SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- A man turning 50 might choose to put his feet up, take a deep breath and relax.
But yesterday at Saratoga, in the final moments of the Travers Stakes, Stuart S. Janney III's heart nearly burst out of his chest. Coronado's Quest, his horse through good times and bad, surged toward the finish line as two powerful thoroughbreds, Victory Gallop and Raffie's Majesty, charged relentlessly, closing the gap with each heart-pounding stride.
When the three game horses passed under the wire separated by inches, Coronado's Quest was a nose in front. His narrow victory after 1 1/4 miles in the $750,000 Travers provided Janney, who lives in Butler and turns 50 today, a birthday gift for the ages.
"That's about as good as it gets," Janney said after celebrating in the winner's circle with friends and his family -- his wife Lynn and their teen-aged children Emily and Matt.
The victory for Coronado's Quest in front of 48,545 roaring fans propelled the striking chestnut colt into the lead for champion 3-year-old male. Should he prevail in the year-end voting, the Janneys would collect their third Eclipse award. Janney's parents won the first two for Ruffian, the great and courageous filly.
Coronado's Quest passed his sternest test in winning the 129th Travers, the oldest stakes race in the country. He had never raced 1 1/4 miles, and he had never been challenged while leading down the stretch.
"I have an enormous amount of confidence in him," Janney said. "He's never been headed. I just hoped there would be more there when he saw a horse coming. There was just enough."
In winning his fifth race in a row -- and second straight Grade I stakes -- Coronado's Quest paid $4.90 to win. His odds were 7-5. Victory Gallop, winner of the Belmont and runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, went off the favorite at 6-5. The winning time was 2 minutes, 3 2/5 seconds.
Just as Victory Gallop finished a nose behind Coronado's Quest, the 11-1 Raffie's Majesty finished a nose behind Victory Gallop. The exacta returned $8.80, the trifecta $44.
Completing the order of finish were Archers Bay, Grand Slam, Deputy Diamond and Dice Dancer. The trainer Elliott Walden scratched Sheila's Flag, his self-proclaimed "rabbit" whose job would have been to press Coronado's Quest early.
With the "rabbit" back at the barn, Coronado's Quest broke awkwardly, gained his footing and then settled comfortably behind the early leaders, Dice Dancer and Grand Slam. They raced one-two-three down the backstretch.
Victory Gallop, after bumping Raffie's Majesty at the break, steadied himself and staked a position closer to the leaders than expected. He trailed Coronado's Quest by only two lengths approaching the far turn.
Then Coronado's Quest pounced. Swinging wide around the sweeping turn, he captured the lead turning for home. It looked briefly as if he might run off for a decisive win.
But Victory Gallop and Raffie's Majesty had other ideas. They stormed down the stretch, Victory Gallop from fifth and Raffie's Majesty from seventh. Coronado's Quest was in their sights.
In the final eighth of a mile, Coronado's Quest began steadily losing ground. The mid-summer Derby, as the Travers is called, became a desperate race to the wire.
"When I asked him to run, he laid it down," said Mike Smith, jockey of Coronado's Quest. "Inside the eighth pole I saw Victory Gallop, but I never saw Chavez."
Jorge Chavez piloted Raffie's Majesty, the lightly raced colt trained by H. James Bond. Substituting for the injured Gary Stevens, Alex Solis rode Victory Gallop.
"He had to really keep laying it down to hold them off," Smith said. "He showed me a lot of courage today."
Shug McGaughey, who trains Coronado's Quest, seemed almost shock after the race. He and his staff had worked for months with the colt to try to get him to overcome the pre-race behavioral problems that hindered him in Florida.
They have apparently succeeded. Coronado's Quest behaved like a gentleman.
"I'm pretty well drained now, I can tell you that," McGaughey said.
Asked whether this, in light of the colt's frustrating behavior, was his proudest moment, the respected trainer said: "I've been lucky and had a lot of great days. But I think because of what we've accomplished with this horse -- not only me, but Mr. Janney and his patience, and the people around the barn -- I'd say this is one of my proudest moments."
McGaughey said the next race for Coronado's Quest will probably be Super Derby XIX, the 1 1/4 -mile $500,000 stakes Sept. 27 at Louisiana Downs.
It is for 3-year-olds, unlike the Woodward Stakes the previous weekend at Belmont Park. That is for older horses and will likely attract Skip Away, who races today at Monmouth Park.
Janney said they would rather put off tackling Skip Away until the Breeders' Cup Classic Nov. 7 at Churchill Downs. But that is a decision for another day, Janney said.
He gathered his family together last night and returned to Maryland, where today they will toast the Travers victory and celebrate his birthday. How does he plan to celebrate?
He laughed and said: "Watch the tape of the race about 20 times."
Pub Date: 8/30/98