SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- They ran the Travers Stakes for the 141st time on Saturday at Saratoga and one would be hard-pressed to find a closer finish. In a result that was befitting the type of summer it has been for jockeys Javier Castellano and Jose Lezcano and trainer Nick Zito, Afleet Express, under Castellano, won the Mid-Summer Derby by a nostril over the Zito-trained and Lezcano-ridden Fly Down.
It was the ninth time in the history of the Travers that the official margin was a nose, but it's hard to believe any photo was tighter than this one.
Afleet Express, who was forced to steady entering the first turn, saved ground down the backside under Castellano, came outside of the pacesetting Miner's Reserve in upper stretch, made the lead outside the eighth pole and held off a late-running Fly Down at the wire. Fly Down, who did not change leads in the stretch, finished second by 6 3/4 lengths over First Dude. Afleet Again, the longshot on the board finished fourth.
"When he got through I thought I won the race by the eighth pole," Castellano said. "But he hung a little bit in the last part of the race and the other horse, I give him credit too, he finished very strong. But I'm very lucky on the bob I won the race. The photo finish could go either way. I'm very lucky today and it went my way."
It has been going Castellano's way the entire meet. It was ninth stakes win of the Saratoga stand, his first Grade 1. It was his second win of the day, and his 43rd of the meet, good enough for second in the standings behind John Velazquez's 46. Castellano has won at least three races on a card eight times this meet, including a five-win day on July 25.
Conversely, the narrow loss by Fly Down continued a month of misery for Lezcano and Zito. Lezcano is 6 for 126 here this summer and the Travers was his 21st second-place finish of the meet. Zito is 2 for 36 at this meet, including Miner's Reserve and Ice Box, who finished seventh and eighth, respectively, in the Travers.
"It was really, really tough, it's really unbelievable, this could have made everything," said Zito, who also finished second in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont. "It's just the way the meet's been going for myself and Jose. We got to be grateful to have horse run like this; the only thing is it's sad we didn't get in the winner's circle."
Afleet Express, a son of Afleet Alex owned by Gainesway Stable and Martin Cherry and trained by Jimmy Jerkens, became the first 3-year-old to win the Travers that did not run in a Triple Crown race since Coronado's Quest in 1998. Afleet Express won the Grade 3 Pegasus at Monmouth Park in June before finishing third in the Jim Dandy here last month.
In that race, Afleet Express appeared to be backing up approaching the stretch, and then lugged in a bit in the stretch. Saturday, he was moving forward at all times.
Afleet Express settled into fifth position down the backside after steadying between horses entering the first turn. Miner's Reserve set the pace, chased by First Dude, Trappe Shot, and A Little Warm, who was a little wide for most of the trip.
Miner's Reserve, under David Cohen, ran six furlongs in 1:11.39, and Castellano had his horse within four lengths off the lead while in fifth. He made advanced steadily around the turn, came off the rail to go around Miner's Reserve in upper stretch and made the lead under alternating right- and left-handed urging from Castellano. In deep stretch, Castellano resorted to just a vigorous hand ride to get the wire first.
"I don't think if you hit him one more time it's going to make any difference because the finish line is right there," Castellano said.
Afleet Express covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.28 and returned $16 to win as the sixth choice in the field of 12.
"I'm glad he got to a certain spot, he didn't drop back any," Jerkens said. "Javier wasn't moving his arms on him like he was in the Jim Dandy and I thought we had a hell of a shot after that."
Jim Dandy winner A Little Warm, the morning-line favorite who went off the 9-2 second choice finished fifth, beaten 10 1/2 lengths.
"Perfect position where I was, got to the three-eighths pole I started getting after him and he just finished even," said John Velazquez, who rode A Little Warm.
Trappe Shot, who was sent off the $3.90-1 favorite - the longest price favorite since Greek Spy went off 9-2 in 1956 - faded to ninth. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said his horse "just did not fire."
Super Saver, the Kentucky Derby winner was 10th. Jockey Calvin Borel said that "between the three-eighths pole and the quarter I pole I tested him, and I had no pony."
Admiral Alex, making the second start of his career, predictably finished last.