July 2010 Archives
Saratoga Race Course has seen the mighty fall, champions thwarted and punters sick to their stomachs.
It's what she does, folks. It's who she is.
Take her or leave her.
It is often you will see longtime and novice racing fans go to the track on big days just to see the greats compete. To see for ourselves just how fast, strong and powerful a creature they are.
They give us a hero for a day, maybe a year, maybe longer. They can, and have, made us fans for life.
But a part of us recognizes it's just as much of a thrill to see the 1/9 favorite get beat by some high priced horse that we thought had no business being there in the first place. To watch someone shake off the chalk at a hundred to one.
The big races at the Spa always give us a piece of racing history and a story to tell long after the race has been run.
And ain't it just the coolest thing?
Upset beats Man O War in The Sanford. Onion tops Secretariat in The Whitney. It's In The Air beats Davona Dale in the Alabama. Classy Mirage beats Inside Information in The Ballerina.
These stories could fill a book, and have. Bill Heller's Graveyard of Champions is a joy to read and cannot be put down.
Then there was my heartbreak. The 1982 Travers . The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes winners met. There was a lot of buildup for this race because we were finally going to see who the best of the lot was. Belmont winner Conquistador Cielo was the unmitigated favorite at 2/5 and had my childhood hero, Eddie Maple, aboard. I couldn't wait for Eddie to win his third straight Travers.
As luck would have it, or the ghosts of Saratoga would direct it, none of 'em won. They all got beat by a gray Canadian import named Runaway Groom.
She did it again.
I was 13 at the time and perhaps the first (and only) time I cursed Saratoga and her tradition of burying favorites.
My open frustration resulted in a one-day suspension from racing. Not by NYRA, of course, but an entity more powerful.
But few upsets have impacted the tradition and mystique of Saratoga Racetrack like the 1930 Travers Stakes.
The hype surrounded Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox (seen left with trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons) and the prior year's racing standout Whichone. They met twice before in 1929, each earning a victory over the other. The Fox went to post as the Travers 1-to-2 favorite.
FDR was there. So was his bride, Eleanor. It was a big day and it had the makings of a great duel. But on this day, neither would claim bragging rights.
The track was messy and the Fox had never raced in the off going before.
Gallant Fox and Whichone went at it from the start. They raced heads apart as they passed the stands, into the clubhouse turn and up the backside.
At the far turn Whichone carried the Fox wide, opening a huge hole on the rail.
A virtual no-name, Jim Dandy, shot through the opening and raced like a runaway freight train down the lane. He opened up his lead by two, then three lengths. Past the sixteenth pole he was in front by six and his lead was widening.
At the wire this horse from California, who went off at 100-1, defeated the winner of the 1930 Triple Crown by eight lengths.
The phrase Graveyard of Champions was cemented in Saratoga tradition and a legion of racing fans were left with their mouths gaping.
They likely all asked the same question: Who in blazes is Jim Dandy
He wasn't anything to get excited about during his career. He broke his maiden at two, racing at Churchill Downs in May 1929. He didn't win another race until The Saratoga Cup at 50-1 in August on an off going. He hadn't won another all year.
His Travers upset was the lone victory of his 20 starts in 1930 before fading into a relative obscurity, racing in Mexico at the old Agua Caliente Racetrack. He competed for eight more seasons, compiling a total of 141 starts, winning seven.
In 1964, the NYRA named a race after him and it has served as a key prep race for the Travers Stakes ever since. They'll run its 47th edition tomorrow afternoon.
Since then, eight horses have used it as a catapult to victory in the Mid-Summer Derby, nine if you include Affirmed who was disqualified from first to second in 1978.
1969 Arts and Letters
1978 Affirmed (placed second in Travers thru DQ)
1981 Willow Hour
1984 Carr de Naskra
1992 Thunder Rumble
2002 Medaglia d'Oro
2005 Flower Alley
2007 Street Sense
The day they ran the 1930 Travers people may have wondered who Jim Dandy was.
Today, he and his 100-1 odds are the ideal example of why we run the races.
It's because there are no sure things.
