Graveyard of Champions: Saratoga a Stage for Historic Upsets

Here’s an example of what can happen on any given day during the summer season at Saratoga Race Course:

On July 24, 2017, in the day’s first race, a horse appropriately named Perplexed left bettors dumbfounded when he took the lead by the eighth pole and won a $30,000 maiden claimer – at odds of 115-1.

How did the odds get so high on a 3-year-old under the care of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winner of 14 Triple Crown races, including the Kentucky Derby four times?

A quick glance at the colt’s past performances gave a clue – winless in nine career starts coming into the 6 ½-furlong sprint in a field of 12, with Your Secret’s Safe the 9-10 favorite. In his two previous starts, both at Churchill Downs, he was beaten by a combined 20 ¼ lengths.

Perplexed was 20-1 on the morning line, with apprentice jockey Luis Reyes aboard. The track was sloppy and sealed, and as post time neared, the odds soared, moving to 80-1 at one point before the gates opened, and Lukas said at that time “he’s not that bad.”

Bettors thought he was worse, but when Perplexed rounded the turn for home, the afterburners kicked in and he held on by a half-length over Your Secret’s Safe.

The return on a $2 win bet was $232.50, the exacta paid $534, and the trifecta returned $2,683.

For the history books, Perplexed never won again, and finished his career with that lone victory in 23 starts.

While this was simply a maiden claimer, the Spa is universally known as the “Graveyard of Champions,” where inconceivable results sometimes take place:

Here are some of the more famous:

1919: Upset-Man o’War (Sanford)

Unbeaten coming into the Sanford for 2-year-olds, heavy favorite Man o’War was fractious at the starting line, breaking through the starting tape several times before the race finally went off. By the time Man o’War made a charge for the lead in the 6-furlong sprint, it was too little, too late, as Upset held on and won by an official margin of a half-length, although many agree it was closer to a head. It was the only loss of Man o’War’s career – 20 victories in 21 races.

1930: Jim Dandy-Gallant Fox (Travers)

On a stormy day at Spa, about 30,000 fans showed up for the Travers, even New York Governor FDR. Triple Crown champion Gallant Fox was the odds-on favorite in a four-horse field, but the champ and Whichone dueled in the center of the track, and 100-1 shot Jim Dandy cruised past among the rail and won by eight lengths. Reportedly, some bookmakers were giving 500-1 odds on Jim Dandy. (The Jim Dandy Stakes has been a traditional Travers prep since 1964).

1973: Onion-Secretariat (Whitney)

This was the big one: Secretariat, fresh off a mind-blowing 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes to complete the first Triple Crown sweep in 25 years (all in track record times), was the 1-10 favorite.

The track was listed as fast, but the day was hot and humid, and the track was deep after rain a day earlier.

Big Red also had a slight fever the morning of the race, and then smacked his head on the gate at the start.

Whoa! Not even Secretariat could overcome so many obstacles. And it was a sprinter named Onion who took the lead from the start and never wavered as Secretariat, under Ron Turcotte, finished a length behind in second place.

Hall of Famer H. Allen Jerkens was the trainer of Onion and earned the nickname as “giant killer’’ as he saddled more than his share of surprise winners over heavily favored opponents. Later in the year, Jerkens’ Prove Out beat Secretariat in the Woodward at Belmont.

1982: Runaway Groom-Gato Del Sol, Aloma’s Ruler, Conquistador Cielo (Travers)

Fourth choice in a field of five, Canada bred Runaway Groom managed to beat the winners of each of the Triple Crown races of ‘82, Gato Del Sol (Derby), Aloma’s Ruler (Preakness), and Conquistador Cielo.

Runaway Groom had never won a stakes race in America and was completely overlooked by bettors in an event that rarely takes place – three Classic winners in the same race for 3-year-olds.

With the Belmont and Preakness winners dueling for the lead, Runaway Groom hung back under jockey Jeff Fell, then came through with a winning rally and easily won the race and returned $27.80. Conquistador Cielo was the 2-5 favorite in the race.

2015: Keen Ice-American Pharoah (Travers)

The “Midsummer Derby” was to be a showcase for American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. His sweep of the Classics with popular Bob Baffert as his trainer, energized a sport that needed a boost.

A few days before the race, tens of thousands of racegoers showed up for the colt’s morning gallop, and cheered him at every turn.

But on Aug. 29, in front of a crowd of 50,000, the “Graveyard of Champions” struck again … American Pharoah took the lead but Frosted hounded him and the two battled for much of the race, while 16-1 outside Keen Ice under Javier Castellano stalked the pace.

In the stretch, Frosted briefly led, but American Pharoah, with Victor Espinoza aboard, regained an edge only see Keen Ice come through and win by three-quarters of a length.

The crowd was stunned for a moment, fully expecting racing’s newest hero to prevail. When it was over, a disappointed Baffert said, “I’m not used to being in this position with him. It’s hard to digest right now.”


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