Thanks, Stay Thirsty

I did not watch the Travers Stakes this year. I did not think of the Travers Stakes this year. I did not think about Thoroughbred racing as it was being run, especially considering the race was not shown where I was because of Hurricane Irene coverage.

The reasons for the above and regrettable comments are too copious and irrelevant to mention.

The bottom line is that I had watched every Travers since 1968 (I was at a New York Yankees game when Damascus won in 1967). I can remember vividly how special that day was when Chompion took the Travers in the slop on a glorious sunny afternoon carrying the colors of C.V. Whitney. Earlier that day I had watched the immortal Dr. Fager work in a driving rainstorm and remember the thrill of taking his picture with my newly purchased Brownie Instamatic camera. For a bright-eyed, novice racing fan, it didn’t get any better than that.

Now, 43 Travers’ later, my string has ended. The saddest part was that – and I shudder to say this – my passion for the sport that fueled and inspired my entire life was beginning to wane. I longed for 1968 and was finding the negatives of racing outweighing the positives. It was as if the retirement of Zenyatta was my swan song as well as hers.

Then something happened. As I lay in a bed, trapped in an environment totally foreign to me, I caught the last few minutes of ESPN Sportscenter. In their top moments of the day, Number 7 was a clip of the last 70 yards of the Travers. There were the Mike Repole silks of Stay Thirsty crossing the finish line first. I immediately felt a resurgence of electricity flow through my veins that had been infiltrated by a central pick line.

This was my boy, the horse I had predicted last August would win the Travers; the horse whose career had gone astray after it had been taken over by his more illustrious stablemate, Uncle Mo; the horse who became an afterthought, even in his own stable and even after winning the Gotham Stakes in his 3-year-old debut. Prior to and during the Triple Crown, he was vilified by the majority of the media and fans, and still received no respect after finishing a close second in the Belmont Stakes. It took an emphatic victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes to open people’s eyes and realize that maybe, just maybe, this was a better horse than people thought.

This was an impeccably bred horse, who after finishing a strong second in the Hopeful Stakes, should have run in the Champagne before taking on the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But no, that’s where Uncle Mo was heading, so Stay Thirsty had to wait two months and go into the Juvenile having never been farther than seven furlongs. He raced greenly and was never a threat, as Uncle Mo won in brilliant fashion.  

The following winter, he was stabled in Florida and should have had a Florida campaign, but was instead shipped to Aqueduct for the Gotham, which he won handily. Now stabled in New York he should have remained there to run in the Wood Memorial, but no, that’s where Uncle Mo was heading, so poor Stay Thirsty, after shipping from the heat of Florida to face the cold Jamaica Bay winds, had to ship back into the Florida heat to run in the Florida Derby. Despite his Gotham score, he was fitted with blinkers at Gulfstream to help correct some greenness still remaining and ran a terrible race.

He got virtually nothing out of the race and was not prepared at all for the Kentucky Derby. But Uncle Mo was gone due to illness and Stay Thirsty, for better or worse, now had to carry the mantle for the Repole—Todd Pletcher team. He had no shot, with only one competitive race under him, and finished in the middle of the pack, without being disgraced.

With the Derby under him and the advantageous mile and a half distance of the Belmont Stakes, this was his time to prove to Repole and everyone else that there was a top-class horse ready to finally emerge. He ran his heart out, stuck on the rail the whole way, and held on tenaciously to finish second. But most people attributed his performance to the slop, combined with the fluky distance of the Belmont.

Without trying to sound self indulgent, I had never lost faith in Stay Thirsty and just waited for him to get back on course, while touching base with Repole, the only other person even willing to discuss him. Not knowing Repole that well, I can’t say to what degree he had lost faith in Stay Thirsty or if he had lost faith in him at all. It wasn’t until Uncle Mo’s unfortunate illness that Stay Thirsty began to encompass more of his life. After witnessing his unrestrained jubilation following the Jim Dandy, I could only imagine the scene after the Travers. I wish I had been able to be there.

The point of all this is not to be critical of Stay Thirsty’s doubters or to boost my own ego in any way for a lucky prediction and believing in the colt’s talents. I’ve been around much too long for such triviality. It is merely to say ‘Thank you’ to a horse for reigniting a passion I thought I had lost. I still have not watched the race and have only those few seconds crossing the finish line entrenched in my mind. But for now, that’s plenty.

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