Much Ado About... Saratoga

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Bang the drum! Ring the bells! Sound the alarm!

Open wide the gates to the Land of Anxiety and Idiocy, for your Leader is coming home!!!

It's that time again. All things Saratoga. All things Jim. All things ... nerve-wracking.

Yup. Jim. Runaway Jim. My girlfriend's horse. Not even mine, mind you. Hers. Stacy's. And I'm the one who can't pull it together. Some things never change. Nice. Very nice.

jimheadshot.jpgThis Friday afternoon Runaway Jim will make his 10th career start; his fourth at The Spa. In his prior nine starts he has earned a check in all but two of them, more than paying his way for sure. He's a New York bred that's won once, ran second once and third three times. On Friday he makes his second start off the layoff and stretches out from six furlongs to a mile and a sixteenth. He drew the six hole, out of 10, in Friday's eighth race.

So, basically, between now and then, it's all I can do to keep from throwing up small children after I've eaten.

So, here's the rub. I don't get it. I don't. I mean, I suppose in some ways I do. I can understand the nervousness leading up to a race. The feeling of walking into the Saratoga Paddock. Watching Jim make his way to the track. Knowing his jock Rajiv Maragh is a great fit. Loading into the gate. Springing the latch. Hearing Durkin call the race. All of it.

But wouldn't you think if you've done something over and over you'd get used to it?

Wouldn't you think that it's like anything else you've done nearly a dozen times before?

Wouldn't you think ...

Then again, this is Saratoga. Unique. Special. Historic. Storied. Glorious.

All valid reasons to feel heightened levels of anxiety.

All valid reasons to feel like a rumbling stumbling bumbling dolt who reverts back to his eight year old year thinking he can one day be a jockey himself.

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I'm just a big hot mess and the fact is, I will be worse on Friday.

If you've read these pages last summer then you would know why. When it comes to the game of thoroughbred racing, there's no sport I love more. When it comes to thoroughbred racing in Saratoga, it is nothing short of Paradise on earth.

Add my girlfriend's racehorse into the mix, compounded by the fact that he's fit and well and (dare I say) has a halfway decent shot at this thing, and I'm in a territory I have been in very few times in my 42 years.

In the fall of last year, when Jim won his first race, Stacy and I were not there. I had a work commitment that kept us from going and wouldn't you know it ... he wins. The only race of his that we miss, to date, and he wins.

Figures, right?

But we did watch it on TVG. We saw his burst of speed at the head of the stretch. We saw him keep his mind on his business. We saw ... we saw a professional racehorse coming into his own.

We saw something special and so much more than just a handsome face.

We also heard the call. We heard Tom Durkin.

" .... Runaway Jim has built an insurmountable lead! Runaway Jim, the winner" he bellowed.

I've heard it over a hundred times. So has Stacy. She even wanted to send a Thank You note to him for giving her the memory of a lifetime. I stuck my cell phone next to my computer, captured the stretch call and made it my default ring tone. There's even a handful of people in the Seabrook Stable who have done the same.

We never tire of it.

But to possibly hear a win call from Saratoga would be ... would be ....sigh, I don't know what it would be like.

Until then (should that day even come), I will pray I don't spit the bit from frayed nerves. I will pray my juvenile idiocy, like a bratty kid let loose in a candy store, will be kept in check. I will pray that I keep it together until post time.

But I'll tell you this folks, if he wins ... oh dear God, if he wins ... I'm going to make Roberto Benigni look like Buddah!

Go Jim, Go ... you make life beautiful.

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So, what is the most magnificent thing about June?

A month from July. A month from the gates of Paradise opening again for the 143rd time.

Sigh. It has been nearly a year, hasn't it?

And yet another year has gone by without me experiencing the beauty of Saratoga Springs, NY in seasons other than racing (i.e. summer). I am ashamed and disappointed with myself. But then again, in early fall I did start a new gig and have been wrapped up in it, all in and fully engaged, since then so I suppose that is one excuse.

Note I said excuse, not viable reason.

With two of the three legs of the 2011 Triple Crown in the books, the Met Mile having been run at Belmont (my unofficial start of summer) and the turning of the calendar to June I can begin to smell the crisp air of the foothills of the Adirondacks.

Seven weeks and three days from the start of the race meet and another visit, and yet I still find myself envious of all of you who call Saratoga you home.

I trust, as long as I am on this earth, I will continue to do so.

019postFirstSecondItDoesntMatter1.JPGRunaway Jim ran a game second Saturday afternoon and to be frank, neither Stacy nor I would have known the difference had he won.

It felt that good.  We felt that proud.  And by God I've never seen the woman look more beautiful.

At day's end her handsome gray gelding left her gushing.  Absolutely, unequivocally garrulous - not her normal M.O. - and beyond overjoyed.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what the racing experience is all about.

The pride in your horse.  The thrill of the game.  The bright silks of your stable and family atop your horse, striding perfectly.  Running through his bridle and having the time of his life.

It is the undeniable and startling beauty of the Thoroughbred racehorse.

There ain't nuttin' like it no where, now how, no way.

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Stacy and I entered the day vowing, somewhat jokingly, we'd do everything opposite of what we've done before with regard to seeing Jim run.  In short, we decided to George Costanza our day.

