Two years ago, on their farm outside Lexington, Ky., Virginia Payson and her husband, Charles, used to make a point of taking off every day in their gasoline-driven golf cart to visit the yearlings. Inevitably, they ended up unhinging the gate and driving into the largest paddock, where six colts were pastured. Of those six, the Paysons owned four; the other two were boarders. Despite his suspicious knees, one of the two, socially speaking, was a stick-out.
"I loved him," Virginia says. "He was very calm. He was very intelligent in the sense that he looked at everything. And he was very aggressive." One day the Paysons drove into the field, and the colts approached the cart. "They all came up and sniffed and jumped back, sniffed and jumped back," Virginia recalls. All except that one colt, a son of the sensational sprinter Star de Naskra, out of a winning daughter of Cornish Prince. "He jumped up and put his two feet into the golf cart."
Charles was instantly smitten. "This one loves me," he told his wife. "He wants to sit in my lap."
That fall, when the colt appeared on the block at Keeneland, the Paysons didn't hesitate to keep an old friend in the family. They bought him for $43,000 and named him after their farm manager at the time, Ted Carr, calling him Carr de Naskra.
Last Saturday, as unruffled and aggressive as he was as a yearling, Carr de Naskra made it suddenly and emphatically known that he's the best 3-year-old colt in America by winning Saratoga's $250,000-added Travers Stakes, the historic Midsummer Derby, by three-quarters of a length. Under America's premier jockey, Laffit Pincay Jr., who thought enough of his chances that he winged it from California to New York to ride him, Carr de Naskra raced in a trap for all but the final 200 yards, swung out when the leaders started moonwalking in front of him early in the stretch, then took off sprinting through a final blistering eighth of a mile to win it. The finish was breathtaking, with jockey Pat Day, on Pine Circle, closing furiously on the rail and Pincay doing the huckabuck to stave him off.
"I looked back and you were flyin'!" Pincay said to Day in the jockeys' room after the race.
"I got right up to you and you got away from me," Day told him. "You was drawin' away again at the wire! Everywhere you go you beat me. You beat me in Omaha. You beat me at Belmont Park. You beat me here."
That Pincay did, but the race and its aftermath really belonged to the Paysons. As they sauntered arm-in-arm from the box seats to the winner's circle, Charles, 85, was in tears. His wife, holding tightly to his hand, turned to him as they made their way through the clubhouse and said, "I don't believe it! We won the Travers!"
"We did it!" Charles said. "Oh, boy! That's something. It's about time!"
In fact, it had been only seven years since they married, only five since they bought their first six yearlings together and decided to get into the racing business. For most of his life, Charles Payson had been one of this country's richest and most successful industrialists. He had been a copper baron, a sugar importer and at one time held the first patent on stainless steel. His wife of 51 years, the late Joan Whitney Payson, founded the New York Mets and, in partnership with her brother, John Hay (Jock) Whitney, owned Greentree Stud, for years one of America's most prominent thoroughbred nurseries.