How Pat Day Struck ‘Gold’ Against One of the Best Travers Fields in History

August 26, 2022

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – On Saturday, August 22, 1987, the Travers Stakes celebrated its 118th running. While not a milestone number, that year’s edition was special for two reasons as it marked the first year the race boasted a $1 million purse, becoming Saratoga Race Course’s first seven-figure race; and the Travers field saw not only one of its best ever lineups, but also one of the most talented group of horses ever to compete against each other at the historic track.  

The field for the 1987 Travers comprised a cumulative 19 Grade 1 victories, including winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes [Alysheba]; Arlington-Washington Futurity, Laurel Futurity, Belmont Stakes and Haskell Invitational [Bet Twice]; Champagne and Cowdin [Polish Navy]; Florida Derby [Cryptoclearance]; Hollywood Futurity, Swaps, and Santa Anita Derby [Temperate Sil]; American Derby [Fortunate Moment]; Futurity, Hopeful, Wood Memorial and Met Mile [Gulch]; Remsen and Whitney Handicap [Java Gold] all line up in pursuit of superiority amongst the sophomore division.

The day would end up belonging to Paul Mellon’s Java Gold, who bested elders in the Grade 1 Whitney one start prior to the Travers. This feat was also accomplished by his sire, Mellon’s Key To The Mint, in 1972.

A Virginia homebred trained by Hall of Fame horseman MacKenzie “Mack” Miller, Java Gold bested Met Mile winner Gulch and four-time Grade 1-winner Broad Brush by three-quarters of a length in the Whitney. Java Gold was piloted by Hall of Famer Pat Day, who was in the irons for three of his previous eight victories, including a 2 3/4-length conquest of the prior year’s Grade 1 Remsen at Aqueduct Racetrack.

Day rode Java Gold for the first time in the 1986 Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park, where he finished fourth behind future Travers contestants in Ogden Phipps’ Polish Navy and Bet Twice. He would go on to pilot the bay colt in his 3-year-old debut – a 5 1/2-length allowance victory over a sloppy and sealed main track at Aqueduct – two weeks before Randy Romero guided him to victory in the Big A’s Best Turn. A two-month layoff due to a respiratory virus prevented any Triple Crown aspirations, but Java Gold was reunited with Day for his next three starts, where he was second beaten a nose in a Belmont allowance race before winning for the same condition over Big Sandy, en route to the Whitney.

“When I rode him in the Champagne, he was very immature and didn’t do a lot of things right. And then he matured significantly,” Day said. “At the time, with his running style, he was a little bit anxious early and was slow on his lead changes. In the race at Aqueduct, he broke, went to the lead and that day, he changed leads on cue coming into the stretch and won pretty handily, but he was still kind of anxious early. He had that same temperament early on in his 3-year-old season. Between the last race at Belmont and the Whitney, he really changed his running style from breaking and wanting to be in contention early. He was dropping back, relaxing and finishing strong, which is what he did in the Whitney.”

In that year’s Whitney, run just two weeks before the Travers, Java Gold faced Broad Brush, who carried 127 pounds after his Grade 1 Suburban Handicap victory five weeks earlier at Belmont. The field was strung out around the first turn as Java Gold raced in tandem with Gulch down the backstretch tracking a moderate pace up front led by the filly Seldom Seen Sue and Gorky, an entry-mate rabbit for Gulch.

As the field approached the far turn, the frontrunners gave way and Java Gold inched his way up to a close and ground-saving fifth, advancing into fourth in upper stretch. Gulch was several lengths clear but Java Gold was advancing in position down at the rail. Inside the final furlong, Java Gold moved a path to the outside of Gulch and got up in the final strides to the wire.

“Java Gold had changed his running style on his own and possibly the way Mr. Miller was training him,” Day said. “In the Whitney, he was content to drop back, split horses off the turn and finished up running. The Travers was very much the same way.”

The following afternoon, Day piloted familiar foe Polish Navy, a dual Grade 1-winner at 2, to victory in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy for Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey. But Day would ultimately remain on Java Gold for the Travers, where he would be up against the ultimate test to show where he truly belonged amongst a division of heavy hitters.

Headlining the loaded Travers field was Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and Grade 1 Preakness winner Alysheba for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who arrived with vengeance after two straight losses in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes and Grade 1 Haskell to returning rival Bet Twice. Strong opposition was provided by Polish Navy, Grade 1 Florida Derby winner Cryptoclearance, and four-time Grade 1-winner Gulch, who captured the Met Mile at Belmont Park in between starts in the Preakness [fourth] and Belmont Stakes [third].

“Certainly, there was chitter chatter about who all was in the race and how tough the field was. It was an incredibly deep field,” Day said. “When you have a field of that many quality horses, it’s going to generate some buzz and some excitement. But the Travers is the Travers, it’s going to generate some buzz period. It’s just a great race and it’s one that everyone is looking at. Leading up to it was an exciting time.”

Day had boasted previous experience aboard multiple of Java Gold’s opponents. In addition to Polish Navy, he had ridden Gulch to victory in the Met Mile, as well as five wins aboard Grade 1 American Derby winner Fortunate Moment, an Illinois-bred trained by Harvey Vanier. He also piloted Alysheba in four of his previous starts, including runner-up finishes in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity at Hollywood Park and Grade 1 San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita.