It's because on any given race day, a champion can fold. An unknown can shine. And you and I can make a buck or two in the process.
That is Saratoga.
It's what she does, folks. It's who she is. Take her or leave her.
I'll take her.
I'll always take her.PHOTOGRAPHS:
Runaway Groom, 1982 Travers Stakes - Champions Gallery
Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA;
Headline - The Saratogian, August 18, 1930
I was the jockey in the family.
I rode 'em all.
Cheap claimers and allowance horses. Stakes race, black type and graded. Sprints or routes, turf or dirt. Necks and noses or the length of the stretch. None of it mattered. I won.
I always won.
Year after year I was Saratoga's leading rider. I even won a title or two at Belmont. I didn't ride Aqueduct. Too cold. Florida? Not an option. I lived in Jersey. Besides, I was concentrating on my studies.
After a race I'd come back to the room with rail dust on my boots. I learned that from Manny Ycaza.
He was the toughest there ever was.
I'd skim the bushes of the inner turf and dared others to knock me over.
Some called me aggressive. Some said I have no business riding.
But to be a race rider - a real race rider - you need guts.
I had 'em.
I always broke clean and my clock kept perfect time. Chest to saddle, I rode with perfect form. I was smoother than silk when changing sticks.
All I really needed were my hands. I learned that from The Shoe. Such talent that man had.
I'd thread through horses with the belief if there's room for the head, there's room for the rest of 'em
. My horses didn't take bad steps. They, nor I, ever fell.
Victory and I met often and she was always glad to see me. So were my horses. They won for me, no one else.
There is no metaphor for what I did.
Race riders and Thoroughbred racing are used as metaphors for other sports
. Nothing can compare to its true experience.
I never had a problem with weight or height. I ate candy, drank soda and had PB&J for lunch, daily. I never flipped.
These were my glory days.
When I was invincible. When I feared nothing. That was what I worked for. To ride. To ride well.
To win races.
To be the single most talented jock in the room.
"Patrick!" I heard the voice call from the other room.
"What?!" I hollered in return.
"Cut that out and get to the table. Dinner's ready" Mom said.
I should have known. The kitchen's smoke alarm routinely beat her call to dinner by three minutes.
* * *
Two belts strapped together formed my stirrups. A throw pillow between them for a saddle. A gift-shop whip and goggles thrown by the pros at meet's end for souvenirs. A sturdy couch. A rope wrapped around the far leg and pulled over the back of the couch for reins.
A mother, who was at her most patient when I was out of ear-shot.
A father, researching or writing tomorrow's column, locked away in his den.
This was my home, my living room and my racetrack.
But in my mind's eye I saw only the magnificent grandstand of Saratoga.
* * *
Sometimes my big brother would want to ride. When he did I would call the races off an old program.
He hated when I called the races.
Owners would have loved me. First, twelfth or anywhere in between, your horse got a call at every pole.
My brother is four and a half years older than me and did the things most big brothers do to little brothers. He made my life hell.
He picked on me, tormented me, beat me up, teased the devil out of me, blamed me at every turn for the trouble he'd get himself into and poke fun at me at every opportunity.
And he hated it when I called the races.
He'd get tired after each one. He'd yell at me because it took too long.
But that's not why he hated me calling the races.
He would have beads of sweat pouring from under his makeshift helmet. His palms would get sweaty and he'd lose his stick.
That wasn't why either.
Sometimes, at the head of the stretch, I'd make a call where his horse charged from far back, passing foes like they were standing still. He'd pick them off one by one. This always made him smile.
He loved this too. He loved to "ride" and win. He grew confident in the stretch. He felt proud.
Then, perhaps callously, I would scream in desperation how his horse took a bad step, stumbled and went to the ground, taking its jockey with it.
That wasn't why he hated me calling the races.
Oddly enough, the crazy bugger liked jumping or falling off the couch and onto the ground when I did that.
What he seemed to forget was this: it's his little brother that is the jockey in the family.
He did love to ride the closers, though. "A quarter mile to the finish
" or a Dave Johnson-esque "...and down the stretch they come
" was when he'd put it in Cordero-mode.
