SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Wicked Strong, the star of his stable, was tiring in the final 100 yards, and his rising star, V.E. Day, was charging hard. In a sport with no sure things, trainer Jimmy Jerkens suddenly was a lock to win Saturday's 145th Travers Stakes. The only uncertainty was which 3-year-old thoroughbred it would be.
V.E. Day, a 19-1 shot, appeared to nose out Wicked Strong in the final stride of a photo finish, but maybe not. Race caller Tom Durkin ad-libbed: "Who won the Travers? Jimmy Jerkens.'' A minute or so later, V.E. Day's number went up, and the Saratoga crowd of 46,557 roared to salute V.J.J. Day.
Yet as V.E. Day and jockey Javier Castellano began rallying wide in the stretch, at first Jerkens wasn't rooting for them. "I wasn't absolutely sure it was V.E. Day because he had so much mud on him,'' he said. "Not until they got a little closer, and then I saw the silks and knew it was him. I said, 'Man, what a feeling. I know I'm going to win the Travers, I just don't know with who.' ''
The soft-spoken son of Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens reflected on the greatest moment of his career. "It means an awful lot,'' Jimmy Jerkens said. "It's unreal.''
Yet even amid ultimate success, there was a slight pang of loss. "I just feel bad for Wicked Strong, that's the only thing,'' he said. "He ran so hard. But I'll take it.''
Who wouldn't? Jerkens became the only trainer besides Nick Zito (Birdstone, The Cliff's Edge) in 2004 to run 1-2 in the Midsummer Derby. And he wasn't the only double winner of the Spa's $1.25-million centerpiece. Magalen O. Bryant not only owns V.E. Day but also is part of the Centennial Farms syndicate that owns Wicked Strong.
Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist was third, 2 1/2 lengths farther back and 3 1/2 in front of Kid Cruz. Pacesetter Bayern, the 2-1 favorite, finished last 27 days after ruling the $1-million Haskell by 7 1/4 lengths.
V.E. Day is named for May 8, 1945, the final day of World War II in Europe. He ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.93 and paid $41 for his fourth win in six starts and first Grade I. He earned $670,000, raising his total to $829,010.
Trainer Bob Baffert had expressed reservations about Bayern's ability to stay 1 1/4 miles, and he couldn't. Tonalist and Wicked Strong, each at 5-2, refused to let Bayern get another easy lead, pressuring him for a mile before he backpedaled to 10th.
"When he turned for home, [Martin Garcia] was out of horse,'' Baffert said from California. "The Haskell may have taken something out of him. We were hoping to steal it, but the secret was out.''
V.E. Day, a son of turf champion English Channel, was sixth, about 5 1/2 lengths behind Wicked Strong, after a mile. At the eighth pole, the winner of the Wood Memorial and Jim Dandy led Tonalist by 1 1/2 lengths and V.E. Day by three. As Tonalist faded, V.E. Day and Castellano kept coming.
"I just took my time,'' said Castellano, who won his fourth Travers, including the 2010 edition on Afleet Express for Jerkens. "I'm very happy for Jimmy. He's a great horseman.''
He never could be greater than he was yesterday.