  • 019postFirstSecondItDoesntMatter2.JPGWe didn't rush to tackle the 200+ mile drive to Saratoga.
  • We relaxed and left our nerves back in Jersey.
  • We visited Jim at his stall at Horse Haven earlier in the day.
  • We dressed down a bit, although still Paddock appropriate.
  • We didn't try to get an owner's box.
  • We milled about and talked with random people throughout the Grandstand.  You can do that at Saratoga.
  • We made it a point to go to the same tellers, who kindly punched winners for Stacy and were equally as happy to take my money for the bets.  Damn, she's played that well, didn't she?  She'd have made the most seasoned of horseplayers proud.  Just look at 'em laughing at me in the picture!  I am thinking I am now "conspired-against George."

Like I said, we took the Costanza approach and I'm here to tell you, baby it worked like a charm.

In three starts at Saratoga Runaway Jim ran 3rd, 4th and 2nd respectively.  Each time he earned Seabrook Stable a check.

Some may wonder how in blazes anyone could get so excited about losing?!

Well, we're not.  We want to win!

BUT the truth is it isn't about winning and losing when you're involved in racing as an owner; or in my case, the boyfriend of one.  You certainly don't enter the fray expecting to make money.

As a horseplayer?  Nothing else matters.

But in our case, in this instance, it has EVERYTHING to do with the experience of racing.  The stuff you used to hear the late Jim McKay and Jack Whitaker wax poetic about how grand the game is.  And here we are, a part of it.

Amazing.

Cliché as it sounds it actually is the thrill of watching your boy, or your filly, running their hearts out.

Although winless in five starts, and earning four checks overall, I assure you Jim has not failed anyone.  Ever.

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 019postFirstSecondItDoesntMatter3.JPG"Stacy's got herself a real nice horse there," my Dad told us from Monmouth last night.

"He's a real honest horse," he said.  "But when they hit the top of the stretch I thought he'd spit the bit."  

He started laughing, then continued "I even turned around and told your mother 'he's gonna spit the bit!'  But when he came on again and I saw that jock in front of him get into the winner some more, well, that's when I knew.  That's a real honest horse they have there."

A real honest horse.

Is there a better compliment?

What, if anything, could anyone possibly want more than that?

So we played him across the board and cashed out.  We even made a few bucks for a handful of Stacy's coworkers.

The ride home was different too.

We took Route 9 into Malta to get on the thruway instead of retracing our steps via Exit 14.  Why not?  After all, "opposite George" hadn't failed us yet.

But if I am being candid, the real reason is I didn't want to drive past the track one more time.  I don't think I would have been able to handle it.  I didn't want to leave Stacy holding the wheel while her boyfriend turned into a blubbering idiot.

It was partly because Jim had done so well.  We asked him time and again to Go Jim, Go!  And he did, every time and without complaint.  Such a good boy.  He (as of this writing) has over 180 Facebook friends!

019postFirstSecondItDoesntMatter4.JPGIt was also in part because our Saratoga season ended.

But it was mostly because Stacy had given me more thrills, excitement and happiness at Saratoga than anyone ever has - and I trust ever could - in my adult life.

This woman, this thoughtful and sweet woman, single-handedly turned lifelong childhood racing dreams into my life's new reality.

And all through this life - and this is the 100% truth - I never thought I could love anything or anyone the way I love Saratoga.  I'll be dog-goned, that is no longer the case.

She is that good.  She makes me feel that proud.  And by God I've never seen a woman look more beautiful.

The fact she races a NY-bred ain't hurtin' my feelings either.

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Alright.  Why the heck not.  Let's try this again, shall we?

The good news:  Most of the nausea that came with the first two starts at Saratoga has dissipated.  

The bad news:    This is Runaway Jim's last shot at The Spa this year to break his maiden.

The better news:  He'll win the blasted thing.  We hope.

a0.JPGI'll concede the opening is not as romantic or heartfelt an approach as prior postings.  Sure.  But come on....we wanna win dag nabit!

And yet, that damnable truth which cannot be ignored begs this question:

Is there a harder track in the world to win a horse race than Saratoga Race Course?
Fugghettabout it pal.  No way.  Ain't no place tougher to win than the Spa.

But I'm not afraid to tell you, the hankering for a win is getting a might stronger.

On Saturday Runaway Jim makes another go of it.  This time he returns to the lawn (where he earned his best Beyer fig of 73), stretches out to a mile (which I, as a horse player am THRILLED about),  and gets a change of rider to Rajiv Maragh.

He's in the 11th race and races from the three-hole.

So this time there will be no great fanfare or lengthy article.  No description of the grown man fearing his girlfriend will have to hold him up.

Instead, I'll leave you with this ... the three words you just might hear from a blithering overgrown idiot, beside his aptly-mortified girlfriend, bellowing from the box seats late Saturday afternoon:

Go Jim, Go!

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The Handicapper in Me:  Why I Like Jim on Saturday

He's returning to the grass for starters.  His first two goings we thought he didn't like it.  Fact is, he was immature on the racetrack BUT he ran a 73 Beyer in his first out.

Plus, he closed like a freight train!!!

In the stretch he was about five or six lengths behind the winner.  His late kick and post race gallop impressed the devil out of me and since that day I have been hoping (read: praying) that they would stretch him out.

Watching a horse gallop out after their race has always been a favorite angle of mine.