He worshiped Cordero.
In my calls he'd weave and cajole his way through horses. That, he liked.
Oh, I made him ride. I made him ride those horses hard. I made work, whip and drive to the wire in every race. He and his rival would drive to the finish like Affirmed and Alydar.
When they hit the sixteenth pole I'd look up from my program, and without fail I could see him fighting back the smile.
There was that confidence again.
Poised to tuck the whip and ready for the win photo across the wire.
God, he loved that.
Sure. I loved it too.
I loved it because for every time he'd pick on me, torment, tease, hit, blame or poke fun at me I would happily see to it that that son-of-a-you-know-what would get clipped by a neck, a head or a nose at the wire in every race he rode.
It was a 10-year-old's sweetest revenge.
Because I was the Jockey.
# # #
It all happened rather quickly.
When we got word that yesterday's fifth race was taken off the turf, I had to call NYRA back and speak to someone else, just to get the information confirmed. It was confirmed.
I bellowed to my girlfriend, Stacy.
"THEY'RE OFF THE TURF! GET SHOWERED! WE'RE GOING TO SARATOGA!"
And just like that Runaway Jim, who was entered for the main track only, gets his first start at Saratoga and we had a 200+ mile road trip ahead of us.
A three-year-old gray gelding by Freud out of Miniconjon, he is owned by Seabrook Stable. This was his third attempt at breaking his maiden.
The Seabrook Stable is the perfect example of the bread and butter that make horse racing viable.
They are a group of friends and family members, each with a financial and rooting interest, in a small number of racehorses. They are one of hundreds around the country that keep the business going. Ask any racing official, without the owners we'd all be selling hot dogs on street corners.
They make the game affordable and it is professionally run with solid communication amongst their owners. The possibilities for future endeavors with additional horses are realistic and the thrills that come with ownership are, in a word, indescribable.
Although nicknamed Marshmallow in his barn - not the most competitive or intimidating of nicknames, I grant you - Runaway Jim is no softie.
Upon his entrance into the paddock yesterday Jim came in fit, ripped and professional. We saw him twice at Belmont before this; once looking on his toes and interested in all around him, the second not as focused.
Sunday he was a new man of sorts. He knew what he was there for and he had his mind on his business.
If nothing else his appearance in the paddock was encouraging and fed an already growing enthusiasm that - speaking only for myself- was already hard to keep composed.
Do you have any idea - any idea at all - the feelings that flood a person when watching your horse in the paddock at Saratoga Race Course?Well, neither do I.
But as the boyfriend of an owner who watched it beside - and vicariously through the beautiful brown eyes of - my Stacy, I can assure you it was overwhelming.
Now I will make a public admission that some already know about me ... I am a wuss.
I am a grown man who stands six feet and one inch, two hundred and -don't-you-worry-about-how-much-more-than-that pounds, who is a big fat baby...when it comes to racing.
When it comes to racing, there's no sport I love more.
When it comes to racing at Saratoga, there is no place I would rather be.
As Stacy and I strolled the walkway into the paddock she put her arm inside mine, gently grasping the inside of my elbow. Her timing was perfect. Whether she knew it or not an emotion was running thru me I had never felt. It was all I could do to keep composed.
I had not walked into the paddock at Saratoga before and I think of it now as a coming of age experience. The kicker though is this: he isn't even my horse, for heaven's sake!
Jose Lezcano gets the leg up from the assistant trainer; they circle and head out onto the track.
When we watched Jim make his way to the track and we headed to our boxes in the Clubhouse, my knees got weak. My stomach ached. My arms felt heavy and I was repeatedly reminded to breathe.
They loaded the gate. Jim went in easily.
Those extra mornings at Gate School seemed to have helped.
Some other horse got fractious and had to be backed out.
Jim remained calm.
Very nice, Jim. Very nice. Well done.
Stacy and I, however ... well, we were a wreck.
They sprung the latch and Jim broke well from the nine-hole, inching his way closer to the rail along the backside.
My heart went in my throat. Stacy's pounded through her chest.
