TRAVERS STAKES | PURSE: $1,000,000 | GRADE: 1 | 3-YEAR-OLDS | 1 1/4 MILES
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher ended an emotionally draining 34-minute period on a high Saturday afternoon as Stay Thirsty vaulted to the top of the 3-year-old division with a determined 1 1/4-length victory over Rattlesnake Bridge in Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes before a crowd of 43,050 at Saratoga.
Stay Thirsty's victory came one race after Uncle Mo – last year's 2-year-old champion – fell a nose short to Caleb's Posse in the Grade 1 King's Bishop in his first start in four months. Both Stay Thirsty and Uncle Mo are owned by Repole and trained by Pletcher.
"This is a roller-coaster game, a bipolar game, highs and lows," Repole said. "I don't think you're ever going to experience a lower low and a higher high within a 30-minute span. It would have been a nice historic double; these two races are in the top 10 races I want to win in my life. I wanted to win both really, really bad, but this is a really, really good consolation prize."
The win gave Stay Thirsty his first Grade 1 victory and his third graded stakes triumph of the year. In March, he won the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct. Four weeks ago, he won the Grade 2 Jim Dandy here.
"I think he separates himself from every other 3-year-old by far right now," said Repole, who bought Stay Thirsty, a son of 2006 Jim Dandy and Travers winner Bernardini for $500,000 at last year's Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old in training sale in Florida. "There's no doubt in my mind he's the best 3-year-old in the country."
Down the backside, Castellano found himself between Ruler On Ice to his inside and Moonshine Mullin to his outside while a length behind Shackleford.
At the 4 1/2-furlong marker, Stay Thirsty moved into second and crept alongside Shackleford with three furlongs remaining. He forged to the lead at the five-sixteenths pole and with one crack of Castellano's whip, Stay Thirsty spurted clear turning for home.
Rattlesnake Bridge, under John Velazquez, was producing a four-wide run into contention, but at the eighth pole Rattlesnake Bridge began to drift a little while Stay Thirsty persevered to the wire. Stay Thirsty covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.03 and returned $6.80 to win.
"To me, this horse ran a really, really huge race," Pletcher said. "He ran from the gate to the wire, a mile and a quarter every step of the way, nothing was handed to him at any point. He was in between horses, under pressure the whole way, he just kept finding more. To me, this was a really, really courageous effort."
Rattlesnake Bridge finished second by 1 1/2 lengths over J W Blue. He was followed in the order of finish by Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice, Malibu Glow, Moonshine Mullin, Bowman's Causeway, Preakness winner Shackleford, Raison d'Etat, and Haskell Invitational winner Coil, who was eased by Martin Garcia.
Castellano said Stay Thirsty caught him by surprise when he went for the early lead.
"I didn't expect to be on the lead, but the horse he beat the gate and I ended up on the lead,'" said Castellano, who won his second straight Travers and third in six years. "He gave me a little bit of a hard time the first part of the race. On the backside, he settled down, I was able to put him outside, and I think that was the key to winning the race."
Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Rattlesnake Bridge, thought in upper stretch that his horse was going to catch Stay Thirsty.
"I thought we were going to get him turning for home, the other one found more, he ran a big race," McLaughlin said. "We were second best."
The two biggest disappointments in the field were Haskell one-two finishers Coil and Shackleford. Coil was taken back by Garcia and never got involved. He was basically eased across the wire.
"I think when he broke, he should have gone," trainer Bob Baffert said.
Shackleford, known for his consistency, folded his tent after a mile and was beaten 20 lengths.
"He wasn't himself today in the race," trainer Dale Romans said. "Usually when somebody's in front, he'll at least be a little more aggressive than he was today. I don't know. We're going to go back and check him out now and hopefully everything's okay."