Below are the pictures I took of that first try on the lawn at Belmont.

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Runaway Jim (gray-outside) is several lengths behind the leaders, but gaining with each stride


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Moments past the wire Jim passes the winner and then draws clear as he gallops out


So...there you have it.  That one race has had the handicapper in me pining for him to (a) mature as a race horse, (b) return to the lawn and (c) stretching out to a mile (or more).

Saturday he gets his shot and I'll find out if my handicapping abilities are worth the paper the DRF is printed on!

Go Jim, Go!
So, this is it.  One last week of the 2010 Saratoga Race Course race meet and I can feel the dread of the finale on Monday as I write this.

Man, I hate that feeling.

As usual, it all went by so quickly.  It feels like only days ago I was writing about the anticipation and pleasures that come from a fresh new start at The Spa complimented by reminders of her interminable traditions.

Fortunately, Saratoga held true to her values of tradition, upsets and longshots.  She even played a part or two in making some personal dreams come true.  My Stacy and her Runaway Jim played a larger role in that of course.

On July 19 I wrote there isn't one thing I love most about Saratoga
, however there are two things I could not live without.

First, the early mornings, especially when dawn begins to break.

Few people on the streets.  A quiet village.  The proverbial pitter-patter of hoofs crossing Union Avenue.  Just lovely.

The second is juvenile, but no less important.  Saratoga allows me to be a kid again.  

I used to think I was going to be a jockey.  Mom and Dad told me I had no shot.  I'd be too big.  How in blazes would they know what I was going to be like in 10 years?  They couldn't decide on dinner that night but my future was that clear to them?

Well, once again they were right.  At greater than six feet tall and 200-and-don't-you-worry-about-how-much-more-than-that-pounds, there was no hope of me donning the silks of Calumet Farm.

But maybe it's time to begin a new tradition?

Yes, the racing season will come to a close.  Yes, I am not looking forward to it by any measure.

But the truth is, the race meet would not be the greatest stage in racing, would it, were it not for its surroundings?

This town is so full and rich with history, stories, memories, and incomparable beauty why should it be held to only a six-week stand?

A benefit in moving east after seven years in the Pacific Northwest is the proximity of the most wonderful town in the world.  A mere 200 mile drive and I've left reality behind and am in heaven on earth.

In a matter of weeks, as the seasons change, these magnificent oaks, elms and maple trees that give us the breath of life will redecorate the foothills of the Adirondacks with the most brilliant colors.

Perhaps a weekend in the end of September or early October would be in order?

Camera in hand, batteries fully charged, and a full tank of gas, it is time to experience Saratoga Springs as I haven't before.  In a more temperate setting, sans traffic jams and throngs of people, when the beauty of autumn returns.

Yes, when the racing season comes to an end on Monday next I will be as disappointed as I always have.  But change is good.  

Autumn in Saratoga.

A new anticipation.

A new tradition.

A new love for Saratoga Springs, NY.

I can't help but imagine how beautiful she'll be.

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How can you not get a kick out of the Lisa's Booby Trap story?

Who?

Lisa's Booby Trap.

You know who she is.  She's the horse that got its name for her owner/trainer's now deceased wife and a popular trackside "gentleman's club" in Florida.

0016post-Lisas_Booby_Trap.jpgSigh.

I know.

Me too.

It's the stuff Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of.  So rich with romance how can one not well up with tears.

OK.  OK.  I agree.  Most of racing's greatest thoroughbreds and classic winners are generally named something a little more regal and a little less hooter.  But in this case, for this story, it makes it a little funnier story and certainly worth paying attention to.

She's a gangly filly.  The NY Post's Ed Fountain said "she's as big as a bull moose and kindly as a cow."

Oh, and she's blind in one eye.

Did I mention the club foot yet? 

I grant you these are not the ideal specs for a winning race horse ... or a "gentleman's club" employee for that matter.  But come on - racehorse or stripper - how can you not be intrigued?  How can you not root for them?
 
Lisa's Booby Trap's owner and trainer is Tim Snyder.  A fella from way upstate New York in Finger Lakes who lost his wife back in 2003 to ovarian cancer.  She beat it once, but it came back and all her fight wasn't enough.  She passed a week short of her 38th birthday.

He bought the filly for $4,500; but was short $2,500 and made a promise to pay the balance upon her winning.  Fate was on Snyder's side and she won her first three starts by a combined margin of just under 37 lengths.

Snyder took a chance and shipped his filly and dreams of success to The Spa.  He entered her in the $70,000 Loudonville Stakes on August 6 and Kent Desormeaux got the call to ride.

As if someone in Hollywood wrote the race's script, Lisa's Booby Trap came from off the pace and drew clear to a six length win.

Ever since then Lisa's Booby Trap and Snyder have made waves all across the country.  There are rumors that a script is in the making for a movie and Dateline NBC is planning a one hour special on the pair.  Snyder got a call from the folks at Simon & Schuster for a book also.

And get this...he turned down a half a million dollar offer on the horse.

Half a million bucks!

Now that's somethin' for a $4,500 Finger Lakes purchase.

I can't say I would have turned it down.  Not $500 grand.

But I'm not Snyder and he has more than just a racehorse here.  He has, so he feels, the spirit of his bride under the saddle.

Snyder admits to a connection with this horse with respect to his wife that, no matter who comes calling and no matter the price tag, she ain't for sale.

