SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Too close to call indeed.
Track announcer Tom Durkin couldn’t pick the winner of the $1 million Travers Stakes, and neither could anyone else when Alpha, a colt trained in Aiken, and Golden Ticket flashed across the finish line Saturday at absolutely the same time.
The photo finish sign went up immediately on the infield toteboard at Saratoga Race Course, and a few minutes later, the race was declared an official dead heat – the first time the Travers wound up with two winners in 143 runnings dating to 1864.
“I thought we were beat at first, then I thought we won,” said an ecstatic Ken McPeek, who trains 33-1 long-shot Golden Ticket. “I couldn’t tell. I’m thrilled we finished in a dead heat.”
It appeared Golden Ticket would be alone in the winner’s circle as the field of 11 3-year-olds rounded the final turn and headed down the stretch on a hot and humid day. With David Cohen aboard, Golden Ticket moved inside and grabbed the advantage. But jockey Ramon Dominguez kept urging on 2-1 favorite Alpha, and the game colt trained by Kiaran McLaughlin caught his rival in the final stride.
The crowd of 46,528 roared, while McLaughlin and McPeek smiled and high-fived each other in the grandstand when the result was official.
“It’s a dead heat but it goes in the ‘W’ column,” said McLaughlin, who added a Travers win to his Alabama score last week with 3-year-old filly Questing. “It doesn’t happen very often in a Grade 1, $1 million race, but we’re all happy it happened today.”
The 1874 Travers also ended in a dead heat, but Attila was declared the official winner after a runoff with Acrobat.
Fast Falcon, send off at 32-1, was a neck behind the winners in third place. Atigun, also trained by McPeek, was fourth, followed by Nonios, Neck ‘n Neck, Stealcase, Speightscity, Liaison, Five Sixteen and Street Life. The winning time for the 1 1/4 miles was 2:02.74.
Alpha returned $4.10, $5.10 and $3.90, and Golden Ticket paid $26.80, $26.40 and $11.80. Fast Falcon, trained by Nick Zito, returned $13.60.
McPeek is familiar with pulling off upsets. In 2002, he won the Belmont Stakes with 70-1 shot Sarava, who spoiled War Emblem’s Triple Crown bid. But he’ll certainly share this win with a fellow trainer from Lexington, Ky.
“It would have been a heartbreaker for either one of us to lose,” said McPeek, who decided on Tuesday to give Golden Ticket a chance in the Travers because several other options didn’t pan out.
McPeek insisted Golden Ticket was training well, and would run a big race. McLaughlin felt the same way about his colt, who matched his sire Bernardini by completing the Jim Dandy-Travers double.
“We thought he would run great, and he did,” said McLaughlin, who trains Alpha for Sheik Mohammed’s Godolphin Racing.
This Travers may have been without the best of the 3-year-old bunch, including retired Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another and Belmont winner Union Rags, but it turned into a race for the record books. And it came on the 50th anniversary of another great finish <0x2014> in the 1962 Travers, Jaipur and Ridan dueled the entire race before Jaipur won by a nose.
As expected, Speightscity shot straight to the lead from the rail, with Stealcase second Alpha racing comfortably in third place. With a quarter mile to go, Golden Ticket took the lead, and Alpha moved up to second. With the crowd cheering as the two raced to the finish, Alpha closed ground steadily and Durkin shout from high atop the Spa that it was too close to call.
Dominguez didn’t know who won, either.
“I don’t think either of us really knew,” Dominguez said, referring to Cohen. “When we both realized it was dead heat, we were pretty relieved and pretty happy at the same time.”
Travers tradition calls for a canoe sitting in a lake in the infield to be painted in the winning colors. It now appears there will be two canoes.
“I’m wondering who gets the canoe, how they’re going to paint it the canoe,” said McLaughlin. “That’s very important at this time.”
Alpha came into the Travers off a win in the Jim Dandy, while Golden Ticket was a last-minute entry by McPeek and had won only one of nine career starts.
In earlier races:
• Willy Beamin ($24.80) ran down the leaders in the stretch for a surprising win in the $500,000 King’s Bishop just three days after the colt trained by Rick Dutrow Jr. won the Albany Stakes.
• Even-money choice Contested ($4) took the lead with an eighth-mile to go after losing her footing at the start and won the $500,000 Test Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by two lengths over Gypsy Robin. Trained by Bob Baffert, Contested won for the fifth time in her last six starts.
• Zagora ($5) took charge in the final eighth-mile and won the $250,000 Ballston Spa for fillies and mares by 1 1/2 lengths over Hungry Island.