Courtesy of NYRA
Marylou Whitney, my wife, gave an unusual instruction to Edgar Prado before he rode Birdstone in the 2004 Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. "Just get second," she told him.
Edgar understood exactly what she meant. Of course, we wanted Birdstone to win on our behalf. But there was strong sentiment to see Smarty Jones, a Pennsylvania-bred who had come out of nowhere to become a national celebrity, complete the Triple Crown after he had won the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes impressively.
We knew how badly the crowd at Belmont Park wanted to see Smarty Jones win, and we did not want to be the ones who got in the way of history and spoil Smarty's Party. Second to Smarty Jones in the Belmont would have been just fine with us.
Fans who came to see the coronation of Smarty Jones instead got a sporting event, one that Birdstone won when he swept past his tiring rival. The outcome was unpopular, to say the least. Prado apologized but pointed out it was his job to do everything possible to win.
Marylou called Mrs. Chapman the next day to apologize. Mrs. Chapman asked for me to come to the phone. "Please tell your wife to stop apologizing," she said. "Your horse kicked our horse's butt."
We always knew Birdstone was a good horse. He won his first race by more than 10 lengths at Saratoga then he won the Champagne Stakes. Coming into January and February of his 3-year-old year, he was ranked among the top five Kentucky Derby contenders.
Although he lost some of his luster when he was beaten on sloppy, sealed tracks at Turfway Park and in the Derby (he lost two shoes in the Derby), we knew he was definitely better than that.
After he won the Belmont at 36-1, the Grade 1 Travers Stakes was all about validating his victory two months before. The Belmont wound up being the last race of Smarty Jones' career, so the spotlight fell on our horse in the Travers.
This time, Marylou told Prado, "Just win it."
As she said that, severe storm clouds were gathering. We kept one eye on the sky and one eye on the track, which had not been sealed. We had become so wary of sloppy, sealed tracks that we would have scratched Birdstone in the Belmont if conditions had come up that way.
Fortunately, the Travers was run before the intense storm began. The mile and a quarter was perfect for Birdstone. He was the kind of horse that could run all day and he held off his rallying stablemate The Cliff's Edge relatively easily.
Some fans dove for cover from the storm. Others ignored the conditions to salute Birdstone, Marylou and Nick. We were all drenched. It hardly seemed to matter. Marylou and our trainer Nick Zito received high fives from the massive crowd and sang, "I'm singing in the rain" as they went to lead Birdstone into the winner's circle to applause that matched the nearby thunder.
We were especially happy for Nick, who earned his first Belmont and Travers victories with Birdstone. Nick is like family to us. Just the year before, he had given us a Kentucky Oaks victory when Bird Town won in stakes record time. The 2003 and 2004 seasons were our greatest in racing, and we will always be grateful to Nick for the incredible job he did.
When we entered the Wishing Well for a post-race dinner, those already in the restaurant treated Marylou to a standing ovation. Birdstone finally had a victory we could all celebrate.
As much as the crowd was understandably against us in the Belmont, we could feel the fans' support for the Travers. Marylou had a lot of loves, but I think Saratoga was always her first love. She loved the town and I think she felt the love of the people. Strangers stopped her to ask if they might have a photo taken with her and that feeling of love and respect was mutual.
No one expected Birdstone to do anything in the Belmont. Everybody had Smarty Jones winning before they ran the race. Everything was different by the time we got to the Travers. Birdstone was a popular horse, a homebred for Marylou Whitney, and one of the favorites.
We could see before the race that bad weather was coming. I was so grateful that they did not seal the track. On a sealed track, anything can happen. We knew Birdstone was a good horse. He thoroughly proved that when he won the Travers. No one could doubt him anymore.
I was proud of Birdstone because when you think of the horses that won the Champagne, Belmont and Travers the way he did, you've got to really dig deep. Easy Goer comes to mind, but there are not too many horses that have done that.
Even the heavy rain that came could not spoil that moment for me. I began singing "I'm singing in the rain" and before long Marylou and others were singing, too. You were drenched. You had no chance of anything being dry. You look at the win picture and you'll see everybody was soaked, soaked but happy.
Everybody asks how we celebrated. With the weather, we didn't want to go far. My wife, Kim, and I had a pizza. And that is how we celebrated one of the most memorable Travers of all time.