The NYRA news release offered this quote from Snyder:

"My wife was a good lady," he said. "She told her mother the last week she was alive that she was coming back as a horse, and now all this has happened.

"I'm having too much fun with her to ever sell her. I get cards and letters, people send over bushels of carrots and peppermints ... I could never have imagined anything like this happening. And now, winning five in a row with her would be something really special."

It continues:

"I know it sounds crazy, but I do feel a connection to my wife through the horse," said Snyder. "Lisa's Booby Trap could never be a replacement. But I know what I feel, and it's real to me."

She'll have that chance on Thursday in the second division of the $70,000 Riskaverse Stakes, a one mile trek on the grass.  She will be facing nine rivals on the tight turned inner turf - her debut on the lawn - and will be pressed with a few challenges for sure.

0016post-Lisas_Booby_Trap2.jpgIt is carded as the day's ninth race, she'll break from the two-hole and is listed as an early morning line favorite at 5/2 odds.

With a bit of luck on her side she'll get a clean trip...and no one will try to slip $2 Win tickets in her girth as she struts to the racetrack...'cuz that's just wrong, man.

With a bit more luck, Snyder's story will continue to flourish and this 56-year-old guy who doesn't have much will continue to live life as if it were a storybook.

I am such a sucker for a good racing story and I hope Snyder's good fortune continues, with or without Hollywood.  

In short, God I hope she wins.  I'd love to see Snyder in the winner's circle on Thursday.

As much as I love this game and love Saratoga and love to play the horses, I'll take a great racing story over it all any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Snyder and Lisa's Booby Trap is a great story about the little guy and his horse that do good.  To cap it all, they're doin' good on the grandest stage of them all - Saratoga Race Course.

But I do ask one thing.  If the ghosts that are responsible for Saratoga being the Graveyard of Favorites or the Graveyard of Champions (call it what you will) are listening - and if Lisa's Booby Trap goes off as the post time favorite - please have the decency to turn and look away.

This is one upset story that doesn't need to be written.

This is one story for the good guys that needs to continue.

Give 'em hell, Lisa.

Photograph:
Lisa's Booby Trap photo by Adam Coglianese, official NYRA track photographer

Lisa's Booby Trap and owner/trainer Tim Snyder by Shawn Dowd, Staff Photographer, Democrat and Chronicle


When he died at the age of 67, the New York Times proclaimed William R. Travers "may have been the most popular man in New York."

He was, in a word, adored.

0014post-William Riggin Travers.jpgWe know Travers as a founder and the first President of the Saratoga Racing Association, and the namesake for the single longest actively running sporting event in America - The Travers Stakes.

We know him as the owner of Hall of Famer Kentucky, that race's first winner.

We know him as a brilliant financier on Wall Street.

But what you may not know, in spite of his wealth and success, Travers was arguably better known for his wit, charm and self-deprecating way.

A New York Times article published two years before his death noted his "wit never screens malice but it frequently stings, being at times near the truth." In his obituary, it added "his defect of speech, which is well known, added to the effectiveness of his utterances."

The former piece, published March 15, 1885, applauded Travers apologetic humor.  One could easily get the impression it made him more approachable and more endearing.
 
In short, Travers wasn't just another stuffed shirt with money.  Travers was a funny guy ... and he could take a hit too.

Take, for example, the story of him running into an old Baltimore acquaintance while walking on a street in New York City.

"Why, Bill, you stutter worse now than when you were in Baltimore," his friend said.
"H-h-have to," answered Mr. Travers.  "B-b-bigger city."

One day Travers saw John Morrissey, the man who built Saratoga Race Course, standing by a horse.  Morrissey fancied himself the type who could spot equine talent however his results on the track begged a different argument.

"W-w-what have you g-got there, John" he asked.
"A race horse" he replied with an air of satisfaction.
"A race horse!" Travers exclaimed.
"Yes, Sir, a race horse.  Are you going to bet on him?"
"Yes, I'll b-bet on him," Travers replied decidedly.
"How?" Morrissey asked, somewhat in doubt.
"I'll c-c-copper him.

0014post-traverssayings2.jpgOne can only imagine the look on Morrissey's face, mouth gaping and stunned at Travers shot across the bow.

Then there was the time he traveled to Brooklyn for the wedding of a friend's daughter who lived on Montague Street.  Travers apparently took a wrong turn somewhere in his travels and got lost.  He stopped a gentleman and asked for directions.

"I desire to reach M-m-montague Street," he said to a passerby.  "W-will you be k-kind enough to p-point the w-way?"
"You are g-going the wr-wrong w-way," he stuttered in his reply.  "That is M-montague Street."
"Are you m-making fun of m-me, m-mimicking me?" Travers asked sternly.
"N-no, I assure you" the man replied, with all due haste to repair an apparent lack of good manners.  "I-I am b-badly af-flicted with an ob-stru-struction of speech."
"Why d-don't you g-get c-cured?" Travers asked with mischief in his eyes.  "G-go to Dr. --- and g-get c-cured.  D-don't you see how w-well I talk?  He c-cured m-me."

Poor fella.  Probably had no idea what to make of him.

Enter Henry Clews, a banker who often boasted he is a self-made man.  Travers overheard him speak of this and fixed his eyes on Clews bald crown in a sort of daydream like state.

