SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Saratoga's festive atmosphere, friendly people, gorgeous horses and the country's most prestigious racing epitomize the charm and spirit of a day at the races.
And the Travers Stakes, scheduled for 5: 10 p.m. today, is the most prestigious of those races at the oldest track in the land. Its sobriquet, "the midsummer Derby," describes it aptly, especially this year.
For Coronado's Quest, this is the Kentucky Derby. The chestnut colt owned by Stuart S. Janney III missed the Derby this spring because Janney and his trainer, Shug McGaughey, did what few with a potentially great horse ever do: Resist the tremendous lure of the race for what was best for their horse.
They kept Coronado's Quest in New York. Because of that, as well as surgery to repair the colt's breathing problem, Coronado's Quest seemingly has overcome behavioral problems and perhaps will be favored in the Travers.
He will vie with Victory Gallop for the favorite's role, just as he battles the Triple Crown star for an Eclipse Award. With Real Quiet, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, sidelined indefinitely with an injury, the Travers features the only 3-year-olds still in the running for a year-end championship.
"With what happened in the Haskell, I think we might be a little ahead," said Janney, who lives in Butler. "If Victory Gallop should win this race, I think he'd be a little bit ahead.
"I don't think the winner of the Travers can prance around saying he's the 3-year-old champion. But this race is very important."
In the Buick Haskell Invitational Handicap three weeks ago at Monmouth Park, Coronado's Quest defeated Victory Gallop in their first meeting. But the Haskell was 1 1/8 miles. The Travers is 1 1/4 miles, the classic American distance, the distance of the Kentucky Derby.
Many believe that favors Victory Gallop, who finished powerfully for second in the Derby. He finished second in the Preakness and then charged furiously down the stretch in the Belmont, a demanding race of 1 1/2 miles, to nip Real Quiet by a nose.
"I do think the distance and the circumference of the racetrack [1 1/8 miles, with wide turns and a long stretch] do play into our hands a little bit," said Elliott Walden, Victory Gallop's trainer. "I'm as confident as I can be.
"I think he's sitting on a big one, the second off a layoff. His second-off-a-layoff in the spring was the Arkansas Derby, where he ran a great race to beat Favorite Trick."
Coronado's Quest has never raced 1 1/4 miles, although he easily won his three races at the 1 1/8 distance.
"Everybody's talking about the added distance," said Buzz Tenney, assistant to McGaughey, the colt's trainer. "But if he gets out there on a comfortable lead, he could run off to the Adirondacks.
"I think there's something left in him we haven't even gotten to yet. There's another gear there. He's probably going to need it [today]."
Coronado's Quest and Victory Gallop are "the cream of the race," in McGaughey's words, but six other 3-year-olds are entered.
A stablemate of Victory Gallop, Sheila's Flag is a "rabbit" whose sole duty would be pressing Coronado's Quest early to set up Victory Gallop's run late -- if Sheila's Flag runs. Walden said he'll decide this morning whether to start him.
Grand Slam finished a strong third in the Haskell. But he has won only once this year in six tries. Dice Dancer has never won past a mile.
Archers Bay won the first two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown, including the Queen's Plate at 1 1/4 miles. But he flopped in his Travers prep, finishing sixth in the 1 1/8 -mile Jim Dandy Stakes.
Raffie's Majesty finished third in the Jim Dandy. His trainer, H. James Bond, perennially optimistic, predicted his colt will hit the board in the Haskell.
The one horse McGaughey said he feared, other than Victory Gallop, is Deputy Diamond. In his first dance with stakes company, Deputy Diamond waltzed home second in the Jim Dandy.
None of the challengers seems a serious threat to the top two. But remember, this is Saratoga, which is not only charming and spirited but also the so-called "graveyard of favorites."
"We've seen it happen time and time again up here," said McGaughey, referring to the countless upsets over this historic ground. "Some strange things happen here."
It just so happens that this summer marks the 25th anniversary of Onion's shocking triumph over Secretariat here in the 1973 Whitney Handicap, one of the greatest upsets in racing history.
NOTE: In the $200,000 King's Bishop Stakes, a Grade II race of seven furlongs on the Travers undercard, Secret Firm meets Favorite Trick, the 1997 Horse of the Year. A winner of five straight, Secret Firm is owned, trained and ridden by Marylanders.
What: Travers Stakes
Distance: 1 1/4 miles
Post time: 5: 10 p.m.
TV: 4: 30 p.m., ESPN
Forecast: Sunny, 70s
Co-favorites: Victory Gallop, Coronado's Quest
Maryland connection: Stuart S. Janney III owns Coronado's Quest
Pub Date: 8/29/98