"Come on, Jim, win this thing," I'm thinking.
"Come on, Jim, win this thing ... oh God, don't get hurt," is on her mind.
What a pair we were.
At the three-sixteenths pole we saw him move. We noticed something different about him...he wasn't looking all over the place this time. Wearing half-cup blinkers, Jim had his mind on his business and was racing like the professional we saw in the paddock.
He was focused. He was driven. He ran his heart out.
You don't ever - and I mean ever
- ask for more of a horse than that.
He ran as well as we could have hoped for, but there was no catching the winner, Fiddler's Chaparito. He was just too good that day.
Marsh Haven finished well to earn the place spot, half a length ahead of Runaway Jim who was a good third.
Now, here's the thing. I reckon winning isn't everything. Sure, it's a sight better than losing, but to run a horse, get a good run out of him, hit the board and come out of the race healthy and feeling terrific, is a victory unto itself.
And it's one helluva thrill, too.
We knew had a 200+ mile drive back home last night and imagined it wouldn't be all that bad.
We talked of the day for nearly four hours.
We glowed with pride at how well Stacy's boy had run.
I stole more than a few glances at her when I drove us home. When I did I felt so proud and happy for her and, admittedly, a little envious. She sat there glowing.
She was so proud of how well her boy had run and happy as I have ever seen her.
There's something special about this game from a myriad of different avenues. Jocks, trainers, assistants, grooms, gamblers, all of 'em can tell you stories.
Today, the story is about an owner who gave her knucklehead boyfriend a new and better appreciation for the game and a new way to watch a race and understand the sport.
After watching races since I was a toddler I can say after 40 years I watched a race at Saratoga in a brand new light...
... and that is, arguably, one of the most thoughtful and sweetest gifts she has ever given me, and one in which I will be forever grateful for.
Opening Day, 2010.
At last, she's returned.
Opening Day 1863 ... just a little different.
In May 1863 John Morrissey placed an advertisement in the papers calling for those who want to run their horses at a new race meet.
The four-day meet was to begin on Monday, August 3, 1863 in America's first resort town, Saratoga.
Here's how it went: The first three races were heats. Best of two stands the victor.
Morrissey put up $2,700 of his own money for purses and paid the lease himself. With admission costing a buck and estimates reaching 3,000 attendees, he likely made his money back.
The opener pitted the tough mare Lizzie W against the accomplished colt Captain Moore.
Others had entered but when they saw who they were up against they bailed faster than you can bat an eyelash.
They broke for the first at 11:30 a.m.
Captain Moore took command early, up the backside Lizzie W matched strides then took the lead. At the far turn they met again, and under considerable urging from both riders dueled down the stretch.
Captain Moore beat the mare, taking the first heat.
Twenty minutes later they readied for their second go.
Lizzie W let Captain Moore set the pace he wanted. At the head of the stretch, the mare kicked it into gear, and again, matched strides with the powerful colt.
Under the wire, it was the girl who won, but by only a neck. Lizzie W had squared things with Captain Moore.
Time for the rubber match.
Captain Moore went off as the 4/5 favorite and Lizzie W had chosen to take the same strategy that led her to victory earlier. Sitting off the pace, she waited until they hit the stretch before making her move. Just as she passed him, Captain Moore all but spit the bit and threw in the towel. He was overmatched and beaten.
Lizzie W - although not the first horse to cross under the wire at Saratoga - has rightfully, and forever been proclaimed, the "first winner" at historic Saratoga Race Course.
In the day's second (technically fourth) race of the day, Sympathy seemingly had none for her male competitors, giving Thunder his first career loss and beating Morrissey's own John B. Davidson.
Three more days of racing followed and the four-day meet was a roaring success. Immediately plans were discussed to build a track and run an annual race meet.
But there was a slight problem.
You see, with his background as a prize fighter, thief, muscle for the Irish mob, bouncer at a whorehouse and a gambler/casino operator, Mr. Morrissey wasn't what we might refer to as the "blue blood" type. Building and operating a venture like this wasn't going to fly with him at the helm.
