said I’m in but I’m in at Belmont. John and Runaway Groom hit the road to New York.
It did not take John long to get the gray colt to his liking and he ran him in a confidence building allowance race at Belmont on July 8th, about two weeks after the Queen’s Plate. With the Canadian races in mind, specifically the Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes, the last two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown, John shipped back to Woodbine to run in the Heresy Stakes on July 24th. Runaway Groom ran second and John felt he was doing good and improving and was right on target for the last two Canadian races in the series. John was right as Runaway Groom took the Prince of Wales on August 8th. The Breeders’ Stakes was not until September 4th and back then horses ran more frequently for many reasons.
Instead of training into The Breeders’ Stakes, John went outside the box and although he did not use The Travers as a prep for the final leg of The Canadian Triple Crown, he did feel you run them when they are good and want to run. He thought he had a chance to beat the big 3 from the US, and at worst the race would set him up for the last dance in the Canadian series.
The Travers was electric that year. The three different classic winners all showed up. Conquistador Cielo was a star based on the Met and Belmont double. Angle Cordero, who was still in the midst of his quest to win the Travers, replaced Cowboy Jack Kaenel on Aloma’s Ruler, even though Jack won The Preakness with him. Derby winner, Gato Del Sol, was after all the Kentucky Derby winner. Runaway Groom was pretty much overlooked as an after thought.
John and the horse shipped to Saratoga the day before the race. He never gave a thought to where he would stay. After getting Runaway Groom settled in he went to try and sleep in his car. There was not a room to be had for miles. The car was too small and uncomfortable so it was actually a bale of hay in front of Runaway Groom’s stall. That’s where he truly wanted to be anyway.
Runaway Groom rolled past the three classic winners in the stretch under Jeffrey Fell to add himself to the long list of horses who upset the big guns at the Spa. John just laughed when I asked him if he slept in his car or on a bale of hay the night after the race. Then he said no.
Runaway Groom went on to win The Breeders’ Stakes race and The Prince of Wales Stakes, two of the three legs of the Canadian Triple Crown. Afterward he was sent to California and trained by Charlie Whittingham but went off form and never ran at a high level again. When John trained him he was the only horse in the barn, but if you are going to have just one I will take a Travers winner any day.
Watch Runaway Groom’s Travers upset here: