SARATOGA SPRINGS — Fifteen years ago — hard to believe it has been that long — Birdstone’s brilliant dash through the darkness at the Spa was a scene unlike any other in the grand history of both the Travers Stakes and Saratoga Race Course.
The 2004 Midsummer Derby proved to be one of the storied race’s most unforgettable editions thanks to a determined little colt and the wrath of a mighty thunderstorm that turned a summer afternoon pitch black in a matter of moments. The torrential rain and lightning, however, held off just long enough for Birdstone to successfully navigate his way around the Spa oval for a 2½-length victory before a crowd of 48,894.
As Birdstone hit the wire, the storm hit the track. But for winner’s owner, Marylou Whitney, the wild weather did nothing to diminish her joy.
“This is a dream come true,” Whitney said following the race. “I think the gods came out and did this to sort of congratulate him.”
Birdstone’s trainer, Nick Zito, said the timing of the storm was fortunate.
“God did me a favor again today, as usual,” Zito said. “It didn’t really rain until the race was run. If it had come earlier and they would have sealed the track, we would have scratched.”
Lion Heart, the race’s 5-2 favorite, set a relatively slow pace of 24⅖ seconds for the quarter-mile and 49 seconds flat for the half. Once he hit the top of the stretch, however, Lion Heart was spent and Birdstone drove to the front. Ridden by Edgar Prado, the son of Grindstone flashed past stablemate The Cliff’s Edge to come home in 2:02.45.
“I was hoping the lights at the wire wouldn’t spook him,” said Prado, who won five races on the card. “That was the only thing I was thinking in the back of my head. My horse just kept going. I’m very happy for Nick. There was thunder in the sky and thunder in my horse.”
“The pace was slow early,” said Zito. “The front-runners had their chance.”
The Travers was Birdstone’s first start since he shocked the racing world by depriving Smarty Jones of the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes at odds of 36-1.
After the Belmont, Zito, Prado, and Whitney all expressed a degree of sorrow that Smarty Jones and his legion of fans had been denied the Triple Crown, but the Travers celebration was nothing but blissful for Birdstone’s connections.
“I got soaking wet,” Zito said. “I told everyone I felt like Gene Kelly. I was singing in the rain. We were all singing in the rain. We were ecstatic.”
Whitney added: “I felt just awful when we beat Smarty Jones. I don’t feel awful now. Now, I feel it was right that he beat Smarty Jones.”
“The Travers was vindication,” said Whitney’s husband, John Hendrickson. “Nobody expected Birdstone to win the Belmont and a lot of people were disappointed for Smarty Jones, but when he came back to win the Travers, it was very gratifying. For Marylou to win that race in her hometown it was a most special experience.”
Zito understood the historical significance of Birdstone’s accomplishment.
“Yesterday, you saw Storm Flag Flying win in the Phipps’ colors (in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Handicap),” Zito said after the victory. “Today, you saw Marylou Whitney’s colors flying again. It’s the same thing. It’s what Saratoga is all about. It’s more than 100 years of great tradition. I’m so happy to be part of this.”
Birdstone’s Travers victory was a celebration of “Whitney Blood,” a term often used in conjunction with the magnificent contribution of the Whitney family to thoroughbred breeding and racing. More than a century after William C. Whitney’s purchase and revitalization of Saratoga Race Course, Birdstone carried on the tradition. Birdstone’s dam, Dear Birdie, was sired by the Whitney runner Hush Dear, who twice won the Long Island Handicap at 1½ miles.
Birdstone was sired by Grindstone and is a grandson of Unbridled, both winners of the Kentucky Derby at the Travers distance. Still, this smallish runner possessed high speed, as shown with his runaway 12½-length victory in his career debut going six furlongs in the mud at Saratoga in 2003. After finishing fourth in his next start, the Hopeful Stakes, Birdstone ended his first season with a victory in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park.
Disappointing performances in the Lane’s End and Kentucky Derby the following spring, marked by horrible trips, led Zito to bring Birdstone to his Saratoga barn at the Oklahoma Training Track after the Derby. Zito skipped the Preakness, and in the quiet of spring in the Spa City, prepared Birdstone for the Belmont.
Birdstone raced once more after the Travers, finishing seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Lone Star Park in Texas. He suffered a bone chip during the race and was retired with five wins from nine starts and earnings of $1,575,600.
Sent to Gainesway Farm in Kentucky, Birdstone got off to a remarkable start at stud with his first crop, siring Kentucky Derby Mine That Bird and Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird, who also went on to add a victory in the Travers en route to an Eclipse Award.
Looking back on Birdstone’s Travers victory 15 years later, Hendrickson says the day still resonates fondly with him.
“It really felt like a scene out of the Wizard of Oz. I’ve never seen it so dark there,” he said. “The only light you could see was the one at the finish line. I think we were all a bit nervous it would spook the horses, but Birdstone ran his heart out and he deserved the win. Then the rain came. It filled the (Travers trophy) cup up it was coming down so hard and we were all drinking out of it in celebration. That was absolutely the tops with what it meant for Marylou and Saratoga. It’s what you dream of in this sport. I’ll never forget it and I don’t think anyone else who was there will either.”
Brien Bouyea is the Hall of Fame and Communications Director at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and a former Saratogian sports editor. He is the co-author, along with Michael Veitch, of the new book “The Travers: 150 Years or Saratoga’s Greatest Race.” To learn more about the book, visit www.traversbook.com