"Well, what's the matter, Travers?" he asked somewhat impatiently.
"H-henry," Travers inquired "d-didn't you say you we-were a self m-made m-an?"
"Certainly, I made myself" Clews replied warmly.
"Then, w-when you were ab-b-about it, w-why didn't you p-put m-more h-h-hair on the t-top of your h-head?"
 
Insert a well time DOH here.

Travers had been approached by Clews as he sought advice for the famous Vanderbilt ball; an affair of full costume dress.  Travers suggested:

"Clews, w-why d-don't you s-s-sugar coat your h-head and go as a p-pill?"
Travers, clearly, was not your run of the mill, well bred snooty sort.  Remember, he was quite capable of being on the other end of the jibe.

He was walking along the street with a bunch of brokers in tow.  He spots a man in front of St. Paul's church selling parrots.

"H-hold on b-boys," Travers said mysteriously.  "W-we'll have some f-fun."
Hailing the parrot seller and indicating one of the birds Travers asked "Can that p-parrot t-talk?"
"Talk?" the man replied with a contemptuous sneer.  "If he can't talk better than you I'll wring his blasted neck!"
"C-come on, b-boys," Travers called out; "th-this f-fun is p-post-p-poned until another day."

Naturally it is only fitting that the last of Travers' anecdotes shared here deal with a gambler in the Spa City.

A plunger named Walton was introduced to Travers at The Spa in the midst of his best two years playing the horses.  He suggested that he and the financier do business together.  Walton told him of how he has earned over $350,000 these past two years, and with Travers being a whiz in the stock market he thought they could share a couple of points to help each other out, and add to their fortunes.

"You m-made three hu-hundred and fifty th-thousand on h-horse racing?" Travers repeated.
"Yes, sir. $350,000 in two years," Walton said again.
"And you want m-me to g-give you a p-point on st-stocks?" Travers continued.
"Yes, if you please.  In return for my points on horses," Walton said.
"Well, I'll g-give you a first r-rate p-point," Travers said.  "You m-made three hu-hundred and fifty th-thousand d-dollars in t-two years.  Then st-stick to your b-business.  Th-that's a f-first r-rate p-point."

0014post-williamtraversdead.jpgTravers made a fortune on Wall Street.  He was one of the founders of Saratoga Race Course and it's first President.  He was a long-time President of the New York Athletic Club, a member of 27 private clubs, a backer of Sheepshead Bay Racetrack on Coney Island and he made up one-third of Annieswood Stable, racing champions such as Kentucky and Alarm.

All this barely scraped the surface of what he accomplished.

But above it all, above his fortunes, keen financial acumen, racing accomplishments, all those club memberships and elite status, William R. Travers was best known for his good nature and wit.

Ain't a bad way to go out, is it?


Sources:
New York Times, March 15, 1885 Stories of Wm. R. Travers
New York Times, March 28, 1887 William Travers
Picture of Travers located at Barker Family Tree website

It's Travers Week at Saratoga and this week I'll take a look back at those - for various reasons - I find particularly memorable.

My childhood heroes have always been my Mom and Dad.  The list of reasons why could fill a book.

But in the world of sports, no one held a candle to Eddie Maple.

As a Yankee fan I loved Dent, Nettles and Munson.  In football, Phil Simms was amazing to watch.  Oh the beatings that man took Sunday after Sunday.  And he always got up and went back at 'em again.  The man just refused to quit.

But racing was my game and Maple was my jock.  I can't explain exactly why.  It might have been because I always liked Woody Stephens and he was his go-to guy.  It might have been because he rode Secretariat in his last race, a win in the 1973 Canadian International.  It might have been because you could always rely on Maple to give 100% every time he got a leg up.  Maybe it was because I made a lot of money on him, playing well priced horses on the grass at Saratoga.

But mostly I think it was because he was underestimated as a rider.  In a time when Cordero and Velasquez ruled the NY racing roost, Maple didn't always get the same calls to ride and had to work a little harder than some others.  But that's just the opinion of a kid at the track.

000015post-temperancehillBelmont.jpgIn 1980 he rode Belmont Stakes winner Temperance Hill in the Travers.

He was dead last in a first quarter that went in :22 3/5; then again at the half:45 4/5 and still trailing the field after three quarters in 1:10 1/5.

The leader through most of the going was Amber Pass.  As they head to the top of the stretch Amber Pass went wide.  Maple and Temperance Hill had the perfect ground saving rail trip.  When I watch the video it looks like he gained two or three lengths with every stride.  A hard left turn at the quarter pole and the Belmont winner was full of run.  Maple, under strong right handed whip, passed the leaders and crossed under the wire in 2:02 4/5; a length and a half to the good of his foes.  They would go on to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont that fall, too.

My favorite jock just won my favorite race.  What could be better than that?

Fast forward a year and Maple gets the call on Willow Hour, with whom he won the Jim Dandy two weeks prior.

000015-postschottcolors.JPGThey break well and take a stalking approach, about four lengths off the leader up the backside.  When they reached the far turn Maple and Willow Hour take to the front.  A surge from Pleasant Colony - winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness that year - moves alongside.

Together they race through the muck like their mothers were ducks and when they reached the wire, Maple earned his second straight Travers by a desperate neck.

Then came 1982.  Maple is going for his third straight Travers Stakes and his chances look fantastic.

