It’s Travers Week at Saratoga and this week I’ll take a look back at those – for various reasons – I find particularly memorable.
My childhood heroes have always been my Mom and Dad. The list of reasons why could fill a book.
But in the world of sports, no one held a candle to Eddie Maple.
As a Yankee fan I loved Dent, Nettles and Munson. In football, Phil Simms was amazing to watch. Oh the beatings that man took Sunday after Sunday. And he always got up and went back at ’em again. The man just refused to quit.
But racing was my game and Maple was my jock. I can’t explain exactly why. It might have been because I always liked Woody Stephens and he was his go-to guy. It might have been because he rode Secretariat in his last race, a win in the 1973 Canadian International. It might have been because you could always rely on Maple to give 100% every time he got a leg up. Maybe it was because I made a lot of money on him, playing well priced horses on the grass at Saratoga.
But mostly I think it was because he was underestimated as a rider. In a time when Cordero and Velasquez ruled the NY racing roost, Maple didn’t always get the same calls to ride and had to work a little harder than some others. But that’s just the opinion of a kid at the track.
In 1980 he rode Belmont Stakes winner Temperance Hill in the Travers.
He was dead last in a first quarter that went in :22 3/5; then again at the half:45 4/5 and still trailing the field after three quarters in 1:10 1/5.
The leader through most of the going was Amber Pass. As they head to the top of the stretch Amber Pass went wide. Maple and Temperance Hill had the perfect ground saving rail trip. When I watch the video it looks like he gained two or three lengths with every stride. A hard left turn at the quarter pole and the Belmont winner was full of run. Maple, under strong right handed whip, passed the leaders and crossed under the wire in 2:02 4/5; a length and a half to the good of his foes. They would go on to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont that fall, too.
My favorite jock just won my favorite race. What could be better than that?
Fast forward a year and Maple gets the call on Willow Hour, with whom he won the Jim Dandy two weeks prior.
They break well and take a stalking approach, about four lengths off the leader up the backside. When they reached the far turn Maple and Willow Hour take to the front. A surge from Pleasant Colony – winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness that year – moves alongside.
Together they race through the muck like their mothers were ducks and when they reached the wire, Maple earned his second straight Travers by a desperate neck.
Then came 1982. Maple is going for his third straight Travers Stakes and his chances look fantastic.
Riding Belmont Stakes winner Conquistador Cielo, he goes off as the 2/5 favorite.
Graveyard of Champions be damned! Eddie’s gonna ride through the ghosts of Saratoga Stakes Races past with that same strong right handed whip and blow the old roof off this joint.
Derby winner Gato Del Sol with Jorge Velasquez and Preakness champ Aloma’s Ruler with Angel Cordero, Jr. are also entered/
But Maple was nearly thwarted before the race began. He got a suspension for an infraction and had to fight like the devil to get an injunction to ride. If memory serves it wasn’t until that very morning of the Travers we learned Maple got the OK.
They all break well and Conquistador Cielo and Alohma’s Ruler were within a length of each other, setting a fast pace of :23 2/5, :46 2/6 and 1:10 3/5.
At the head of the stretch they remained together with Maple and Cordero driving their horses furiously. Conquistador Cielo puts a long neck in front.
“Yes! Go Eddie! Go Eddie!” I am screaming from the second floor of the clubhouse. I vaguely remember my Mom trying to get me to calm down. Apparently this screaming maniac is drawing attention to himself.
But out of nowhere comes this longshot. A gray blur striding beautifully past them.
“Who the hell is that?!” I yelled.
I nearly threw up.
It was all I could do not to drop to my knees and hurl.
But instead, like any self respecting New York racing fan, I cried at the top of my lungs “Noooooooooooooooooooo!”
I was sick. Absolutely sick to my stomach.
Runaway Groom, a Canadian invader, just upset three classic winners.
I threw a bloody fit. I had never had cause to be angry in my life like this – not up to that point anyhow – and I believed this was just cause.
Mom, on the other hand, saw it a bit differently.
Maple then served his suspension and alas, so did I.
Mom banned me from the track until I could learn to behave myself.
To this day I can’t see how she didn’t throttle me right then and there in the Clubhouse. But, like most Moms she knew how to really get me for my behavior. Keep her kid from the track.
What I would have done for a whoopin’ instead of missing a day or two of races at The Spa.
That was 28 years ago and I cannot say still haven’t gotten over it completely.
I tried to find blame everywhere I could. There was none.
Maybe they went to fast. Maybe, it was Canada’s idea of revenge for him winning the ’73 Canadian International. Who knows?
Maybe it’s just time to move on.
Truth be told, I have … but it wasn’t until last summer that I felt I could.
It was then – at long last – that Eddie Maple was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame. With 4,398 wins and over $105mm in purses, Maple rode from 1965 through 1998.
Deservedly, he reached the pinnacle of his sport.
My childhood sports hero made it to the Hall of Fame.
I couldn’t have been happier for him if I were his own son.
But make no mistake; my Mom and Dad are still dead-heated for the win as far as heroes go.