Morrissey had fashioned a formidable relationship with Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, which yielded him entrance into the circles of William R. Travers and Leonard Jerome. He had genuinely hoped to overcome those obstacles by virtue of being in their company. He knew his past better than anyone, but he yearned for the respect of the affluent in the community.
In fact, Morrissey relied on his relationship with Vanderbilt heavily.
"It was extremely unlikely that influential businessmen such as William Travers, Jay Gould, John Hunter and Leonard Jerome would associate with a man who had John Morrissey's background unless he had the backing of a stock market titan such as Cornelius Vanderbilt."i
And he had.
Morrissey and Vanderbilt had a love of gambling and women in common and hit it off well. Vanderbilt enlisted Leonard Jerome into the thoroughbred racing fold.
While Morrissey joined Vanderbilt as a "political agent" to help build his Harlem Railroad, Jerome was the Commodore's partner. The three were often seen together in circles, much to the disapproval of the well-bred social elite.
Jerome's business partner, Travers, was involved in horse racing having his own stable in partnership with Hunter and a Vanderbilt in-law, George Osgood.
But even so, Morrissey could not gain their favor.
In 1864 the Saratoga Racing Association was formed by Jerome, Travers and Hunter, but without Morrissey's name on any official documentation.
Granted, the former pugilist put up most of the money for its construction, but he was not considered "sufficiently respectable for Saratoga"ii
and was the silent partner.
They run a NY bred race in Morrissey's honor on August 5th of this year. It will be in its seventh edition, a newbie in the storied history of Saratoga stakes races.
That week I will run a four-part series on John Morrissey and Richard Canfield on this blog and look forward to reading your comments and earning your feedback.
Until then however, as you prepare to walk through the gates of paradise for her 142nd installment, I wish you well and three small pieces of advice.
1. Never go to the track with more money than you can afford to lose.
2. Don't take tips. Every momma-luke thinks they know something the next guy doesn't. Well...he's wrong. It might even serve you well to immediately throw that horse out (unless you liked 'em already).
3. Don't change your bet! If you bet a horse because you like the name, or the jockey, or the silks s/he are wearing then BET IT! If you change your selection because someone talks you out of it, or you have found a way to talk yourself out of it, I can assure you your original pick will win!
Saratoga is the Graveyard of Champions.
It is here the damndest things can happen.
And they usually do.
Enjoy your day at Saratoga Race Course.
i. Saratoga Stories, John Bartles, p.31
ii. Saratoga Stories, John Bartles, p.34BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Bartles, John, Saratoga Stories, Gangsters, Gamblers and Racing Legends, Eclipse Press,
Blood Horse Publications, Lexington, KY 2007
- John Morrissey: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA; LC-BH832- 2094 - Saratoga Race Course: Taken between 1900 - 1906. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA; LC-D4-17913
The gates of Saratoga Race Course open for their 142nd time Friday and, following decade's worth of tradition, its first feature is the Schuylerville Stakes.
A six-furlong event for two-year-old fillies on the dirt, Saratoga's racing history has proven itself to be a successful launching pad for juvenile thoroughbreds.
I trust Friday's feature will follow suit.
Named after the neighboring village 12 miles east of Saratoga Springs, Schuylerville holds great distinction in American history. It is important to note, however, that the name of the town at the time was Saratoga.
It was here; in September of 1777, that the army of British General John Burgoyne crossed the Hudson then marched nine miles to Stillwater, NY. There they engaged in what we know now as The Battles of Saratoga
There were two significant fights in the Battles of Saratoga: The Battle of Freeman's Farm, held September 19 and the Battle of Bemis Heights, fought on October 7.
After earning a slight strategic victory in the former, Burgoyne and his army were soundly defeated in the latter.
He and his army returned to Saratoga the morning of October 8th and positioned themselves as they had several weeks earlier, just prior to the Battle of Freeman's Farm.
By October 13th the American Continental Army had them surrounded. On the 17th the Brits surrendered.
At the time it was considered the most significant battle of the Revolutionary War. Today, we still regard it as the war's turning point.
In 1831 Saratoga was renamed "Schuylerville" for General Philip Schuyler, a hero of that conflict.