Riding Belmont Stakes winner Conquistador Cielo, he goes off as the 2/5 favorite.

Graveyard of Champions be damned!  Eddie's gonna ride through the ghosts of Saratoga Stakes Races past with that same strong right handed whip and blow the old roof off this joint.

Derby winner Gato Del Sol with Jorge Velasquez and Preakness champ Aloma's Ruler with Angel Cordero, Jr. are also entered/

But Maple was nearly thwarted before the race began.  He got a suspension for an infraction and had to fight like the devil to get an injunction to ride.  If memory serves it wasn't until that very morning of the Travers we learned Maple got the OK.

They all break well and Conquistador Cielo and Alohma's Ruler were within a length of each other, setting a fast pace of :23 2/5, :46 2/6 and 1:10 3/5.

At the head of the stretch they remained together with Maple and Cordero driving their horses furiously.  Conquistador Cielo puts a long neck in front.

"Yes!  Go Eddie!  Go Eddie!" I am screaming from the second floor of the clubhouse.  I vaguely remember my Mom trying to get me to calm down.  Apparently this screaming maniac is drawing attention to himself.

But out of nowhere comes this longshot.  A gray blur striding beautifully past them.

"Who the hell is that?!" I yelled.

I nearly threw up.

(Seems to be a problem I have here at Saratoga)

It was all I could do not to drop to my knees and hurl.

But instead, like any self respecting New York racing fan, I cried at the top of my lungs "Noooooooooooooooooooo!"

I was sick. Absolutely sick to my stomach.

Runaway Groom, a Canadian invader, just upset three classic winners.

Runaway Groom.jpg
I threw a bloody fit.  I had never had cause to be angry in my life like this - not up to that point anyhow - and I believed this was just cause.

Mom, on the other hand, saw it a bit differently.

Maple then served his suspension and alas, so did I.

Mom banned me from the track until I could learn to behave myself.

To this day I can't see how she didn't throttle me right then and there in the Clubhouse.  But, like most Moms she knew how to really get me for my behavior.  Keep her kid from the track.

Damn.

What I would have done for a whoopin' instead of missing a day or two of races at The Spa.

That was 28 years ago and I cannot say still haven't gotten over it completely.

I tried to find blame everywhere I could.  There was none.

Maybe they went to fast.  Maybe, it was Canada's idea of revenge for him winning the '73 Canadian International.  Who knows?

Maybe it's just time to move on.  

000015post-eddiemapleinduction.jpgTruth be told, I have ... but it wasn't until last summer that I felt I could.

It was then - at long last - that Eddie Maple was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame.  With 4,398 wins and over $105mm in purses, Maple rode from 1965 through 1998.

Deservedly, he reached the pinnacle of his sport.

My childhood sports hero made it to the Hall of Fame.

I couldn't have been happier for him if I were his own son.

But make no mistake; my Mom and Dad are still dead-heated for the win as far as heroes go.

A few years back when tracks had their own pools for simulcast races )before simulcasting got as big a business as it is today), we as horse-players got to shop for odds.

Bouncing from one television feed to another, seeing where we could get the most bang for our buck.  It didn't happen often but when it did, man it was a fun and exciting element to horse-playing.  I know I am not alone in that line of thinking.

But imagine how much fun it would have been so many years ago when you could shop for odds from one person to the next.  Standing in a betting ring, in your jacket, tie and hat, your cigar in your mouth and racing program in hand.

Sorry ladies, you weren't allowed in the betting rings in those days.

Long before the eyesore of Saratoga Race Course's current infield tote board burned the retinas of our eyes (my Lord, that thing is hideous), punters made their wagers with bookmakers, not automated self-service machines.

johngcavanagh.jpgLeading the fray for better than 40 years was John G. Cavanagh; a conciliator of sorts for all matters wagering in New York.

Known as "Irish John," he was the architect of The Cavanagh Special, a deluxe train of up to eight Pullman cars, diners and a day coach or two.  

Sporting a boater instead of an engineer's cap, Cavanagh and his train ride north carried almost exclusively bookmakers and their assistants.  Owners, trainers and professional bettors would travel in kind, up to and often exceeding 600 travelers at a time.

They'd get to the Spa city around eight or nine o'clock on the Saturday evening prior to the meet's start which was usually on a Monday.  They were often warmly greeted.  Onlookers, gamblers and tourists would cheer their arrival as bookmakers, gamblers, et. al. marched to their hotels to the sounds townsfolk's cheering and a band playing in the streets.

Bookmaking hadn't been formally adopted in the States until the early 1870s when first introduced to English race courses in 1840.

By the 1880s it was commonplace and bookies thought of themselves on a par with Wall Street Brokers, viewing the track as no different as the Stock Exchange.  In the papers they'd advertise themselves as Turf Exchanges.

The top books formed a group that would gain control of all betting at state tracks and called themselves the Metropolitan Turf Association.  They sold buttons as if they were seats on the stock exchange, and were just as hard to get and almost as costly to acquire.

Cavanagh led the group.  He handled any and all disputes.  He decided who could and could not join the association and his power was absolute.  His Cavanagh Special, was a veritable stamp of approval.


