These are the rules.
Racing gives us a lot to cheer for: favorite horses, a winning bet. It also offers plenty to lament: the bad beat, the injury, the fading of a personal favorite. We commiserate far more often than we celebrate.
At Belmont Saturday, fans of Winter Memories did a little of both. As the gray filly turned up the backstretch, there she was, down on the rail, trapped, in trouble again, like she was in the Lake George, like she was in the Lake Placid. In one of those races, she overcame it; in the other, she didn’t.
And this time, escape seemed impossible; turning for home, she was down and behind, a full field of fillies in front of her, and she had nowhere to go.
“Honestly,” said owner/breeder John Phillips after the race, “at the eighth pole there was no way we were going to be standing here talking. I didn’t think she could do it.”
None of us did. We stood there, and it felt inconceivable that she’d have yet another bad trip, and that it would cost her again, as it looked, unimaginably, like she were going to finish last.
We’re not supposed to root, and we’re not supposed to lament. We’re just supposed to watch. At least disappointment is easier to mask than celebration.
But when Javier Castellano got Winter Memories outside, at what seemed like just steps before the wire, when she finally got clear running room, when she finally got to run the way she had so clearly been wanting to…maybe we could be forgiven for rooting, just a little?
I think I yelled, “Yay,” and my arms started to go up before I caught myself. I think I even said out loud, “I know. I’m not supposed to root.”
But my knees were shaking – literally – and as I looked around, I saw the faces of racetrack veterans. Impassive they were not.
“Wow,” I saw mouthed. “Did you SEE that?” “She was unbelievable!” “I’ve never seen anything like that.” Even the most jaded let themselves be impressed…just a little.
My knees were shaking and I felt tears come to my eyes (but crying’s not rooting, is it?). What Winter Memories did, and how she impossibly did it, overwhelmed me.
I wasn’t alone.
Ten minutes after she’d crossed the wire, Phillips was still struggling to articulate what he saw. “I didn’t think…” He stopped. “I have to go back and see it again to make sure it really happened.”
Awed as he was by what he’d seen, he acknowledged his filly’s susceptibility. “When she has horses on her outside and around her, she can get a little anxious, but I thought Castellano did a very good job under the circumstances of keeping her relaxed. I think he stayed really cool on her and didn’t panic when things weren’t panning out.
“You’d prefer not to put her in that spot, and clearly, you’d like to work with her in the morning to get her better prepared. As she matures, she’s getting better.”
Which, given what she’s accomplished so far, gives Winter Memories’ fans a lot to look forward to. Trainer Jimmy Toner’s plan all year has been to race her in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland on October 15; current plans do not include a run back three weeks later in the Breeders’ Cup.
Wherever Winter Memories goes from here, Phillips and his family are basking in the successes of a remarkable filly who’s taking them on one heck of a ride. The home-bred daughter of Memories of Silver, herself a multiple graded stakes winner, represents five generations of Darby Dan breeding, going back to 1949 and Phillips’ grandfather, John Galbreath.
“It’s exciting. Our family has been in this sport for three generations, and as you can see, all of our family is there today, all different generations…it’s special.” He paused; his eyes revealed that emotion was getting the better of him. “Grade 1’s don’t happen every now and then and great horses don’t happen every now and then. She’s got a lot to prove still, but five generations of breeding and three generations of our family…it’s just powerfully meaningful.”
On the morning after the Lake George in July, Phillips went to the barn to see Winter Memories. A little tired after her effort, the filly rested her head on his shoulder; he stroked her neck, his affection visible, touching.
This time, Phillips had to go home to Kentucky. There would be no visits to Jimmy Toner’s barn this morning, no celebratory nuzzling. He had some consolation plans, though.
He smiled. “I’ll have to go hang around her mother tomorrow.”
For more on Winter Memories from the Brooklyn Backstretch archive, click http://www.brooklynbackstretch.com/tag/winter-memories/.