“I had ridden a number of horses in that race, and I was tremendously blessed to have those opportunities,” Day recalled. “I rode Alysheba early on in his career, I rode Gulch in the Met Mile and I secured the mount because he got in there light and he was up against older horses. I was able to make the weight and he finished up strong that day. He was a nice colt. Polish Navy was a pleasure to ride for Shug. At that time, I was already committed to Java Gold for the Travers.”

A crowd of 45,055 gathered at the Spa for the Travers, which at the time was the fourth largest crowd in the track’s history, and a two-hour downpour of rain that morning led to sloppy track conditions. The rain held off in the afternoon, but resumed with just six minutes to post. Although Bet Twice had entered off two sharp wins over Alysheba, the betting public made the latter the favorite, and Java Gold the second choice.

Gorky assumed his usual pacesetting tactics just to the outside of three-time Grade 1 winner Temperate Sil. Although the field was compact heading into the first turn, the two frontrunners opened up nearly 10 lengths on the field. Meanwhile, Day was patient as usual aboard Java Gold, who had only one horse beaten, and that was Cryptoclearance under Hall of Famer Angel Cordero, Jr.

“He dropped back, saved ground around the first turn into the backstretch and was able to work his way to the outside and make a big run off the turn,” Day said. “I don’t recall any specific instructions prior to the race, I think we both had confidence in the horse and in his ability to get the distance and to handle the opposition. I rode him with confidence.”

The two pacesetters retreated around the far turn as Bet Twice moved in tandem with Polish Navy, and the two established command in upper stretch. Cryptoclearance, swung out by Cordero, Jr., had dead aim on both runners and gained a 1 1/2-length advantage past the eighth pole. But Day’s patience paid off once more, despite being last to make his move, and spurted past Cryptoclearance. Java Gold finished two lengths clear of Cryptoclearance in a final time of 2:02 over the sloppy track. Polish Navy was another 6 3/4 lengths back in third.

“Coming off the turn, I got him out in the clear and he came home like gangbusters,” Day said. “He was well back, far back early. Cryptoclearance and myself were back there trailing the field. Angel made a move into and around the far turn and then I pulled out later in the turn, got to the outside and

when I called upon him, he was full of run and obviously finished very well.”

Day said the sloppy conditions were no issue for Java Gold, who had previously won on an off track.

“It certainly didn’t bother him,” Day said. “It might have had a negative effect on some of the other horses in the race that day, but he was the kind of horse that didn’t seem to have to take his track with him. He’d run over anything.”

Following the race, the late Miller was full of praise for the Hall of Fame ride given to his now three-time Grade 1-winner, who made a solid case for divisional supremacy with both his Whitney and Travers victories.

“He has the patience, and never gets unnerved,” Miller said at the time. “He had him outside where he was supposed to be and when this horse changes leads, he kicks in and it works. The ride was the big thing. I just love Pat Day.”

Day said Miller was very easy to ride for.

“He would tell me peculiarities or particulars of certain horses. We might discuss how a race might unfold,” Day recalled. “He showed a tremendous amount of confidence in me, which allowed me to ride the race the way it came up and the way I felt it needed to be ridden in order to get the job done. I don’t recall him ever giving me any hard and fast instructions. I was the pilot and I needed to be making those moves on the track.”

Java Gold went on to race two more times following his memorable Travers coup, earning another Grade 1 victory in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park the following month, defeating the Grade 1-winning Shug McGaughey entry of Nostalgia’s Star and Polish Navy. He made his final start in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup when second as the 3-5 favorite beaten 4 3/4 lengths by 1985 Belmont Stakes winner Crème Fraiche.

Despite bragging high caliber wins against elders, Eclipse Award honors for Champion 3-Year-Old went to Alysheba, who captured the Grade 1 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs en route to a narrow defeat to fellow Kentucky Derby champion Ferdinand in that year’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Hollywood Park.

The loaded Travers field backed up their heavy form following the race with three horses in the field going on to win multiple Grade 1 races.

Cryptoclearance would go on to have a prosperous career, adding three more Grade 1 wins to his ledger over as many surfaces [the Pegasus Handicap at Meadowlands, the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park and the Widener at Hialeah Park]. Gulch went on to become 1988 Champion Sprinter with victories in the following year’s Carter Handicap at Aqueduct, a repeat victory in the Met Mile and a successful swan song in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

But Alysheba covered the most ground, notching seven more Grade 1 victories following the Travers. His 4-year-old season was capped by the Charles H. Strub and Santa Anita Handicap on the West Coast, as well as a string of four straight Grade 1 victories – the Phillip H. Iselin at Monmouth, the Woodward Handicap at Belmont, the Meadowlands Cup Handicap and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. His season earned him Champion Older Horse and Horse of the Year honors in 1988, as well as Hall of Fame induction in 1993.

Java Gold initially stood at Lanes’ End Farm in Midway, Kentucky from 1988-95, and was met with a successful stud career, producing 2000 Champion Sprinter Kona Gold and multiple stakes-winning Texas-bred Mocha Express. He moved to Gestut Ammerland in Germany, where he lived out the rest of his life and produced Czech champion Access To Java.

Still, Day can’t help but wonder what type of impact Java Gold would have had as an older horse.

“I can only imagine, based off of what he was doing as a 3-year-old, what he could’ve done as a 4-year-old,” Day said. “He could’ve had a say in some of the outcomes of those races that year for sure.” 

NYRA Press Release

@jonathanstettin Great article!

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