Early last Saturday afternoon, trainer Roger Laurin paid a last-minute call on Angel Cordero Jr. in the jockeys' quarters at Saratoga to discuss once again his strategy for handling Chiefs Crown in the Travers Stakes.
Much was riding on the race, and not only for Cordero and Laurin. The 20 syndicate members who had shelled out $500,000 a share last fall for a breeding right to Chiefs Crown, the 1984 2-year-old champion, had watched in dismay as he went winless in this year's Triple Crown races. Though he was the betting favorite in all three, the colt had run a luckless third in the Kentucky Derby, a desperate second in the Preakness, then a fading third in the Belmont Stakes. Two weeks earlier the Chief finally won a race, his first since April—the Tell Stakes at Saratoga. A few minutes later, however, he was disqualified for interference and placed fourth. Thus the Travers was a do-or-die situation for the colt and his syndicate.
For himself, Laurin was eager to see the Chief prove, despite his Triple Crown failures and his middle-distance pedigree, that he was more than a nine-furlong racehorse—that he could stay a full 10 furlongs when the heat was on. And Cordero? Well, although he has had one of the most illustrious careers in the history of race-riding, the 42-year-old jockey had yet to win the Travers Stakes, the most prestigious of summer races for 3-year-olds.
It was with this in mind that Laurin, having determined his strategy, visited Cordero on Saturday afternoon. "I want you to take the horse back, eight or so lengths off the pace," Laurin said.
Few trainers tell Cordero how to ride, and certainly not when he is aboard a colt as versatile and tractable as the Chief. So Cordero flinched. "It looked like "there was no speed in the race," Cordero said, "and I was thinking about going to the lead and stealing it."
That is, he was thinking about sending Chief's Crown to the front and getting him to relax, then daring anyone to make chase, particularly Stephan's Odyssey, the colt that 71-year-old trainer Woody Stephens would be saddling in search of his first Travers winner. Cordero's plan made sense: The Chief presses the pace, swallows any crow who insists upon pushing it, turns for home in front by two and gallops home. A laugher.
Outside of Stephan's Odyssey, Skip Trial and Turkoman—all legitimate stretch runners with a chance to win—only Don's Choice was capable of bleeding Chiefs Crown on the lead. As Cordero figured it, and rightly so, there really was no early pace.
Cordero told Laurin this, but Laurin only waved him away. "I know there's nobody with a lot of speed," Laurin told the rider, "but just get the first half mile in 49 [seconds] and I know there's no horse that can sprint with him the last quarter of a mile."
Cordero shrugged. And nodded. "I'd rather listen to Roger," Cordero, the ultimate pragmatist, said later. "If my horse gets beat and I follow orders, I always got a shot to ride him again. If I ride him my way and he doesn't win, I get fired." Clearly, after watching the Chief take the lead too early in both the Preakness and the Belmont, Laurin had opted to take no chances in the Travers. "Last year his best races were from off the pace," he said.
So Cordero rode him Roger's way. What the crowd of 45,067 wound up seeing, with Cordero following Laurin's orders to the letter—he got the half mile in exactly 49 seconds—was a curiously lethargic race devoid of the drama that one has come to expect of the Travers. Taking back off a slow early pace—one that would have gotten them beat had there been a genuine pacesetter—Cordero and Chief's Crown drew close to Turkoman and Skip Trial on the turn for home, bounded past those two and raced off to win by 2� lengths, with Turkoman second, three ahead of Skip Trial.