Saratoga Betting Ring

At Saratoga the betting ring was near the finish line.  A circle of stalls, raised, and with chalk boards at the top would serve as encouragement to get a patron's attention (read: money) as the sheetwriters and pay-off men took care of business.

bookmakerinkentucky.jpgOn the chalkboard the bookie would have his name, the horses for the upcoming race and beside them would be their odds, which changed frequently.

The sheetwriter took the bets and marked it in the bookmaker's tabs.  The pay-off man did precisely what his name indicates, should the bettor have won his race.

Things didn't always go that smoothly of course but invariably at day's end, with torn tickets littering the betting ring and grandstand, the bookmakers had ample reason to smile.


Such is Saratoga

Two weeks ago, with the help of my local librarian, I located an absolute gem of a book.  Such is Saratoga, authored by Hugh Bradley, was lent to me for a three week stint and it is a first edition copy, printed in 1940.  The thing is 70 years old and it's in my hands.

I ask you to indulge me, if only for a moment, in sharing a couple of stories about some characters found in that book.

Virginia Carroll:  Known for his eccentricities as well as his skill and daring as a bookie, he once was angered by a punter who pointed at his selection for a race with his umbrella.

"The fat, red-headed Mr. Carroll reached down from his stand, sized the umbrella and threw it as far as a rage-inspired arm would permit," Mr. Bradley wrote.
He turned to his sheetwriter and ordered him to give him five umbrellas to his one on the man's selection.

Fred Burton: Supposedly coined the phrase "All horse players who play stable information must go broke."  He was particularly hard on himself if he let a favorite go off at odds longer than he should have.

One day, after losing more than he cared to, he went to John Morrissey's Club House for dinner.  He sat at the table, ordered a thick steak with expensive side dishes.  The meal came and sat before him.  For two hours he didn't touch a morsel.  He paid the check, tipped the waiter and left.  All throughout those two hours, barely uttering a word, the waiter revealed the only thing Burton moved was his lips.

The waiter said Burton kept repeating again and again: "Starve, you sucker.  Starve!"

Bill Cowan:  Arguably the biggest bookmaker (financially speaking), he was a genius with numbers and known for his polished mannerisms.  It was reported his backer (and silent partner) was Robert H. Davis, owner of the 1914 world champion Boston Braves.  

The story goes that Cowan came to the Spa a quarter-of-a-million in the hole after the New York season.  During the course of the month he made it back and another half-million more; a $750,000 race meet.

Then he lost it all - ALL - at the subsequent Belmont race meet.  When he died in the late 30's however, he was still quite wealthy.

Charming lot, aren't they?

There were mighty bouts of bettor versus bookie though out the years and arguably the most famous (and certainly the most frustrating to bookies) was a gambler named George E. Smith.

But he never went by his given name when making his bets.  He was nicknamed Pittsburgh Phil by gambler William "Silver Bill" Riley to differentiate him from the other Smiths that also frequented Riley's pool halls.

pittphil1909.jpgPittsburgh Phil was a thin, young man with an artistic appeal about him.  He worked as a cork cutter.  In his prime he maintained an organization which cost close to a thousand dollars a day to get information on horses and to place his bets.

The bookies hated him because they feared him.  So they'd follow him.  He was cool and daring.  Smart and not difficult to trace.  He usually outmaneuvered them all.  The bookies wanted to learn what he'd learn so they could cut the odds.  They rarely did.  He frustrated them all.

Bill Cowan once said he paid more money out to him than any other player.

When he, the cork cutting gambler, died his estate was reportedly valued in the millions, although my research offers different amounts on stated his fortune would have been valued at better than $79 million today.

After he died the Racing Maxims and Methods of Pittsburgh Phil were published.  They are often used today as core betting rules.  Writer and blogger Jessica Chapel published them on her blog and are - without question - worth every moment of your time in reading.  (note: pretty much all of Jessica's writing is worth reading; I've been a fan of hers for about four years now).


Pari-Mutuel Wagering Returns

In 1939 New York voters had overwhelmingly voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that allowed pari-mutuel wagering.  That following spring it was a state senator named John Dunningham who implemented legislation that would oust the bookies.

In 1940 pari-mutuel wagering returned to New York.  There were 23 states that already had them in place.  They were a much more modernized version of their ancestors.

There were 307 machines installed, manned by 450 men.  In the grandstand alone were 72 machines.  The cost was $220,000.

Saratogians adjusted and the money came rolling in.  Over 7,200 people walked through the turnstiles wagering greater than $260,000 on the opening day card.

Women were allowed to bet with the tote and racing officials credited their wagering as part in parcel to their increase in handle and attendance.

At the end of the first pari-mutuel season, Commission Chairman Swope noted that a whopping $103 million was bet, with attendance up 30% and a record 281,377 people attending the races at The Spa.

The bookies were gone, except for the back rooms of laundromats and bars, and pari-mutuel wagering has been here to stay ever since.

#     #     #

Bibliographical Sources Used for Research:

 - Bradley, Hugh, Such Was Saratoga, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. Garden City, N.Y.
 - Waller, George, Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, FTB: Friar Tuck Bookshop,
Ganesvoort, NY 1966

 - Hoatling, Edward Clinton They're Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY 1995


Photographs:
 - John G. "Irish John" Cavanagh taken from George Waller's Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, FTB: Friar Tuck Bookshop, Ganesvoort, NY 1966
 - Bookie figuring out bets for Kentucky derby. Warrenton, Virginia.; reator(s): Wolcott, Marion Post, 1910-1990, photographer; Date Created/Published: 1941 May. Library of Congress Call Number: LC-USF34- 057427-E [P&P]
 - Photograph of American gambler, George E. Smith (1864-1905), or Pittsburgh Phil taken between 1885 and 1900. Smith was a noted horse racing strategist and successful handicapper at the turn of the twentieth century.


