Another damp, chilly Saratoga morning; it feels more like October than August. The sky is leaden; standing along the rail of the Oklahoma training track, we’re wearing fleeces, boots, sweaters. The sun should be shining; we should be wearing tank tops. But we’re shivering, and trying, futilely, to avoid puddles.
“Hop on,” trainer Dale Romans tells me. With fellow trainer Mitch Friedman in the passenger seat, I climb on the back of the golf cart, and we zip back to the barn, where the next set of horses is waiting to go to the track. While we wait for a jockey to arrive, we talk.
Friedman on the Mike and the Mad Dog divorce: “Mad Dog doesn’t need him. He’s going to be fine.”
I hear the story of Sharp Humor, the Romans trainee featured in the Hennegan brothers’ excellent The First Saturday in May. It’s playing every day at the National Racing Museum here in Saratoga; if you haven’t seen it, go.
His barn in Kentucky quarantined with a case of strangles and desperate to race his talented colt, Romans arranges for Sharp Humor to race in New York, in the name of his friend Mitch Friedman. The New York-bred colt breaks his maiden at first asking, going on to win a couple of state-bred stakes before hitting the Derby trail as a three-year-old. Friedman still has not forgiven the Hennegans for leaving his role in the colt’s development on the cutting room floor.
Robby Albarado shows up to get on Sara Louise, a promising two-year-old filly by Malibu Moon. Romans, his assistant Sally, and I cruise to the main track to watch her work; as we settle into the grandstand, Proud Spell exits the track at the horse path to the paddock, and Ginger Punch cruises across the finish line in a workout under Angel Cordero, Jr. Sara Louise goes four furlongs in 47.66, sixth best of 86. Back at the barn, Albarado is impressed at the way the filly moves. “She can win her first time out,” he says.
As he waits to work out a Sara Louise stablemate, he and Romans share stories and reminisce. “I need another horse like Kitten’s Joy,” says the trainer. The jockey tells him not to hold his breath. Recalling the 2005 Firecracker, which Kitten’s Joy under Edgar Prado won and in which Albarado finished third on America Alive, the jockey says, “When Kitten’s Joy went by me, I just watched, he was so good.” This is backed up by The Blood-Horse’s story on the race, in which Albarado is quoted as saying, “That was fun to watch…He’s one of the best grass horses I’ve seen in a long time. He’s an amazing horse. He’s a phenomenal horse.” Albarado admits that he once asked to get on the horse at the barn, just so that he could say that he rode Kitten’s Joy.
We pick up Zayat Stables racing manager Sobhy Sonbol and go back to the Oklahoma, to watch one horse work out on dirt, another on turf. On the grass, the horses are kicking up clods the size of my head; it is sodden. Waiting for the horses to go, Sonbol and Romans discuss possible jockeys for an upcoming race, to be run on a day when many in the New York jockey colony will be in California. This one’s got a mount, this one will be in California, this one’s not right for the horse. I don’t think they resolve it.
It’s nearly 10 am, and the track is closing for the morning; the workouts are over, and I ask Romans to introduce me to some of his horses. We walk the shedrow, and I occasionally pull carrots and peppermints out of my bag to offer the horses as we go past. We stop at the stall of Bayou’s Lassie, impressive wire-to-wire winner of the Grade III Churchill Distaff Turf Mile Stakes. She’s got her back to us as we approach, but is convinced to come over. She’s delightful, but has no interest in carrots or mints, disdaining both, munching on hay instead. We move on.
A bit further down, we stop at the stall of a scrawny grey. He’s not that big, and I am surprised when Romans introduces Thorn Song. This guy is a multiple graded stakes winner? Unlike his stablemate, he is a treat whore—after the first bite of carrot, he stretches out his neck as far as it will go, turning his head parallel to the ground, nibbling at my jacket, opening his mouth, pleading for more. A couple of carrots and several mints later, we walk away…much to his dismay.
It’s after 10:30 now, and time for both of us to move on to the next portion of the day. It’s still grey, and still damp, and still chilly, but the bustle of the backstretch has given way to a relative quiet, and the barn workers finish their chores before heading off to breakfast. Less than three hours to post time, when the curtain goes up on the show that all of this rehearsal makes possible…