On Monday night I attended the Sampras/Federer exhibition match. Had Sampras won, I’d have been certain that it was fixed; Federer won in a third set tiebreak, so I’m only 99% sure. My tickets said 7:00; the match maddeningly started at 8:30, and I got home far too late to generate anything new, so herewith, I recycle. I wrote this piece last summer, and it appeared first in the previous incarnation of this blog, on the discussion board of another website.
Each year, the Belmont Child Care Association holds its major fundraiser the week before the Travers: everybody’s in town, and everybody comes. As benefits go, it’s fairly reasonably priced, and after working with the BCCA for several months as a volunteer last summer, procuring auction items, I decided to attend. One of the things I like about this benefit is the dress code: the theme is generally a Western round-up, so jeans are acceptable attire.
Those of you who know me may find this hard to believe, but I am actually quite shy in crowds, and around people I don’t know. I knew about two people at the benefit, and discovered that I was seated at a table with master of ceremonies Wayne Lukas, and between Tracy and Todd Pletcher on one side, and Kiaran and Letty McLaughlin on the other. Me???? Fortunately, all four of them are incredibly down to earth and friendly, and as the McLaughlins have a teenage daughter and I teach high school, we had a lot of common ground.
Partway through dinner, Letty said something about my visiting the barn the following morning; thinking that she was just being polite, I thanked her and let it drop, but as the evening broke up, she and Kiaran reiterated the offer and gave me a cell phone number to call in the morning. Knowing that I had to get up and get back down here to Brooklyn for work, I wasn’t sure that I’d make it, but when I got home that night, I said to myself, “Are you NUTS?? Get up early and get over there!”
The McLaughlin barn is on the backstretch, not far from Clare Court. Clare Court is one of the oldest parts of the Saratoga grounds; it’s a half-mile training track that sits in the shadows of old trees, just off Nelson Avenue. It is one of the more tranquil areas on the grounds, as horses gallop around a fairly narrow track—there’s not nearly the traffic and action of the main track. A former exercise rider told me that the two-year-olds go to Clare Court, where they can learn how to be on the track without doing too much damage to anyone else with their antics.
Watching the morning workouts from the clubhouse boxes, coffee in one hand, newspaper in the other, is my idea of heaven. I had never, however, watched the workouts from the backstretch, and on that morning, heaven grew another dimension for me. In the afternoon I’d watched races from there…but the morning is different. Trainers, jockeys, owners, horses, spectators, exercise riders—the place is abuzz. Sean Clancy is dropping off copies of The Saratoga Special and chatting with everyone; John Velazquez is talking to trainers about prospective mounts; jockey agents are conferring on the phone and in person; trainers are instructing exercise riders about that morning’s workout. There’s a concession stand selling breakfast, and when I pay $3.90 for my bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll and a cup of coffee, I think I am stealing. (This is the same concession stand where, hours later, you can get a Heineken for $2.50.)
I get to the track around 7:30 and meet up with Kiaran, who introduces me to everyone he stops to talk to and who gives me the backstory on his horses as they come on and off the track. The first horse I meet is Shakis—I remember his race from the Belmont undercard, and Kiaran and I talk about the horse’s performance that day (a close third behind Better Talk Now and English Channel). Kiaran indicates that the horse is training well—after his performance in the Bernard Baruch three days later, we know he wasn’t kidding.
Praying for Cash heads to the track for a gallop—he was second to Bluegrass Cat in the 2006 Haskell, and after a year off from the races, appears to be in good form. A number of two-year-olds also take to the track, and I wish that I could say that I remember all of their names and all of their stories…but I don’t. We go up to the gate to watch Feastorfamine school; he is not all that happy about it, and Kiaran praises the new gate leadership; earlier in the meet a series of gate mishaps led to late scratches, refunds, and a meeting between the jockeys and the gate crew, ultimately resulting in the removal of the head of the gate crew. On this morning, the crew works patiently to get the colt to walk in, then stand in, then walk out of the gate; it takes a while, but they handle him deftly and after about ten minutes, he is coolly doing exactly what he has to do, instead of resisting as he’d done at the start.
We then head over the barn, and as we walk along the shedrow, Kiaran tells me about many of the horses, some of whom I already “knew.” One of the first horses we see is the amazing Shakespeare, who won earlier in the meet after a two-year injury layoff; two years ago, the horse was spoken of in the same category as English Channel and Cacique, and his impressive win this summer (Tom Durkin’s memorable call, “Shakespeare has a second act!”) makes me hopeful for future success. We also stop at the stall of Armonk, a beautiful two-year-old grey filly who’d finished third the day before after breaking in the air, then rallying. Finally, we get to Lear’s Princess…one of the friendliest race fillies I’ve ever seen. Female racehorses can be an ornery lot, but this one is just a lover…a little girl and I feed her carrots and stroke her neck, and she just hangs her head out of the stall, loving the attention. This is four days after her second-place finish in the Alabama, when she was bumped near the finish line by Lady Joanne, the winner.
It is getting late in the morning, and I am already in Saratoga longer than I’d intended…my 1:00 pm meeting in Brooklyn is looming large in my mind. But as I make my way back to my car, I run into John Velazquez, and we chat about the Anna House benefit the night before—he is one of the friendliest people I have ever met. Being around “racing royalty” should make me feel awed, privileged, an outsider…but they are all so friendly and down-to-earth, so giving of their time and their stories, that I completely forget that my morning host won four Grade I races last year: the Belmont (Jazil), and the Suburban, Whitney, and BC Classic (Invasor).
I finally manage to drag myself to my car at nearly 9 am (my 1:00 meeting now thumping on my head, reminding me that I do, after all, have a job); the gods are on my side as I speed down I-87, cruise through the city, find a parking space nearly immediately (and THAT is a miracle), and arrive at school with twenty minutes to spare. Sitting in my meeting at about 1:20, I look down…I see hay tangled in the fringes in my sweater, and I smile.