Ah, nuts!

jimpostformondayPhotofinish.jpgRunaway Jim ran fourth in a field of eight yesterday, earning Seabrook Stable his third check (i.e. his keep for the month) in four starts and we open the condition book to see what's next.

Sigh.  And that folks, is horse racing.

When we got to the paddock my nausea subsided the instant I saw him in the ring.

He looked great.  Just great.  His ears were up, he was walking happy and he knew that today he gets to play with his friends.

Can I just tell you what a great feeling it is to see that?

To see him on his toes.  To see him happy.

jimpostformonday01.JPGYears ago, an old friend of mine named Brian Mayfield, once told me "Patrick, my horses are happy and happy horses win horse races."

No one could disagree with him and when I saw Jim yesterday, he sure as heck wasn't going to get an argument out of me.

He circled a couple of times then he was saddled.  Number five on the program, Stacy saw it as a sign.

You see, she's as die hard an Eagles fan as they come.  She loves McNabb.

See where I'm going here?  Green saddle cloth.  Number five.  McNabb - an Eagle for years, he wore number five...

Her brother Ken - a Jets fan, me - a Giants fan, joked like the Eagles he'll go to the front, look unstoppable then, as they do, get caught in the end.

She wasn't laughin'.

Moments after she grimaced at our failed attempts at humor, all thoughts of football went out the window for all of us.  'Cause baby, this is horse racing at the Spa and there ain't no football game better than this.

Enter jockey Jose Lezcano.

jimpostformonday02.JPGHe's had a tough meet at the Spa but he works hard, he rides hard and he's as talented a jockey in a tough New York colony as you'll ever find.  He came to us confident.

"I think today's the day" he said, after seeing how good Jim looked in the paddock.

Whether jocks tell owners that or not in every race they have a shot, I don't know.  But we were excited and so we were happy to believe him.

They break from the gate and he broke clean, initially.  A few steps out he got bounced around like a pinball in a machine.  But that's to be expected.  That happens.

He sat chill off a decent pace, a bit slower than he's seen in races past, and was in a good spot.

When they turned for home Lezcano put Jim in gear and he started to move, chasing the leaders.

Then, as they bunched up in the straight, I saw Lezcano stand up.

"%&*#" I thought to myself; or as I came to realize I thought out loud.  I'd like to apologize to those in the Clubhouse boxes who may have heard me.

I'd like to apologize to Tom Durkin on the roof, who probably heard me.

jimpostformonday03.JPGSomething happened.  Either he got cut off or bumped.

His momentum got crushed.

Once settled Lezcano bore down and went to the stick, driving him as best he could.

The winners combined for an exacta that paid better than $600.

Jim got beat for third by a neck.

These aren't excuses.  This, friends, is horse racing.

You never know what's going to happen.

You never know what kind of trip they'll get.

You never know where they'll finish.

But you always hope for the best and you're grateful for the opportunity to run.

Especially here.

Especially at the Spa.

*********
I have to make a note as to the Guest Services personnel at NYRA.  In both events when Jim ran and Stacy and I travelled the 200+ miles to watch, we were treated with amazing kindness and professionalism.

To make it clear the only people who knew she was an owner was the Director of Horsemen Relations.  It's not like there was any kind of special treatment here.

Not the guest services folks in the red vests or blazers.  Not the tellers.  Not the food and beer vendors.  

Besides, it wouldn't matter if she or I or any of us owned horses.  We were guests at Saratoga Race Course and they treated us wonderfully well.

There is nothing better when making a trip to the races and your tellers are smiling, happy to help you (not that I needed help with any racing terminology), your food and beverage vendors are thrilled to have the opportunity to wait on you and the guest services personnel are behaving in such a manner that we are doing THEM the favor of helping us when we have a question.

So, to all of you who work at NYRA taking care of us, my sincerest thanks to you all!

*********

Back to Jim for a moment though.

Sure.  We ran fourth.  I admit I found a silver lining in not getting sick or passing out as a minor victory in the overall day.  But I would be less than honest if I didn't also admit we were frustrated.

There is a huge difference in one's mindset when you are in the money versus hitting the board.

Third would have been better, of course.

A clean trip would have been ideal.  Who knows the possibilities if he had one.

jimpostformonday04.JPGStacy still managed to smile through it all.  She keeps a perspective on these things that I envy.

Dwelling on what could have been, or what we thought should have been, is pure foolishness.  A waste of time.  There is nothing that can be done about that now.

We do, however, remain grateful that he came back out of the race feeling fit, sound and happy; anxious to go again.  After all, that is what matters most.

...but the condition book was opened, I can promise you, before the horses hit the track for the fourth race.

We love you, Jim.  You're our favorite!  Heck, that's why we even made a Facebook page for you!

Go Jim, Go!

Photographs:
Photo Finish picture courtesy NYRA
All others: Patrick J. Kerrison Saratoga Collection

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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.