SIX WEEKS IN SARATOGA
How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year
by Brendan O’Meara
ISBN13: ISBN13: 978-1-4384-3941-9
Excelsior Editions (State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 257 pages, $27)
I like writing book reviews, because I love reading books. And when I read a book that I love, I want to share it with everyone I know. And–Voila!–via the Miracle of the Internet–I can share it also with lots of peeps whom I don’t know.
I love this book, and the reasons for my loving it are many and varied. I’ll share but a few with you here, today…
I’ll start this book review by stating that I read the book because my high school English teacher told me to.
And it’s rude not to read a book that someone has given you as a gift. Especially your high school English teacher.
I cracked it open, thinking, “If Prof bought it for me, and wants me to read it–it must have literary merit.”
And then I read it again because I really, truly admired the author and what he gave us in this tome.
(Now, as you may have figured, I graduated from high school before the dinosaurs figured out that the asteroid was out to get them. But, again, the Internet and a crazy little thing called Facebook conspired together to help bring Richard Michael Holmes–and his wife, Katey, back into my life a couple of years ago.)
Prof, as I called the man in 1974, and so he is to me, today–Prof and Katey gifted me with a copy of Brendan O’Meara’s book last August. August 8th, to be exact. (They inscribed it to me.) They know of my obsessive love for Rachel Alexandra, an almost motherly-but-not-creepy kind of affection.
Of course, I was thrilled to get the book, but perhaps I should reveal a dirty little secret here, first. I want you to know that I’m reviewing this book honestly, and from a place of genuine respect.
I came a long way between August of 2009 and August last year. I grew as a person, and as a soul. Allow me to elucidate:
I was jealous as can be of Brendan when I found out he’d gotten this gig. And how did I get that piece of news? Three years ago–2009, the year that’s chronicled in the book–I attended the New York Turf Writers’ Dinner in Saratoga. I was seated in some pretty snazzy company: Virginia Kraft Payson and her husband, Dave Cole, to my right–and Brendan O’Meara to my left.
We introduced ourselves around the table (no need to introduce yourself if you’re VK Payson or Dave Cole, but they participated graciously in the exercise in bourgeois niceties). As we extended hands and smiles, Brendan stated that he was writing the book about Rachel Alexandra.
I felt the blood drain out of my face, and that lump-before-I-cry bulge in my throat., nearly cutting off my breathing.
Then I came as close as I’d ever come to taking both hands, wrapping them around the young man’s neck, and and strangling him until I was satisfied that he wouldn’t be available to research the book.
I believe that I may have been jealous.
Jealousy is an ugly attribute. A sin. A very unattractive trait.
But there it was, nonetheless.
I love Rachel. I loved her in 2009, and I love her now. I was absolutely mad about her that summer, and I still weep when I see photos of her, well, doing nothing.
I was one of those pests who hung around the barn in Saratoga, standing just-far-enough away to be respectful–on the other side of the side road, near Bruce Levine’s horse bathing station. But close enough to see that crazy white in her eyes, and to watch her ballet-dancer-like glide when she did her post-workout hotwalking.
I love Rachel.
I wanted more than anything to write the book about her.
I wanted to write Curlin’s book, too–Jess Jackson knew how to pick horses, by God. The man was a hero, in my book. (And God rest his soul.)
So I, the Ultimate Rachel and Curlin Fan–somehow hadn’t figured out who would be the right person to ask, to cajole, to bother/pest/annoy/harass/p-off — to get this gig.
And yet here’s this young whippersnapper, half my age–he was writing about MY Rachel.
How could he understand the female psyche? How could he get it, that a strong, smart, brilliant, talented female horse is NOT a “freak”?
How could he have gotten that gig, and not me?
I was jealous, indeed.
And for this I apologize. To Brendan, to Rachel and her connections, and to God. Jealousy is so unbecoming. I worked through. It took a few days, but I focused my attention on other work, and went through the summer of 2009 with nary an eye-twitch.
So this was the very-long-but-necessary explanation: you can rest assured that my review of this book is real, sincere and honest. I could not say that I love it, were my heart still full of inappropriate upset.
(And, by the same token, if I were still jealous–I could not write a book review of this book. I’d have no desire to write about it, because–well, you know me, and my potential to spew vitriol on the page. I am fully capable of ripping any book to shreds, and writing things that would bring the author to tears. I have a sharp pen, when I’m compelled to whip it out. It’s like packing a loaded Glock: only licensed professionals should have access, and only take it out of the holster when absolutely necessary.)
But I did get through the rest of the summer. I wrote an article for a local newspaper about watching Rachel work out–how close her rhythm, grace and beauty brought me to God. Nah, it was just a newspaper. Not a book–but it was an opportunity for me to write a love letter, from the bottom of my soul. I got through the summer–and I watched her dance, and breathe, and run and thrill thousands of people.
I watched her win the Woodward that summer–in such an awe-inspiring fashion that Tom Durkin, NYRA’s venerable announcer, fairly wept when he pronounced,
“RACHEL WON! She is inDEED, Rachel Alexandra THE GREAT!!!!”
