We’ve been talking about this since last year, trying to find the right time, the right race, to get there. Yesterday, he thought he’d found it.
“The seventh race,” he declares. “It’s a mile on the turf, the starting gate is right here, and even if something goes wrong, we can probably get there in time.”
It’s a race for three-year-old maidens, and according to the assistant starters, there are a couple of headcases in there. Bruce is nonetheless cautiously optimistic. “We’ll check in in the paddock, and again in the winner’s circle. If everyone behaves, we can head over.”
If a horse acts up in the paddock, Johnstone steps in. If a horse or a jockey gets hurt on the track, it’s Johnstone to whom people turn for information. During the race day, he moves from paddock to winner’s circle and back, ever vigilant, ever alert. A year ago, when a horse broke down at the finish line of the turf course at Aqueduct, on the first turn around the track, it was Johnstone who raced across two dirt tracks to help make sure that the horse was out of the way when the field came around again.
Today, the maidens make it safely and easily out of the paddock; they behave through the post parade. The coast is clear, and we cross the main track. Sandals were not made for the depth of the Saratoga dirt; I have chosen my footwear poorly.
And we hear, across three tracks, Tom Durkin telling us that on the backstretch, Highlight is being pulled up. And moments later, that Pico Dinero has fallen on the turn, and his rider is off.
Johnstone turns to an assistant starter. “Can you get her back across OK?” The assistant starter nods assent, and I am handed off. In seconds, Johnstone has gone from genial tour guide to first responder.
We watch the end of the race—Avenging wins it, followed by Naughty You (who wasn’t)…
and then we watch Pico Dinero run merrily down the course, trailed by an outrider. He doesn’t look hurt; in fact, he looks sort of happy to be out running on the grass. Masterfully, the outrider gets him near the rail and nabs him, to applause from the crowd. (Look closely–click to enlarge–see that head between the outrider and the fence?)
In custody, like a bad kid, Pico Dinero cooperatively—but not meekly—allows himself to be led back to the main track. He looks unrepentant about his escapade.
As we walk back to the winner’s circle, assistant starter Butch Hocker shows me his program. It’s marked up like a handicapper’s, except that he’s not paying attention to pace figures and class drops.
“H&T” reads one notation. “S” is another.” “We know the personalities of the horses before they get to the gate,” Hocker explains. “We work with them in the morning, we know their quirks. We pay attention to what they do in the afternoon, and we make a plan for how to best work with them.”
Each day, says Hocker, the gate crew meets for 45 minutes and goes through the card, decided on a strategy, noting which horses needs “Head and Tail” attention, which needs a shank (“S”). “Sometimes,” says Hocker, “we do assignments then, so we know which assistant will work with each horse.”
I head to the paddock for the stakes race; Johnstone is there, and he’s got updates. First reports indicate that both horses and both jockeys—Maragh and Desormeaux—are OK. All’s well that ends well, but the early promise of an uneventful race was unfulfilled, despite the best efforts of jockeys, trainers, starters, assistants, and one manager of racing operations.
As always, you can click on photos to enlarge them.