Wonder Gadot has been stealing a good chunk of the buzz for Saturday’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga, and rightfully so. Named for both a movie star and her most famous character, the Canadian champion has beaten colts in her last two starts. She is big and strong and has all the speed she needs to deal with the rude boys around her. And if she runs well this weekend, it will be no surprise to those who have followed her career for owner Gary Barber and trainer Mark Casse.
She is also the first filly to try the Travers in 39 years, an unusual number given that there has been a herd of females compete in races like the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes over the same stretch of time. The obvious reason is the proximity of the Alabama Stakes, a race of considerable prestige for 3-year-old fillies that has been run since 1872.
The last filly to run in the Travers was Davona Dale, a daughter of Best Turn bred and owned by Calumet Farm and trained by John Veitch. It figured, therefore, that Veitch should have been getting calls this week from writers looking for a Wonder Gadot angle.
“No, I haven’t,” Veitch replied. “And I’m glad, because it was a great mistake on my part to run her there. She simply wasn’t as good in August as she had been the earlier part of the year.”
The memory can be forgiven if Davona Dale’s performance in the 1979 Travers has become obscure. The day was under attack from a sudden summer storm that rendered the track an ocean of slop. General Assembly, a son of Secretariat trained by LeRoy Jolley, scooted along the top of the muck to win by 15 lengths. Trailing in a dismal parade behind the winner were the major stakes winners Smarten and Private Account, with Davona Dale a distant fourth, wrapped up by Jorge Velasquez to fight another day.
“Nobody was going to get to General Assembly that day,” Veitch said. “He was a superior horse on that type of going.”
To that point, Davona Dale had done very little wrong in a career of 13 starts. She won twice at 2, then after two forgivable losses in early 1979 she began a run of eight straight stakes wins at six different tracks. Those victories included the Fantasy, Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan, Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks.
“From a standpoint of absolute ability, Davona Dale was probably the best horse I ever trained,” Veitch said, at which point the heavens were shaken by the Disciples of Alydar, the trainer’s most famous horse.
“Of all the great horses Calumet Farm had over their glory years, only Citation won more consecutive stakes than Davona Dale,” Veitch went on. “She was just wonderful, very gentle to be around, almost pony-like. She was not an impressive-looking horse. She had an ordinary head. Bodywise, she was long and lean, and very tall.”
She was also related to Citation through her dam, Royal Entrance, who was a granddaughter of Hydroplane, the dam of Citation.
“She didn’t show that much as a 2-year-old, but as a 3-year-old she was magnificent,” Veitch saidd. “Her greatest asset was that whether it was three-quarters, a mile, or a mile and a half, she was effective.”
Let the record show that in a career of 11 wins from 18 starts, Davona Dale won stakes at 6, 7, 8, 8 1/2, 9, 10, and 12 furlongs.
“She was terribly sound physically,” Veitch added. “You could ask her to do anything in the morning and she’d do it willingly. She was more colt-like, really, in the sense that to be at the top of her game she demanded pretty intense training.”
After sweeping the Acorn, Mother Goose, and CCA Oaks at Belmont Park, Davona Dale got a six-week breather before running in the Alabama.
“She wasn’t as sharp coming out of the gate that day in the CCA Oaks,” Veitch recalled. “She was so consistent in everything she did, that told me she might have been wearing out a little bit.”
In the Alabama, run on Aug. 11, Davona Dale was upset by It’s in the Air, co-champion 2-year-old filly of 1978. Veitch took a look at his filly and pressed on to the Travers, run one week later.
“I made the tragic and logical error that a lot of horse trainers make when you think you have something so good, even when they’re only 90 percent they can still beat anything,” Veitch said. “That week I didn’t really do anything but gallop her. I probably blew her out a quarter-mile the morning before the race, when the track was good.”
Davona Dale followed the Travers with a respectable fourth against older competition in the Maskette, then went to the sidelines for 10 months as champion of her division. As a 4-year-old, she made only three starts, winning the Ballerina at Saratoga. In 1985 she entered the Hall of Fame, and was joined by her trainer in 2007.
“I probably asked her to do more in the latter part of her 3-year-old career than I should have, and that had an impact on her,” Veitch said. “I apologized to her, but I don’t know if she understood or not.”
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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