I thought Tom was going to cry–he would not have been the only one. I was a mess, crying all over myself. (I was also sore: Karen, my BFF, had my ponytail in one hand, yanking my head back with every stride that Rachel put forth–and pounding on my left shoulder blade with her other hand.)
In the end, I had a great Summer of Rachel.
And I was so caught up with my own experiences of the magnificent Champion, that I did not pay attention to many of the things and people who played roles, as charmingly described by Brendan O’Meara in his book. My own experience of the great horse was so intimate, so single-minded–that I hardly noticed the humans who swirled around her, or who ran the show up and down the line. I didn’t see any of the drama, or angst, or concern that played out on so many human faces.
I didn’t see what Brendan saw.
I wasn’t concerned one iota about the humans in Rachel’s life, or the city and track administrators whose professions may have been affected by the filly’s health. (If Rachel cracked a bone during her stay in Saratoga–a lot of money would have been lost all the way down the line–from Asmussen and NYRA to the smallest gas station owner on South Broadway. The financial health of Saratoga, itself, that summer, had more to do with Rachel’s health than many people realize.)
I didn’t care about any human–my love-struck eyes saw only the Queen. Well, there was one human exception: Amy, who., as head of security for Stonestreet, had to deal with screwball media people starting at 4AM every morning, I’m sure. And insane fans who somehow managed to get their sorry, uncredentialed selves into the backstretch, and right up to the barn office door.
But other than Amy–nope, I noticed not the affairs, the comings and goings, of any humans in the Rachel Universe.
And I did not know how so many people, including other trainers, could be intent on breaking the Queen’s career–the Woodward was not just a race. It was a chance to de-throne racing royalty. Saratoga is known as the Graveyard of Champions, with good reason: the brightest and the best, even Triple Crown winners–come here, never certain of victory.
Being a great horse who races in Saratoga means that every other trainer and jockey has you in your sights. If you’re leading the race the whole way, you can count on it that there’s a bull’s-eye on the back of your head.
Brendan O’Meara spent the summer of 2009, concentrating on his writerly skills. He did not spend that summer as did I and so many other rabid Rachel fans: drooling and falling all over ourselves. We were insane fans, so, so many of us–and the author of this book, in order to be the author–exhibited the trait that will truly make him a great, renowned author. Simply put, Brendan O’Meara was in control of his emotions, and did his job.
His job was to prowl around the backstretch and the Oklahoma…to find people and stories and facts about the Rachel Alexandra Phenomenon…and to tell the truth by way of a story that would capture the human imagination.
He was not a reporter, he was not looking for a story to get in on deadline–he wasn’t looking for dirt, or sensationalism. His goals were far more long-term: to find the best facets of one of the greatest stories of Saratoga racing history.
The author of this book was focused, and level-headed, and possessed all the traits of a great author, that I did not possess that summer. Brendan O’Meara thought like an author. His youth had nothing to do with his ability to do this–while I still believe that Wisdom comes only with age–the ability to think objectively and yet creatively–is indeed a property that his youth and intellectual acumen brought to the literary table.
So I did read this book–by the time the book came out, in July 2011, and Prof and Katey gave it to me–I was two years separated from my inappropriate feelings of jealousy.
I read the book, and I re-read it. I fell even more in love with Rachel, and came to develop some interesting feelings toward other players in the book.
I won’t tell you my feelings, or my thoughts on the people. Buy the book, read the book, and come to your own conclusions.
You should not be influenced by my thoughts–except this one: buy this book. Read this book, and tell other people about it. You’ll enjoy the romp through the Oklahoma, but more than that–you’ll be privy to the work of a young man whose future as a wildly successful author is guaranteed.
I love being one of the first. You won’t be one of the first to discover Brendan O’Meara, or his amazing book. But you will own a book to which you will refer over and over again–and re-live a summer that made your heart happy the first time around.
And there’s no greater gift than that, is there? To remind people of the reasons why they love horse racing, and a particular horse. Why the summer of 2009 was special in Saratoga–and why, with any luck, some other big Champion will capture our emotions and imaginations in the very near future.
I love racing because it’s one human endeavour in which hope springs eternal. Read Six Weeks in Saratoga and discover more about the sport–you may think you know it all.
Brendan, thank you for writing this book, and teaching me things I didn’t know. The knowledge, alone, is worth the 27 bucks. The romp, humor and insight–is, as they say…priceless.
Brendan O’Meara will sell and sign copies of Six Weeks in Saratoga at Saratoga Race Course THIS coming Saturday, July 21st, from 10AM – 5PM. He’ll be at Saratoga Styles, under the Clubhouse roof.
If you want to get your book before Saturday, you can catch it at any indie bookstore, Barnes & Noble, etc. If you can’t make it, but want an autographed copy–with whatever you wish inscribed by the author–go to www.brendanomeara.com
Photo Credits: Thanks to Brendan O’Meara and to Excelsior Editions for the cover shot.