But by no means was that the end of conflict and battle in Saratoga County.
For years, beginning in 1863, there have been numerous wars waged that have captured the attention of Americans everywhere. However, these clashes have been held in the confines of a mile and an eighth oval, pitting strategic and strong athletes aboard blazingly fast 1,200 pound creatures, expertly trained and conditioned, against one another.
The battleground that is Saratoga Race Course has, over the years, experienced their fair share of bloodshed, too.
There have been casualties.
There have been wounded.
Wounds which take forever to heal and some that never do.
But unlike Burgoyne and his army, there is one thing you will never see in any of these contests ... and that is surrender.
Sure, many will be beaten. But none will quit.
Not at Saratoga.
There's 40 days of racing ahead of us and if the Opening Day card is any indication of what the race meet will look like, it's gonna be a heck of a summer. 10 races with 127 horses entered to run.
So dust off your muskets (i.e. handicapping skills), pack plenty of ammunition (i.e. money) and prepare to do your part.
First post on Friday is 1:00 p.m. EST.Pictures from the National Park Service
Picture 1: The Saratoga Monument: This 155' tall obelisk was built in the late 19th century to commemorate the American victory in the Battles of Saratoga.
Picture 2: American General Philip Schuyler built this house, start to
November 1777 after the British army retreating from the Saratoga
Battlefield set fire to the previous house and nearly every building on
When my girlfriend, Stacy, asked me to name the one thing I loved most about Saratoga I took her question seriously, even though I seriously doubted I could come up with an answer.
I was right. I couldn't.
It wasn't because there are hundreds of things to love about the town, although that does present a challenge.
It's because a lifetime of memories and the idyllic dreams I had as a child keep me from defining it.
Why? Because once I do it would feel like THAT ONE THING has to be it.
I could never do that to myself.
The history of Saratoga is so greatly well storied and so markedly magnificent that it parallels nothing.
What makes her even grander is that she continues to write new chapters year after year.
Founded by Gideon Putnam and marked as the nation's first resort town, Saratoga Springs has been the home to a turning point in the Revolutionary War. It is the village thousands gathered to in order to take advantage of its waters and their mysterious ways of healing. Lest we forget, the home to the greatest gambling and racing stories ever assembled in one place.
To get here you follow writer Red Smith's directions of "From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years."
She is unlike any place on earth.
She brings you back to a time when men wore ties and hats to the races, ladies dressed in the most gloriously beautiful dresses, accentuated with diamonds whose sparkle rivaled that of the August sun.
I am hoping to do the same on these pages, or at least, provide you with stories and images that allow yourself to imagine a time long ago.
Over the coming weeks I will post stories of the players, the characters, the people and horses, the waters, homes and hotels of Saratoga that has made this place the paradise on earth I believe her to be.
I invite you to come back with me. See what Saratoga was like in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and why she is, in the 21st century, just as impressive today.
I may not be able to answer Stacy's question directly but I can share that one of my favorite things about Saratoga is she allows me - and welcomes me - to visit a time long ago on this very day.
You are welcome to email me at email@example.com with your stories and memories. I would love to hear them all.
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While most American men of Patrick's generation grew up talking to their Dad about baseball and the likes of Mantle, Ford, Berra and DiMaggio, he and his father covered the racing beat and talked of Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and John Henry.
The son of a newspaperman, Patrick spent his summers a "spoiled" child, but not in the traditional sense. Spoiled because his August months were spent at Saratoga Race Course watching the best the game ever offered.
Breakfast in the mornings, races in the afternoons and the occasional party when kids were welcomed in the evenings, he has lived a privileged childhood.
For better than 10 years Patrick worked in varied frontside positions in racing, "living the dream" as he calls it.
Today at age 41, he reverts back to his life as an eight year old with the same passion and love for the town of Saratoga he always had, but with the perspective of an adult. His appreciation for her history and his desire to go back in time revives every summer, while never forgetting the glorious life he lives today.
Patrick and Saratoga.com invite you to come back to Saratoga's 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and a little bit about today, too.