A day at the races offers any number of interesting storylines, opening day at Saratoga more than usual. We could talk about the weather (yes, of course, it rained, but as one NYRA employee said to me after the first race, “Hey, it’s already better than last year—we got a turf race in!”); we could talk about changes to the physical plant (nothing terribly striking that I noticed); we could talk about emerging trainer/jockey/horse narratives (Rick Schosberg ran three horses yesterday and came out with three seconds, one by a heart-breaking nose); we could talk about the first cat horse winner of the meet (Westover Wildcat—way to go, Ruffian); we could talk about how wildly impressive, smooth, and beautiful Hot Dixie Chick looked as she ran down the stretch to win the Schuylerville.
But with about a sixteenth of a mile to go in the 8th race, I knew that there was only one story that I’d be telling.
In November of 2007, I saw Saratoga Russell race for the first time at Aqueduct; he set crazy fractions and was beaten by National Pride, but in his next three starts, he ran the kind of races that give people Derby dreams. An injury in the 2008 Gotham took him out of racing for nearly sixteen months, and he returned to the track with a second at Monmouth at the end of June. You can read here the details of his racing career.
The colt is owned by West Point Thoroughbreds and named for Russell Horvat, a former West Point owner who was a part owner of Saratoga View, a talented colt who won his first time out at Saratoga but was shortly thereafter injured in a training accident and euthanized. According to former West Point employee Kerry Carlson, Terry Finley, president of West Point, liked the colt and his dam, Prologue, so much that he purchased Saratoga Russell (Trippi – Prologue (Theatrical)) at a two-year at the OBS sale in March 2007.
While some descendants of the Theatrical line, such as Shakespeare, focus on the dramatic elements of the name, Saratoga Russell’s namesake carries a sadder story. Russell Horvat suffered from adrenoleukodystrophy, a disease that took his life in April of 2007, shortly after West Point purchased Saratoga Russell, from the same dam of Horvat’s winning colt, Saratoga View. To honor Horvat’s memory, friends and members of his family became part owners of Saratoga Russell and named the colt in his honor. Terry Finley writes about both the sale and Horvat in this newsletter from the spring of 2007.
At Monmouth last month I was fortunate to meet several of Saratoga Russell’s owners, who had travelled quite some distance to see his return, and they were there again yesterday, visibly excited, thrilled that their colt—that this colt—was racing at Saratoga for the first time. Another of his owners has e-mailed me regularly over the last nearly two years, keeping me updated on the horse’s progress. Watching them in the pouring rain in the paddock, I thought, “This is what one of the great things about horse racing—loving a horse, the thrill of ownership, this sense of connection. It’s why, despite all the challenges of racing, people stick with it.” There couldn’t have been a happier group of people on the grounds…and this was before the race!
New jockey Julien Leparoux took Saratoga Russell—or was taken by him—to the front, and as he has before, the horse flew through the first quarter, this time in 21.4 Would it be too fast again? Would he have anything left? He led throughout and in the stretch, it looked like Tom Albertrani’s Captain Rio might get to him…but unlike his last race, in which he raced on his wrong lead and lugged out dramatically, Saratoga Russell dug in, put away his rival, and drew off to win by 2 ¼ lengths.
Such rejoicing in the winner’s circle! The skies opened up and everyone was soaked…but the hugs and the high fives and the congratulations made the weather irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was that Saratoga Russell was back, that he had won, and that he had won at Saratoga. Maybe it’s OK that he lost at Monmouth, so that the comeback win came at the place for which he was named.
In March of 2008, an anonymous commenter left a message on a post about Saratoga Russell, correcting a mistake I’d made, and speaking eloquently of Russell Horvat. He wrote, “His spirit drives this horse and will hopefully guide Saratoga Russell to heights that will cement the legacy of both in the annals of the ‘Sport of Kings.’” I think that that writer was in the winner’s circle yesterday, and I’m sure that he was thinking of his friend. A win in a horse race, no matter how special, can’t take the place of a lost loved one, but at the very least, Saratoga Russell “cements the legacy” of Russell Horvat, even in a very small way.