SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – V. E. Day capped an emotional weekend for trainer Jimmy Jerkens on Saturday, flying down the stretch to catch more heralded stablemate Wicked Strong and win the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes by a nose at Saratoga Race Course.
It was the second career Travers victory for Jerkens, a son of legendary Hall of Fame horseman H. Allen Jerkens, who was honored the previous afternoon for his contributions to racing during a 64-year career. The elder Jerkens, 85, who never won the Travers, stayed behind in Florida this summer after spending many years on the Saratoga backstretch.
“Everybody misses him, not just me. He was such a mainstay,” Jimmy Jerkens said. “It’s really special, and I know he was watching it at home. I haven’t talked to him yet, but I’m sure he’s just delighted.”
Ridden by Javier Castellano, who notched his record-tying fourth Travers victory, V. E. Day ran 1 ¼ miles in 2:02.93 and returned $41 for a $2 win bet as the 19-1 sixth choice in a field of 10 3-year-olds. It was the fourth-highest win payoff in the Mid-Summer Derby and the most since Crewman paid $41.90 in 1963.
The margin of victory matched the shortest in Travers history and was the first by a nose since Afleet Express edged Fly Down for Jerkens and Castellano in 2010. In the 2012 Travers, Alpha and Golden Ticket dead-heated to win.
“It means an awful lot. It’s unreal,” Jerkens said. “I just feel bad for Wicked Strong; that’s the only thing. He ran so hard. [But] I’ll take it.”
As expected, 2-1 favorite Bayern broke on top and went straight for the front from post 2, taking the field through a quarter-mile in 23.74 seconds, a half in 47.31 and six furlongs in 1:11.27, pressed by Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, while Wicked Strong tracked the leaders on the outside.
Jockey Rajiv Maragh began to urge Wicked Strong leaving the backstretch as Bayern started to fade, passing Tonalist and taking a short lead into the stretch. Wicked Strong extended his advantage approaching the eighth pole as V. E. Day, unhurried in the early going, launched a bid on the outside.
Under a steady drive from Castellano, V. E. Day gained on a determined Wicked Strong in the final sixteenth of a mile, drawing on even terms before getting up in a final desperate lunge at the wire.
“I wasn’t absolutely sure it was V. E. Day because he had so much mud on him, until they got a little closer and I saw the silks and then I knew it was him,” Jerkens said. “I said, ‘Man, what a feeling. I know I’m going to win the Travers; I just don’t know with who.'”
Jerkens, 55, became the first trainer to run 1-2 in the Travers since Hall of Famer Nick Zito with Birdstone and The Cliff’s Edge, respectively, in 2004.
It was 2 ½ lengths back to Tonalist in third, who was followed under the line by Kid Cruz, Mr Speaker, Viva Majorca, Charge Now, Ulanbator, Commanding Curve and Bayern.
Castellano joined Hall of Famers Eddie Arcaro, Braulio Baeza, Jimmy McLaughlin and Pat Day as the only jockeys to win four Travers. Castellano, who swept Saturday’s final three races as part of a four-win day, also won in 2006, 2010 and 2011.
“I’m very fortunate to ride a lot of good horses. I’m very blessed to win four Travers,” Castellano said. “I’m happy for Jimmy; he’s a great horseman. He does such a good job.”
While Wicked Strong was proven in graded stakes competition, having won the Grade 1 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial in April and the Grade 2 Jim Dandy on July 26 at Saratoga while running fourth in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, V. E. Day was making his graded stakes debut off a come-from-behind victory in the Curlin Stakes on July 26.
Owned by Magalen O. Bryant, V. E. Day has now won four consecutive races and earned $670,000 to push his career bankroll to $829,010 in six starts.
“That darn Jimmy Jerkens, you can’t beat that guy!” Maragh said. “That race unfolded just the way I wanted it to. Bayern wasn’t loose on the lead and I had them both on my side. It’s just a tough beat. I just kept on riding [when I saw V. E. Day down the lane]. It was just an unfortunate bob.”