Last Saturday, a race that was criticized before it was run for the dullness of its entries turned out to be the most exciting of the racing year – so far. Longshot Golden Ticket and 2-1 favorite Alpha ran a dead heat in the 143rd running of the Travers Stakes, Saratoga’s signature race, each getting a “win” for the race, and splitting the prize money.
Alpha and Golden Ticket finished in a Dead heat in the 2012 Travers Stakes On Saturday at New York's Saratoga Race Course. (Photo from NYRA.)
Some news reports have suggested that this was the first dead heat in the history of the Travers, while others suggest that it is the first dead heat in the “modern” running of the race. In a way, both statements are correct, because while the judges declared the first running of the 1874 Travers to be a dead heat, many (including the New York Times) suggested otherwise. And, the two horses tied for victory waited until the end of the racing day and re-ran the race as a match race, which did produce a winner. The track officials loved this, of course, because it produced a second round of betting on the race. Therefore, there is no official entry showing a “dead heat” in any running of the Travers until this year. The 1874 runner Atilla, whose only known claim to fame was winning this stakes race, beat Acrobat by three quarters of a length in the run off, and is therefore listed as the winning runner to this day.
The time for the running of what turned out to be the first heat of the race was considered fast by the Times at 3:09 ½ over a mile and three-quarters. Amazingly, the time for the second heat, over the same distance, was even faster, at 3:08 ¾ .
This illustrates one of the differences between racing in 1874 and racing today: Today no trainer would ever run a horse in two races in the same day. Now there is criticism that the modern Triple Crown series is too tough on runners because it requires them to run three times during a five week period. Victorian trainers would have laughed.
As we have seen in earlier columns, Saratoga Race Course was established in 1863 by wealthy New Yorkers who desired racing in their summer vacation spot, Saratoga Springs. The first running of the Travers Stake (the “s,” making it plural, wasn’t added until later) was in 1864, won by Kentucky, son of the famous sire Lexington, and half brother to the great runner Asteroid, whose theft by the Confederates in 1864 we have also discussed.
This was no fluke. Lexington was the top sire of his generation, and of the first 13 Travers Stakes, offspring of Lexington won seven, including winning four of the first five contests of the race. This showed a level of dominance of Lexington’s blood line that would not be duplicated until the rise of Northern Dancer as a sire in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In 1874, Atilla, who would ultimately win the race, was the clear betting favorite. In those days, in the absence of pari mutuel wagering, the gross amounts bet on each horse were announced. In the win pool, $170 was bet on Atilla, who was owned by Pierre Lorillard IV, with $85 and $70, respectively, bet on Brigand and Stampede. The grey colt Steel Eyes, owned by August Belmont, drew only $40 in win bets.
Another difference between racing today and racing in the Victorian world can be summed up in one word: Dust. As the New York Times described the race in its July 27, 1874 edition:
“The distance being a mile and three-quarters, the brigade was started from the shute or three-quarter stretch, running behind the Judge’s stand down to the half mile pole. After breaking away once and then having a false start, they were sent away, Grinstead, Sue Washington colt, and Steel Eyes being together, and all the others close up. As they rushed down the shute they were lost to sight in a cloud of dust. They were still obscured when they turned into the regular course at the half-mile pole.”
And therein lies the dirty little secret of the first Travers dead heat: It was only a dead heat because no one could clearly see the finish, in a race that was thought by many to have been won by a horse not named one of the top finishers in the official dead heat:
“When they passed the half-mile pole Rutherford and Stamped were apparently head and head, half a length in advance of Brigand, the others all close together, and the colors of the jockeys hardly discernible in the dust. They were obscured coming round the turn but then they came up the homestretch. Grinstead appeared to be slightly leading Brigand, while Atilla, Pennington, Acrobat, and Steel Eyes looked to be on even terms. A magnificent struggle ensued to the goal, and Steel Eyes looked as if he had won by a head, while Atilla and Acrobat were together, and Brigand half a length behind them. The judges, however, decided it a dead heat between Atilla and Acrobat, and placed Steel Eyes third. The time was very fast, viz., 3:09 ½ . The owners of Atilla and Acrobat decided to run off the dead heat after the last race.”
We’ll get to the run off in a second, but the controversy surrounding the declaration of a dead heat was so intense that it carried over into the next day’s story; on Monday, July 28, 1874, the Times wrote:
“Except during the regatta week Saratoga has never been so crowded as at the present time. Every hotel is full to overflowing, and Congress Hall is turning away people. The sporting element is, of course, in the ascendant, and will be during the prevalence of the racing fever, which is now raging fiercely. The remarkable contest for the Travers Stake on Saturday is the chief topic of conversation. Everybody in the vicinity of the reporters’ stand declared Steel Eyes to have won it, and the reporters themselves marked him as the leading horse, but the judges saw differently, and made it a dead heat between Atilla and Acrobat, as already known. There has never been such a race between three-year olds in this country, and the excitement at the finish was beyond description.”
The word of the judges was law, of course, and the dead heat stood. The owners of Atilla and Acrobat decided to have an immediate run off after the last race of the day, and this one was no dead heat:
“At the three-quarter pole, Atilla was at Acrobat’s tail again. In this way they completed half the journey of the homestretch, when Atilla came to the head of Acrobat, who had the whip drawn on him. He ran gamely to the end, but he was obliged to succumb to the immense speed and bottom of Atilla, who won the heat and the great stake by three-quarters of a length in 3:08 ¾ , within half a second of Joe Daniels’ time.”
Which leads to the second bit of amazement in the race: The time for what turned out to be the second heat of the race was run three quarters of a second faster than the first one. Go figure.
Dead heats are rare today, because of the advent of modern photo equipment, which allow the judges to detect the slightest margin of victory. There is little doubt that if a photo finish had been available in 1874, it would have shown someone – whether Atilla, Acrobat, or Steel Eyes, we’ll never know – as a victor, and there would have been no runoff. But one thing that hasn’t changed in a century and a quarter is the excitement of the crowd, and the controversy over a bad call by the judges. While technology helps, people are still human, and the horses almost are, too.
I love racing!
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award-winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s “Good Morning, America.” He writes, posts and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.