Much Ado About... Saratoga

Horse Racing: 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.

Runaway Groom.jpgAs 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.  

Sigh.

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.

My Mom.

But few upsets have impacted the tradition and mystique of Saratoga Racetrack like the 1930 Travers Stakes.

gallantfoxsunnyjim.jpgThe 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.

1930_Travers_Headlines0003.JPGThe 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.

They were:
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
2006    Bernardini
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.

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.
 005postSaratogaGrandstand.JPG*        *        *
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.

Not him.

Me!

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.

That pride.

005postfamilybreakfastatsaratoga.jpgPoised to tuck the whip and ready for the win photo across the wire.

God, he loved that.

Me?

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.

#     #     #
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.

001postdawnbreaks.JPGIt'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 saratogascribbler@gmail.com with your stories and memories.  I would love to hear them all.

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Patrick Kerrison

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.